Thursday, December 27, 2012

UNFORGIVEN (1992)


UNFORGIVEN (DIR:CLINT EASTWOOD) (SCR: DAVID PEOPLES)

In 1993 the Academy awarded the Western UNFORGIVEN as best picture of 1992.  It was a bit of an odd turn; after first awarding the Western  CIMARRON as best picture, way back in 1931, it wouldn't be until DANCES WITH WOLVES's victory in 1990 that another such film would be so awarded. And then there would be just two short years before another Western win. But then, this really isn't such a surprise, given that both films are conscious re imaginings of the classic Western style, and that they are far more adult in their appeal then the more child oriented Western films of the past.  But the award for the film UNFORGIVEN was meant for more than just the movie itself, it was clearly also a lifetime achievement award for its iconic director and star, Clint Eastwood.
Eastwood's career began back in the 1950's when, after working as a struggling extra for years (look for him in 1955's B movies THE REVENGE OF THE CREATURE and TARANTULA) he landed the plum role of Rowdy Yates on TV's RAWHIDE in 1959.  This lead Sergio Leone in 1964  to cast him as the lead in his highly entertaining Western A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.  While Eastwood's macho character was, in some ways in the tradition of legendary Western star John Wayne, his "man with no name" protagonist was no white hatted hero.  When we first see him, riding into town on a burro, wearing a filthy shawl and sporting razor stubble, Leone firmly showed that this was a new kind of cowboy, one more cynical and jaded than the ones of old.  A FISTUL OF DOLLARS was a success, and Eastwood reprised the character for Leone twice more, in 1965's FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and 1966's THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY.  Unfortunately, Eastwood then made more Westerns in Hollywood (like 1968's HANG 'EM HIGH)  that were mostly pale imitations of his work with Leone.   Then in 1971 Eastwood would find his next iconic character when he made DIRTY HARRY for director Donald Siegel.  That also marked the year that Eastwood himself became a director with the odd thriller PLAY MISTY FOR ME, which he also starred in.  For the next twenty years Eastwood would continue to act in and sometimes direct mostly action films with wildly uneven results (in 1978's silly EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE  he co-starred with an orangutang!), managing to keep his star power and manly image mostly intact as he approached the age of sixty.


David Peoples first wrote the film's script, then called THE WILLIAM MUNNY KILLINGS, in 1976, to little interest from Hollywood.  Eastwood read the script and saw potential in it for him as both something he could both direct and star in; eventually he bought the rights for it 1983 and then sat on it for years, waiting to make sure that he was the same age as the main character in the script. In 1991 he felt the time was right, and he quickly struck a deal with Warner Bros to fund the film.  He then talked Gene Hackman into playing brutal sheriff Little Bill Dagget, assuring the worried Hackman that the film would not glorify violence.  Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris were both quickly cast in important roles, and the movie was set.   It was shot mostly in Canada near Calgary (somewhat ironicly for a Western!).  Over the years Eastwood had built a reputation as a director that ran a fast moving, no nonsense set, and true to form he brought the film in four days ahead of schedule.  Strong reviews and word of mouth made it a sizable hit, with a box office take of around $100,000,000 on a budget of $35,000,000. 

It tells the story of William Muny, a retired bounty hunter, who is approached by a young man called "the Schofield Kid"(Jaimz Woolvett) who wants the two of them to kill two men who brutalized a prostitute and collect the bounty put up by owner of the brothel that she worked at.  He reluctantly agrees, and,  bringing along his friend Ned (Freeman), they head for the town of Big Whiskey, where they inevitably run into the town's vicious sheriff, Little Bill Dagget (Hackman), who has already disposed of another hired  killer, English Bob(Harris).

Clint Eastwood


UNFORGIVEN was the fourth Western that Eastwood directed (and the second that he worked with cinematographer Jack Green on), and he clearly knew how to make the genre look good, with beautiful shots of men riding horses through rippling fields of grain or across sunset skies.  Not to mention the superlative way he captures the  memorable image of a shotgun wielding Eastwood arriving for the film's final shootout, showing the gruff, killer stare that he used so often over the years.

It's easy to see why Eastwood admired Peoples's script; here is a complex and intelligent view of the old west that still ends with a traditional shootout and that allows Eastwood's character (and Eastwood the Western icon) to wreak violent revenge and ride off alone one last time.  Almost right away, the screenplay  throws out the simplistic view of good guys and bad guys that so many classic Westerns have.  In the opening moments, we see Quick Mike(David Mucci) brutally slice up a prostitute's face.  Then, sheriff Bill Dagget gives Mike and his brother Davey (Rob Campbell) a mild penalty, much to the anger of prostitute Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher).  She quickly raises funds from her fellow prostitutes to put a price on the head of the two brothers.  While we can admire Alice's anger at Mike's cruelty, is it really right for the two brothers to be killed, given as they did not kill the prostitute?  In fact, Davey's only real crime is not stopping his brother, and he truly appears sorry about what has happened and tries to make restitution later.  Clearly, this is no evil villan, and Will, the Kid and Ned are not so easily seen as being on the side of goodness.
Equally interesting is the character of sheriff Dagget; in old Westerns the sheriff is almost always a heroic figure, and yet the sadistic Dagget is the least likable character in the film.  But even he has understandable motivations: he definitely believes that he is on the side of right and order, administering rough justice in the proper manner, and if that means doling out brutal beatings and even torture, then so be it.  (This film may have come out years before the war on terror, but it seems eerily prescient!)   Hackman has a marvelous death scene, in which, to his last breath, he proclaims that it's wrong for a man like him to killed by an outlaw like William Munny.  He is that most interesting  of characters,  a man that the audience perceives as bad (look at the joy he takes in beating English Bob and William, and the way that he lectures to them as he does so) but who thinks he is good.  Hackman would win a best supporting actor award for his performance, and it's easy to see why;  with his just his walk and manner, he perfectly embodies the self righteous sheriff.

Gene Hackman


Another nice theme in the script is the idea that the old west was already in the process of mythologizing itself; when flamboyant gun man English Bob (Harris joyfully plays the role) rides into Big Whiskey, he brings along WW Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), an author who is in the process of writing up Bob's exploits, dubbing him "the duke of death".  After beating and imprisoning Bob, Dagget explains to Beauchamp that Bob is no great assassin, and that Bob won one famous shoot out only because his opponent shot himself in the foot!  Here, Peoples is reminding the audience that the tales of old west glory were exaggerated over the years, and that we should watch old Westerns with a cynical eye.
The use of violence in the film is very effective in that it is usually ugly and brutal; from the cutting of the prostitute, to the cries of a man slowly bleeding to death, there is no glory here (one shoot out even takes place in an outhouse).  In fact, when Ned can't bring himself to shoot a wounded man, he is not portrayed as a weakling or coward, he's just making a moral choice about killing.  And after the Shofield Kid shoots a man for the first time, the gravity of what he's done horrifies him so much that he's willing to give up his share of the bounty and ride off.  Again, he is not supposed to be a coward, he's just realized that he is not a killer like William.
Eastwood is to be admired for allowing himself not only to appear old onscreen, but also off his game as a killer and badman.  At first, his character doesn't seem like much of a famous outlaw anymore: he's trying to be a pig farmer, his aim is poor, and he keeps getting thrown from his horse.  Until the end of the film, his character never really seems all that impressive.  We hear tales of how good he was at killing people, but now he seems to have lost his touch; he shoots one man, but only after several missed attempts, and he lets himself be captured by Dagget easily.  But, in the film's final shoot out, he quickly and coldly guns down five armed men without taking a scratch, and is so impressive that he can ride out of town without anyone confronting him, even when they have a clear shot on him.  While this is an exciting scene, I also find at odds with the rest of the film: here is a violent scene where the hero out draws the bad guys in a blaze of glory, living up to the myth of the gunfighter that the rest of the film seems to be opposed to.  Perhaps Peoples is saying that while some stories of the old west were exaggerated, there were some men who lived up to the hype.  Either that, or perhaps it was decided that Eastwood's character had to live up to the audience's expectations at least once; in any event, I think this traditional ending weakens an otherwise intelligent film a bit, and I wish that it had a less traditional kind of ending, like, say, having both Dagget and Will die; after all, if you're going to make a revisionist Western, you should go all the way, in my opinion.  But I don't think that this is a fatal flaw, and I imagine that the classic Clint ending gave audiences what they wanted and added to the film's box office, so on that level I can't argue with it. 

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

There were a number of fine films released the same year as UNFORGIVEN, like Spike Lee's excellent bio pic MALCOLM X, James Foley's excellent adaptation of David Mamet's play, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS,  Robert Altman's hilarious THE PLAYER, and Mike Newell's highly underrated (and wonderfully romantic) ENCHANTED APRIL.  But, since UNFORGIVEN functions as a lifetime achievement award for Eastwood, and a nice send off from him to the Western genre, along with being an excellent movie in its own right, it's a hard choice to argue with.

Friday, December 21, 2012

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)



THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (DIR: JONATHAN DEMME) (SCR: TED TALLY, BASED ON THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME BY THOMAS HARRIS)

In 1991 the Academy broke precedent by naming THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS as the best picture of 1990, the first horror film to ever win, giving the much maligned horror genre some long overdue credit (THE EXORCIST in 1973 and JAWS in 1975 were both nominated for best picture, but didn't win).  It's easy to see why: despite containing gore, violence and some truly terrifying moments, director Jonathan Demme skillfully kept the film from ever seeming exploitive or disgusting.  In fact it is a polished and classily made film, with beautiful cinematography and terrific acting.  Despite the subject matter, this was no grind house cheapie!  And, most significantly of all, it made an overnight star of a then 54 year old journeyman actor named Anthony Hopkins, whose striking performance as cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter would quickly become iconic.  Hopkins's excellence in the role is remembered even as numerous parodies, rip-offs and disappointing sequels and prequels (some of which Hopkins himself starred in) diminished the character a bit.  In fact, 12 years after this film's release, the character was voted the number one movie villan of all time by the American Film Institute, clearly showing the lasting impact of Hannibal Lecter.

It all began in 1981 when novelist Thoman Harris published RED DRAGON, a horror thriller novel that first introduced the character of Hannibal Lecter to the world.  In 1986 it was made into a glossy, entertaining film called MANHUNTER by Micheal Mann, with Brian Cox portraying Lecter for the first time onscreen, and he is actually very good in it.  But the film underperformed at the box office, so his role in the development of the character is mostly forgotten.  In 1988 Harris wrote a sequel to RED DRAGON, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, which brought back the Lecter character, and introduced a young FBI cadet named Clarice Starling.  It's critical and commercial success led to interest in a film adaptation despite the disappointment of MANHUNTER.  Actor Gene Hackman initially bought the rights, and worked with the Orion studio on getting funding.  He wanted to direct it and star as Lecter, but the dark subject matter eventually turned him off.  Eventually, Demme was hired to direct; at first he may have seemed an odd choice, since at that time Demme was mostly known for quirky comedies like 1986's SOMETHING WILD, but he began his career writing and directing exploitation films like CHAINED HEAT for Roger Corman, so he knew how to shock an audience. Former play write Ted Tally was hired to adapt the novel.  Demme wanted Michelle Pfeiffer for the role of Clarice, but she found the film's subject matter distasteful.  Jodie Foster, who had wanted to buy the rights to the book herself, lobbied hard for the part and eventually got it.  For the role of Lecter, many names like Jeremy Irons and Patrick Stewart were thrown around before Demme, who liked Hopkins's work in 1980's THE ELEPHANT MAN, picked Hopkins for the part.  Foster researched her role by spending time with real FBI agents, while Hopkins studied real life serial killers.  The film's shoot went smoothly, and it quickly became a word of mouth hit, grossing over $130,000,000 dollars on a budget of only around 20.  And, along with winning Best Picture, it would also win Best Actor, Actress, Director and Adapted Screenplay, placing it alongside 1934's IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT and 1975's ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST as the only films to win those top five awards.

Anthony Hopkins


Its story begins with Clarice Starling (Foster), a young FBI trainee, is assisting in the pursuit of a serial killer  nicknamed Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), who kidnaps and skins young women.  She is sent to interview imprisoned serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) for possible insights, and eventually discovers that Lecter knew Buffalo Bill; before he was captured, Lecter was a psychiatrist and Bill was one of his patients.  When Catherine, a senator's daughter (Brooke Smith) is kidnapped by Bill, Lecter offers a deal to help the FBI capture Bill, but only if he gets to meet the senator.   This leads to Lecter making a daring escape, while Clarice confronts Bill.
Demme made this film so skillfully that you can see why it became a word of mouth hit, with people who normally don't like horror films seeing and enjoying it.  It could have so easily gone wrong, with its grisly story dealing with innocent women being skinned, but Demme made sure that the audience is always on Clarice's side and that the gore and violence are not lingered on.  (For example, when Bill kidnaps Catherine, Demme keeps the camera out of the van when he hits her, so that we just hear the attack without seeing it.)  Tally's superlative script keeps the story moving quickly and logically, and treats the story with dead seriousness, with occasional dashes of dark humor (like some of Lecter's lines to Clarice).
 I also greatly enjoy how the movie pulls the rug out from under the audience on two separate occasions: once, when Lecter is escaping and he finds a way to hide in plain sight, and again, later, when what we think is an FBI raid on Bill's hideout turns out to be an unknowing Clarice.  Both of these switches work because they play fair, with the scripting and editing coming together to  upend audience expectation in a way that is true to the story (unlike, say, in the movie FIGHT CLUB, in which a similar trick is pulled on the audience, but it makes no sense).
As well done as the story is, it's the character of Hannibal Lecter that audiences remember most of all from the film,  and its no surprise that Hopkins won a best actor award even though he is only in the movie for around seventeen minutes. While Hopkins has given many other fine performances over the years, this is still the role he is mostly identified with.  With his silken voice, (based, according to Hopkins, on a combination of Truman Capote's and Katherine Hepburn's) that rarely rises in tone, and his piercing, hawklike gaze, Hopkins makes Lecter downright mesmerizing.  I love the way that when we first see him, he is standing upright, looking right at Clarice, expecting her and already studying her.  And he is a fascinating bundle of contradictions: here is an educated, erudite psychiatrist who enjoys classical music and drawing, and who eats innocent people.  Not only that, he still lashes out at others verbally while imprisoned since he cannot physically.  It's chilling how he brilliantly (but believably) sizes up Clarice after talking to her for just a few minutes, just by looking at her clothes and listening to her southern accent, and then he spits his knowledge right back at her in the harshest way possible.   Or when he later torments senator Martin (Diane Baker) verbally before finally telling her Bill's name. And when he eventually is in a position to commit physical harm on others, he becomes even more frightening, wearing a completely blank expression on his face as he beats a police officer to death. Yes, Lecter is a seemingly impossible mix of insanity and intelligence that makes him both terrifying and kind of admirable, (one can't help but be impressed by the way that he masterminds his escape from a building filled with police) and some audiences even cheered as he walked away at the film's end!  Credit for the character must also be given to cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, whose beautiful lighting  perfectly captures the predatory gleam in Lecter's eye.  Also production designer Kristi Zea should be mentioned because it was her idea to have Lecter's cell be behind glass instead of iron bars, which gives the interactions between Lecter and Clarice a frightening intimacy.

Jodie Foster


While it's easy to praise Hopkins's performance, equal credit must be given to Foster who carries the film excellently.  Her Clarice is smart (she figures out Hannibal's word games with ease), brave, likable  and capable, and the film hits a nice feminist tone by showing her excel in the mostly male world of the FBI. Foster strikes just the right tone in her conversations with Hannibal, answering his questions and letting him get into her head without wavering or letting him know how much he's hurt her, and her unflinching attitude towards Lecter impresses both him and the audience. (It's appropriate that she cries after first meeting Lecter but makes sure that she holds her tears until after he can see them).  And Demme gets great performances from the whole cast, with Scott Glen a real standout as Starling's FBI mentor Crawford.

The film was protested by some because the Buffalo Bill character is a gay man who thinks he is a transsexual, and that he is played by Ted Levine as an over the top freak.  In the film's defense, Clarice clearly states that Bill is not a real transsexual, and that transsexual men are usually passive, but  this distinction may be lost on the audience given the scene in which Bill puts on makeup and dances in front of the mirror.  While I can understand some people's anger at such an unflattering portrayal (unlike Lecter, we have no admiration for Bill, who seems like a dimwitted lowlife along with being a serial killer), the film is so well made, and his character's homosexuality such a small part of it, that it doesn't bother me personally.  And in the years that have followed more sympathetic portrayals of gay men have appeared in many movies, so that this negative portrayal seems far less representative and offensive now then it did in 1990.  Demme himself was aware of the criticism, and that was partly why he made the film PHILADELPHIA three years later, which had Tom Hanks playing a likable gay man with AIDS.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

It's clear that THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS had stood the test of time and is still an excellent horror film; if it is to go down in history as the only horror film to ever win the best picture award, the Academy could have done a lot worse.  I'm tempted to say that I wish Disney's charming animated BEAUTY AND THE BEAST would have won (that's about a million miles away from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS!), and I also enjoyed Oliver Stone's slightly crazed JFK, but I certainly have no problem with the Academy's choice.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990)



DANCES WITH WOLVES (DIR: KEVIN COSTNER) (SCR: MICHAEL BLAKE, BASED ON THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME, ALSO BY BLAKE)

In 1991, the Academy started the new decade by awarding DANCES WITH WOLVES  the best picture of 1990; it was the first western to win since CIMARRON way back in 1931.  More importantly, its victory was a major vindication for the film's director and star, Kevin Costner, who turned a difficult dream project into an enormous success.  And while it's not my personal favorite film of that year, it is good looking and entertaining, plus it  manages to hearken back stylistically to  the classic Westerns by directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks, while also looking forward to a far more progressive view of Native American culture than those old films ever portrayed.
It began in the early 1980's, when screen writer Michael Blake first wrote the film as a screenplay.  Kevin Costner read the script and liked it, but urged Blake to first publish the story as a novel, which he felt would make it an easier sell to Hollywood as an adaptation.  The book was eventually published in 1988, and Costner immediately bought the rights, hoping to make it his directoral debut.  Vigo Mortensen was considered for the lead role, but eventually Costner realized that his own star power (he was then riding high after hits like FIELD OF DREAMS  and BULL DURHAM) would aid the film's box office potential, and so he decided to play the title role.  For the sake of authenticity, the rest of the cast were mostly unknown Native American actors.  Shooting took place mostly in South Dakota, and when the film ran over budget as the cast and  crew contended with buffalo herds and drought, there were many in Hollywood who considered the film a potential disaster, with some calling it "Kevin's Gate", (a reference to Micheal Cimino's 1980 dud, HEAVEN'S GATE).  Eventually, Costner put up his own money to help fund the film and soldiered on, even as some laughed at reports that much of the dialogue was spoken in the Native American language of Lakota, which would make it a hard sell to American audiences who tend not to like subtitles.  But Costner had the last laugh, as the film eventually returned over one hundred and eighty million dollars at the box office on a budget of around twenty.  He would also win an Oscar for best director.

Kevin Costner


It's story is about Lt. John Dunbar(Costner), a Union Civil War Hero who is sent to a position on the Western frontier.  At first, he thinks it's deserted, but he eventually befriends an Indian tribe living nearby, and as he grows to respect them, he soon throws off his "civilized" ways and lives with them.  Eventually, he is forced to choose between his military past and his newfound culture.

Right away, one can sense in every frame that this was a film that Costner felt passionate about making in his desire to portray Native Americans in a much more honest and respectful way than they had been in most Westerns.  That's why his decision to have the Sioux speak their own language with subtitles is so right; for years Native Americans onscreen  have been shown speaking a ridiculous form of pigeon English (full of "Ug"s and "How"s), so by having them speak eloquently in their own language,
(and by making Costner's character learn their language) that laughable stereotype is put to rest.  While it does seem awfully convenient  that the Sioux have a caucasian woman (Mary McDonnell) living with them who can serve as interpreter (and eventual love interest) for Costner, it doesn't really damage the film.
This is also a terrific looking film: Costner and cinematographer Dean Semler (who won an Oscar for his work) shoot the gorgeous scenery of South Dakota is a sweeping manner, often portraying how small a man alone can look when he's surrounded by nature.  The film's action scenes are also great looking and exciting, especially the buffalo hunt, (which was shot with nine cameras), which features a stampede of hundreds of buffalo that move like a flood through the plains.

Directing himself, Costner seemed fully aware of what had made him a star: his good looks combined with his soft spoken likability and innate sense of decency (not unlike Gary Cooper's persona) so he plays up to those in his performance.  He never over emotes, allowing the action, the story and the visuals to do all the heavy dramatic lifting.  Along with being thoughtful, kind, and brave, his John Dunbar has an intimate connection with animals (he bonds with a wolf) and is perfectly willing to throw out his prejudices about Native Americans when he finds them to be untrue.  At times his character comes across as a little too good to be true, (especially when he compares himself to Jesus in the first scene!) and, as is often the case with stars who direct themselves, a little too perfect looking, but at least he allows his character to sometimes look foolish or fall on his face, so Costner's ego was at least in check somewhat.  (Seven years later Costner directed himself again in the sci fi film THE POSTMAN, a notorious flop in which his bloated sense of self importance about his on screen character was widely mocked by critics).  He also got good performances from his mostly non professional Native American cast, especially from Graham Greene as Kicking Bird, who radiates with intelligence and plays off Costner nicely onscreen.

Graham Greene & Kevin Costner

Considering how much this film had personal meaning for Costner, it's understandable just how much he hated to see it end, unfortunately that means that at over three hours, there are more than a few slow spots: it takes almost an hour for our hero to have any contact with the Sioux, and there are some scenes    that just don't seem necessary (like an early encounter Costner has with suicidal Union Major Fambrough, [Maury Chaykin]a truly odd scene that I just don't get).  Still, the film's length also allows for some scenes of the Sioux tribe just being themselves, and engaging in what was normal behavior for them, which deepens all of the characters and adds to the film's realism,  so the long running time is sometimes a good thing.
While some historians complained about inaccuracies in the film, especially in the treatment of the Sioux tribe,  who may not have been as peace loving as they are shown here, I don't find that a serious flaw, especially when one considers the ridiculous portrayals (often by white actors in red paint!) that Native Americans have been subjected to over the years.   Another criticism aimed at the film is that it just exploits white guilt about the treatment of Native Americans by white settlers over the years, and that the white soldiers are all sadistic brutes and the Native Americans are all noble savages.  Now, while I  do wish that Costner didn't lay it on so thick with the white soldiers, who are all  repulsive and sadistic (his is the only truly likable white man in the film), it should be pointed out that not all of the Native Americans are shown as perfect, as they do wage war with other tribes, and they can be sadistic in battle.  Furthermore, I don't think that showing Native Americans being mistreated and killed by white soldiers and settlers is wrong because it happens to be based on historical truth; from the spread of Small pox to broken treaties, American history is littered with stories of Native Americans being abused by whites, and to deny that is to deny history.  You can call that guilty white liberal bias if you want, but as Stephen Colbert often says, "Reality has a well known liberal bias."
One final point about this film: while Costner made no bones about being influenced by classic Western  directors (this is most overtly seen in the flashback to the kidnapping of the McDonnell character when she was a little girl, which clearly harkens back to a similar scene from John Ford's 1956 film THE SEARCHERS), there is another film that predates this one and has a few similarities, Arthur Penn's excellent 1970 film, LITTLE BIG MAN.  Both films have a hero that narrates the film and spends years living with Native Americans, bonding especially with a wise older tribe member, and witnessing firsthand the horrible treatment of the tribes at the hands of white soldiers. (Even the titles of both films come from the Native American name given the main character). Now, there are also many differences between the two films, with Penn's hero leaving behind the tribe to have other old west adventures, and the tone of the films couldn't be more different, with Costner's deadpan seriousness contrasting with Penn's often comedic tone, not to mention Penn's use of history to make digs at modern issues of that day like free love and the Viet Nam war, so the two films are quite different.  Still,  I think LITTLE BIG MAN is worth mentioning because DANCES WITH WOLVES is often pronounced as the first sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans in Hollywood history, when, in fact, Penn's film with many of the same themes predated it by twenty years, and is, overall, a better film in my opinion.  Also, I should mention in all fairness to old Hollywood, Delmer Daves's 1950 film BROKEN ARROW made a definite attempt to show more fairness towards Native Americans, the first of the old Westerns to really do so.  But even in that film the Native Americans were portrayed by white actors, so it would take decades before Hollywood really got it right.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

While I think it is understandable that the Academy would want to award Costner's risk taking in making DANCES WITH WOLVES, I don't think it was the year's best film; I prefer Martin Scorsase's hyper violent gangster comedy GOODFELLAS, which featured great performances and Scorsase's terrific, kinetic directoral style.  The awards for both best picture and best director to Costner that year probably stung Scorsase, especially because this would mark the second time that he was defeated for the director award by a first time director! (The other time was when Robert Redford triumphed over  him in 1980 for ORDINARY PEOPLE, defeating his work on RAGING BULL).  Thankfully, Scorsase's day would eventually come, although it would take another decade for him to get there.



Monday, October 22, 2012

DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989)


DRIVING MISS DAISY (DIR: BRUCE BERESFORD) (SCR: ALFRED UHRY BASED ON HIS PLAY OF THE SAME NAME)

DRIVING MISS DAISY is the first best picture winner to deal with the subject of race and racism in America since 1967's IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.  Sadly, it is far less provocative and interesting than that earlier film; it's also slow and mawkish, although well acted by its two leads.  Despite its often bland tone, it was controversial, with some audiences claiming that it romanticized  the days of Southern segregation.  In any event, the film is pretty weak tea, and a poor choice for the award.

Before it was a movie, it was an off Broadway play written by Alfred Uhry, starring Morgan Freeman and Dana Ivey.  It was a great success, and it eventually won Uhry a Pulitzer prize.  Uhry based the play on his own grandmother and her relationship with her chauffeur.  In 1987 Lily and Richard Zanuck bout the film rights, but had trouble finding funding for the film, because few studio executives saw much box office potential in a story about two old people.  Eventually Warner Bros. agreed to partially fund the film, with British producer Jake Eberts providing the rest of the budget.  Australian born director Bruce Beresford was hired to direct, and Freeman was immediately brought on board to reprise his stage role.  For the title role, names like Shirley MacLaine and Elizabeth Taylor were considered, but Beresford wanting someone who was really close to the age of the character.  The  79 year old Jessica Tandy, better known for her stage work than for her screen acting, was hired.  The film was shot entirely on location in a small town near Atlanta Georgia.  It would turn out to be a surprise hit, making over one hundred and six million dollars on a budget of around seven.

Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman

Set in Georgia in 1948, it's about the 25 year relationship between Jewish Daisy Werthan (Tandy) and African American Hoke Colburn (Freeman).  When wealthy Daisy is too old to drive her own car anymore, Hoke is hired by her son Boolie (Dan Ackroyd) as her chauffeur.  At first resentful of his presence, she eventually comes to rely and depend on him.

From the gauzy, sepia toned lighting to Hans Zimmer's sappy soundtrack, this is one sentimental movie, which is part of its problem: although it condemns the racism of the era its set in, it makes the Georgian locations look so pretty, (along with the lovely sets and costumes), that, no matter the filmmaker's good intentions,  one can't help but feel the film is pushing a nostalgia for "the good old days", when things were simpler, and, of course,  when African Americans "knew their place." Still, in the film's defense, Daisy's change from distrusting Hoke to calling him her best friend is clearly supposed to chart America's changing attitudes on race, so an attempt is made to not defend the south's history of racism.  How effective that attempt is remains up to the viewer.  (On their 1990 hip hop album FEAR OF A BLACK PLANET, rap group Public Enemy have a song called Burn Hollywood Burn about the demeaning roles blacks have suffered though over the years in Hollywood.  The song ends with them storming out of a screening of this film.)

That said, the performances here are winning; it's interesting to note that, like 1988's best picture winner  RAIN MAN, this is a film that has many scenes of two people driving and talking together, and therefore the chemistry between those two characters must work, and here it does.  Tandy's Ms Daisy is a common enough character in movies: the cantankerous old lady who always says just on mind without regard to consequences.  But Tandy also makes sure we see a touch of sweetness behind her feistiness, and we can also understand her desire to independent, even if that's no longer possible.  And Tandy is also good in the later scenes when she honestly shows herself falling into senility.  She won a best actress award for the role, and while part of that came from admiration for her lifetime of work, she is good here.
Freeman, on the other hand, is even better.  After playing the character for years on stage, he clearly had it down, and he finds nuance and meaning in each line reading; for example, he says the words "Yes Miss Daisy" many times in the film, but never with the same pronunciation, always letting the audience know what he is really thinking behind the words. Freeman even plays the scene where he admits to Daisy that he can't read well, showing pride in his honesty,  even in his embarrassment.   Hoke never raises his voice in the film, but he does display anger: in perhaps the film's strongest scene, the two of them are driving through Alabama, and Hoke pulls the car over to relieve himself because he couldn't use the segregated bathroom at the gas station.  When Daisy objects, he calmly but forcefully explains to her that he is more than a just a ride to her, and that he needs to be respected. The fact that she is frightened when he leaves the car, even just for a moment, proves his point.

Dan Ackroyd

Comedy actor Dan Ackroyd make a rare dramatic appearance as Daisy's long suffering son Boolie, and he's really very good, getting big laughs as he roles his eyes at his demanding mother (and equally demanding wife), and I'm surprised that he didn't try more small roles in dramas after this.  And the rest of the cast is just fine.
While the film does have a nice sense of place, and effectively shows the passage of time, it's slight story does it no favors: stretched out in different episodes over 25 years, there is little that happens that could be called surprising, or even particularly dramatic.  And, even though it's only 98 minutes long, it often drags, with one perfectly good ending glossed over for another.  It is, all in all, a mostly  pleasant, good natured film, that's worth watching for the performances, but is far from great.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

It's a shame that such a simplistic film about race and racism  won best picture when a far more powerful film about the subject came from Spike Lee that year: DO THE RIGHT THING.  I also really enjoyed Jim Sheridan's MY LEFT FOOT, Oliver Stone's powerful follow up to PLATOON, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, Peter Weir's DEAD POET'S SOCIETY, and my personal favorite, Woody Allen's brilliant mixture of drama and comedy, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS.  Given the quality of all of these films, I think DRIVING MS DAISY stands as one of the Academy's weaker choices.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

RAIN MAN (1988)



RAIN MAN (DIR: BARRY LEVINSON)  (SCR: RONALD BASS AND BARRY MORROW)

Barry Levinson's RAIN MAN is an interesting combination of several classic Hollywood styles: it's a classic star vehicle, that combines two big stars from different generations, it's also a road movie, a redemption story and a honest look at a person with a serious handicap.  I think it's also one of the few Hollywood movies to show a mentally challenged person in a way that doesn't make the person cuddly or lovable (like, say FORREST GUMP), but instead deals honestly with the problems such a person would face.  It's also just an excellently made, well acted, highly entertaining film that showcases its two stars perfectly.  It also raised awareness of the then mostly unknown condition of autism, making it sadly prescient, as the rates of autism have risen in this country since this film's debut.  
The fact that the film got made at all is a testament to the tenacity of Dustin Hoffman, who first became interested in the project in 1984,  after screen writer Barry Marrow met a real life savant named Kim Peek, and wrote a script based on him and gave a copy of the script to Hoffman.  It turned out that Hoffman had been interested in playing a mentally challenged character ever since he had worked at a psychiatric institute while studying acting years earlier.  Hoffman clung to the film for years, and he  met with Peek and researched mental disorders and autism while waiting for the film to come together.  He never wavered, even after directors like Martin Brest and Stephen Spielberg  passed on it (Spielberg's contribution was to have another writer, Ronald Bass, rewrite the character of Raymond Babbitt as autistic instead of mentally retarded, a  significant change).  The film would probably never have gotten made if it weren't for the fact that mega star Tom Cruise was interested in playing Charlie Babbitt.  Eventually, Barry Levinson, who had already turned down the film before in order to make GOOD MORNING VIET NAM, was brought in to direct.  He turned out to be the right choice, as Levinson's earlier films like 1982's DINER and 1987's TIN MEN showed, he had a real gift for showcasing casual, realistic, funny dialogue between male characters, which would turn out to be the key to RAIN MAN's success.  Levinson shot most of the film sequentially, using actual locations, essentially following the character's road trip.  Sentiment was scrupulously avoided, with Hoffman playing Raymond as a blank slate, and Levinson even dictating that Hans Zimmer's score eschew string sections to avoid schmaltz. The film opened poorly, but word of mouth built, and it wound up becoming the biggest hit of the year, a rarity for a serious drama.

Dustin Hoffman & Tom Cruise


The film is about Charlie Babbitt, an auto dealer in financial trouble, who discovers that his estranged father left all of his estate to his brother Raymond, a brother that Charlie never knew he had.  He goes to visit Raymond in a mental home, and then kidnaps him and takes him on a road trip to try and find a way to get the inheritance.  At first frustrated by his brother's behavior, he eventually, he comes to care for him, while also using Raymond's computer like memory to win at Blackjack in Las Vegas and solve his money troubles.

While Levinson made sure that this is a good looking film (there are several nice shots of perfectly moonlit American highways), he clearly realized that it is, first and foremost, a two man show between the leads, and he made sure the chemistry between them works.  (Hoffman and Cruise often remained in character between shooting to build that chemistry, and it shows). Hoffman was so obviously committed to the role, that's it easy to forget that you are watching a famous actor; his Raymond never looks anyone in the eye, mumbles constantly to both himself and others, and is truly frightening when upset.  He completely lives in his own world, one that even his brother can't really enter. This is illustrated wonderfully in one scene when,  after Charlie gives Raymond a quick dance lesson, he screams when Charlie moves to hug him.  And, in an uncompromising moment, at the end of the film, Charlie puts him on a train and says goodbye to him, and Raymond doesn't even look back as he rides away.  It's Hoffman's dedication to the role that won him as Oscar for best actor, (his second win after KRAMER VS. KRAMER) but in many ways Cruise gives the better performance here: since Raymond is, by his very nature, a character that the audience cannot relate to, Cruise has be the audience's link to the film, and he handles that well: he believable in his often frustrated reactions to his brother, and sincere when he realizes that he is building feelings for Raymond.  And, also unlike Raymond,  Cruise's Charlie does change in the film, going from a cynical, often cold man who curses his dead father and is openly contemptuous to his handicapped brother,  to someone capable of caring about someone as distant as Raymond.  I love the scene (shot in one take) when Charlie realizes that he does have some distant childhood memories of his brother, or when he pleads with a psychiatrist to be allowed custody of his brother.  This was an important role for Cruise: although he had become a big star by mostly coasting on his good looks in lightweight entertainments like 1986's TOP GUN, it was here that he established that he was more than a pretty face, and that he could handle serious dramatic roles.  Perhaps it was his realization of this that pushed him into giving such a strong performance, along with his willingness to play a character who is often unsympathetic at the beginning of the film. 

Dustin Hoffman & Tom Cruise


Outside of the two leads, the rest of the acting in the film is also strong: all the various people the two brothers meet on their road trip are well played, and pretty Valeria Golano does what she can in the somewhat thankless role of Cruise's girlfriend Susanna.  Although she mostly exists in the film to chart the change  in Cruise's character (she rejects Charlie when she sees him exploiting his brother, and then returns to him when his experiences with Raymond make him a better person),  Galano makes the most of a charming scene in which she gives Raymond a playful kiss in an elevator.
Hans Zimmer's synth heavy score heavily dates the film to the 80's (as does Galano's ugly wardrobe), and the quick cutting and flashy lighting Levinson uses in a brief montage of Las Vegas shows the insidious influence of MTV, but none of these things really hurt the film.  The only serious flaw I have with the movie is Charlie's naive belief that he can take care of Raymond himself at the end.  After having  seen firsthand just how difficult Raymond can be, and how leaving him alone for even a short time can be disastrous, he still thinks that Raymond will be fine living with him.    While we can understand Charlie's anger at never being told that he has a brother, and admire his sincerity in wanting to take care of Raymond, he still seems foolish to me here, after being smart for the rest of the film. Still, to the film's credit, the doctors who want Raymond readmitted are not villains, they truly seem to want what's best for him, and so the film's ending feels inevitable, even if Charlie's actions are out of character.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

1988 was not a particularly strong year for films, and I think the only movies that can really be compared to RAIN MAN are Stephen Frears's excellent DANGEROUS LIASONS and Jonathan Kaplan's powerful THE ACCUSED,  but neither of them surpass Levinson's terrific achievement.

Monday, September 24, 2012

THE LAST EMPEROR (1987)


THE LAST EMPEROR (DIR: BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI) (SCR: BERTOLUCCI & MARK PEPLOE)

In some ways, the selection of THE LAST EMPEROR for best picture seems like a typical choice for the Academy: it's an epic, good looking historical drama that chronicles the enormous changes that occur in a single man's life, pretty standard Oscar fare.  On the other hand, it is unusual in that it deals with historical changes in a non western culture, and it is the first (and so far the only) best picture winner to feature an almost entirely nonwhite cast.  It is also an excellent, intelligent film, with strong performances and a sweeping story that chronicles a part of world history that is rarely acknowledged in Hollywood films.
Its director, Bernardo Bertulucci, first began his directing career in his homeland of Italy in the 1960's.  He became well known in America after directing Marlon Brando to a great, raw performance in 1972's controversial LAST TANGO IN PARIS.  In the 1980's, the Marxist director became interested in Asian culture, and convinced the Chinese government to let him shoot a biographical film about Aisin-Gioro Puyi, the last Emperor of China.  It would be the first Western film made in China with the government's cooperation since 1949.   He also gained permission to shoot inside China's fabled "Forbidden City", the first Western feature film to ever do so.  The film's twenty three million dollar budget was raised independently by British producer Jeremy Thomas.   Bertolucci wrote the script with Mark Peploe, and researched Puyi's life, with his younger brother Henry Puyi serving as an advisor.  Hong Kong born John Lone, then known for playing a gangster in Alan Parker's 1985 film YEAR OF THE DRAGON, was hired to play the title role, and famous British actor Peter O'Toole was brought in to play the small role of Puyi's  English tutor. It took six months to shoot the film in China, with the Chinese military helping provide some of the thousands of extras needed for the crowd scenes. It was released in North America by Columbia pictures, and interest in it built slowly, with a big push from the  Oscars (it won nine in all) eventually pushing its box office total to around fifty million dollars in the US.


John Lone and Joan Chen


Beginning in 1950, we see the grown Puyi as a prisoner of war, held by the Red Army of the Soviet Union.  We then flashback to his childhood, when he was raised in the forbidden city after becoming emperor of China at the age of three.  After the Japanese invasion of China, he is allowed to reign over the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, but he is captured by the Red Army after the end of the war.  Eventually, Puyi is released after renouncing his collaboration with the Japanese, and he becomes a simple gardener.

This is a long film, but it rarely drags, really, how could it when its hero has a life that  encompasses both World War II and the rise of Communism?   In the film Puyi goes from spoiled Emperor to exiled playboy enthralled with Western culture, to puppet leader to prisoner, and finally, an anonymous gardener, truly this is a life worthy of an epic film.  And it's also a great looking one; Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro  wisely give each phase of the emperor's life a different look, with his later years appearing gray and  almost colorless, while his time in the forbidden city has colors that are so vivid they practically pop off the screen.  (James Acheson's excellent costumes help a lot too, and both he and Storaro won deserved Oscars for their work).   There are many visually striking moments in the film, like the newly crowned boy emperor emerging from a billowing curtain to discover an adoring crowd, or the seemingly ancient empress dowager (Lisa Lu) lying on her death bed, still adorned in all her finery.

Lisa Lu as the dying dowager


In the title role, John Lone gives a muted but fine performance; he is often quiet and placid, even as huge events occur around him, which is appropriate enough because he had so little control over those huge events; this was a man who was buffeted all his life by forces beyond his control, a fact that Berolucci shows visually at one point by having a wave of Chinese soldiers wash down the steps of the forbidden city and towards the emperor, ready to sweep him into exile.  In many ways, the real heart of the film lies in not the emperor, but in the empress: Joan Chen plays Wan Jung, the young woman who marries the emperor in an arranged marriage, and eventually comes to care for him.  But, when he agrees to become a puppet leader for the Japanese, she rightfully sees it as a betrayal of China, and her bitterness towards this turn of events sends her into a spiral of opium addiction and affairs.  In contrast to Lone's stoicism, Chen is emotional and heartbreaking in her role, and her final scene is powerful indeed.  It is to the film's credit that Peter O'Toole, the only famous actor in the film, is important to the story, but never overshadows the film.  O'Toole seems to be enjoying himself here, showing warmth and humor in the same vein as  the title character from  GOODBYE MR CHIPS, and the rest of the cast is is solid throughout.
If the film has a flaw, it is that I sometimes find it curiously uninvolving.  I think the problem may lie in having a main character who has so little control over his own life, with little initiative or drive to speak of, making Puyi not always the easiest character to warm up to, especially when he quickly agrees to sell out to the Japanese.  Still, this film is an impressive achievement.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

Although fine films like Norman Jewison's MOONSTRUCK, James L Brooks's BROADCAST NEWS and Steven Speilberg's EMPIRE OF THE SUN were all released that year, I think Bertolucci's film towers over them all and is a worthy best picture winner.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

PLATOON (1986)


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PLATOON (DIR: OLIVER STONE) (SCR:STONE)

PLATOON was the second film about Viet Nam to win best picture, but unlike Micheal Cimino's 1979 film THE DEER HUNTER, which often fell into a surreal view of the war almost out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, Oliver Stone's film had a gritty, realistic feel to it, which was no surprise seeing how Stone based the script on his own life and experiences in the war.  While the film does sometimes descend into the kind of heavy handed pretensions that would mar Stone's later work, it still holds up as a powerful, emotional and well made movie that displays the Viet Nam experience more vividly than any other; one can sense that this was an intensely personal film for Stone that  he felt that he  had to make.

It's Oscar victory  must have been particularly sweet for him, considering how long it took for the film to get made.  Stone came to filmmaking after serving in the war in the late sixties; he first wrote  the script for PLATOON in 1968, reportedly it came partly over his anger at John Wayne's pro war  film of that year, THE GREEN BERETS.    Stone's first film as a director was 1974's horror film, SEIZURE.  He continued to work as both a writer and director, with his greatest success coming with his Oscar winning script for Alan Parker's 1978 film, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS.  He tried to get funding for  PLATOON as early as 1976, with no luck for ten years.  Finally, he hooked up with Hemdale films and producer Arnold Kopelson, who green lit the film at a budget of around six million dollars.  Several actors, including Kyle MacLachlan and Keanu Reeves were considered for the lead role of Chris Taylor before Charlie Sheen was cast.  Immediately before shooting, retired marine Dale Dye trained the actors for two weeks in a tropical jungle near Manila, whipping them into military shape.  The cast and crew then suffered through sixty days of shooting in the Philippines, (which was mostly shot sequentially to heighten the realism. ) amid  rain storms  and bugs, not to mention some possibly dangerous moments with helicopters and explosions.  In the editing room, editor Claire Simpson (who would win an Oscar for the film) suggested that Stone use Samuel Barber's beautiful, haunting "Adiagio for Strings" over the more emotional footage, which wound up adding to the film's sense of tragedy beautifully.  The film became an enormous hit, earning over one hundred and thirty million dollars in the US alone, becoming the perfect antidote to the previous year's terrible Viet Nam based film, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II.

Charlie Sheen

It tells the story of Chris Taylor, who drops out of college in 1967 and volunteers to serve in Viet Nam.  His gung ho attitude is changed as he sees the horror of war, and he finds himself torn between two sergeants, who come to represent the good and bad sides of the war to him.

Given the path that director Stone's career would later take, it's hard to believe that his first big film was praised for its realism, and yet that is what makes the film so impressive.  It really digs into the hardships of being a grunt, trudging through a dense forest with a heavy pack on your back while holding a rifle, dealing with hot weather, bugs and snakes, never really knowing when an attack can occur.  The story stays almost entirely with Chris's foot soldier point of view for the whole film, with the mostly unseen Viet Cong soldiers appearing almost like shadows, and this effectively gives the audience a "you are there" feeling.  Stone's script also gets the rough, male camaraderie of the platoon right, with the men bonding over foul mouthed insults, alcohol and drugs.  Stone also wisely has Chris narrate letters home to his grandmother that let him make more sensitive insights about the war to her than he could to his fellow soldiers.  The combat scenes in the film are mostly well done, instead of showing any kind of  glory they are chaotic and brutal, with no winners, just survivors.  The film's most powerful moments come when the platoon, angry after seeing the displayed, mutilated body of one of their men, turn their rage on a town of suspected Viet Cong sympathizers, with even Chris at one point screaming and shooting at the feet of an unarmed man, showing that even the least violent kind of person can be pushed to the edge.  The fact that the violence of the men escalates to the point of Barnes holding a gun to a little girl's head makes the scene almost unwatchable in its intensity, but it also perfectly illustrates the difficulty of any kind of order being maintained in an almost anarchic situation like the Viet Nam conflict.  Inevitably, when a group of  young men are put in a violent situation with almost no structure, and no definite sense of who is or isn't the enemy, there will be times when they go too far.  For Stone, this was the Viet Nam war in a nutshell.

Charlie Sheen has become a walking punch line now, but in this, his first lead role in a film, he's very good as the naive young Chris, he is on screen for almost every frame, and his immediate likability carries the film, and his change from supporting the war to opposing it is believable.  Even better are Willem Dafoe as the good natured Sgt. Elias  and Tom Berenger as the brutal Sgt. Barnes, the  two men who come to represent the struggle in Chris over his attitude toward the war.  Although Berenger has the flashier role, with the scarred Barnes making speeches about death, I think Dafoe really excels as the soft spoken Elias, who has been in Viet Nam long enough to see the war as unwinnable.  I love the scene where Elias talks to Chris about the war while gazing at the stars, or when Dafoe exhales marijuana smoke into a gun barrel for Chris to inhale, in an almost sexual way.  The rest of the cast are also very good,  populating the big, multi ethnic Platoon with immediately identifiable characters(future stars Forest Whittaker and Johnny Depp are among them).

Willem Dafoe on the left Art Greenspon's photo on the right


I find the film falters a bit towards the end; after establishing itself as film that shows the horror of war, the final battle scene comes close to playing like a conventional action film, and while the movie thankfully never sinks to the level of the aforementioned RAMBO, it does come close to being more exciting than horrifying as Chris bravely facing down enemies while his comrades flee. It also sometimes sinks into heavy handedness: Stone makes sure we understand the battle between Elias and Barnes by having other characters compare them to larger than life figures (Barnes is compared to Captain Ahab, while Elias is compared to Jesus). This eventually  leads to the film's broadest moment: the Christ like death of Elias, complete with arms outstretched in slow motion.  To be fair, this image is not just something Stone invented, he based it on a real photograph of a Viet Nam soldier taken by war photographer Art Greenspon.  Still, with this one overdone shot, Stone hurts the film's realistic tone, although the damage is far from lasting.  On the whole, this is an excellent war movie that ranks up there with Lewis Milestone's ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and Stanley Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY as one of the best of its kind ever.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

While I think this is a great movie that deserved the award, I am also a huge fan of Woody Allen's HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, which ranks as one of his best movies.  So, for me, it's really a toss up between those two, but, given the fact that PLATOON seemed to really help shape America's view of the Viet Nam war in the 1980's, I'll go with Stone's film by a nose.



Monday, August 27, 2012

OUT OF AFRICA (1985)


OUT OF AFRICA (DIR: SYDNEY POLLACK) (SCR: KURT LUEDTKE, BASED ON THE MEMOIR BY ISAK DINESEN)

With OUT OF AFRICA, the Academy made a safe, predictable choice for best picture of 1985; it's a great looking, classically made dramatic romance with two big stars and a period setting.  Unfortunately, it's also far too long and often uninvolving,  despite its lovely locations.  It would appear that the Academy felt that it was time to reward well admired director Sydney Pollack for his years of work (he also won an Oscar for best director) than for the film itself.  Personally, I prefer his earlier films like 1982's TOOTSIE and 1969's THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?, to this slow moving movie.
Long before it was a movie, it was a memoir by Karen Blixen (under the pen name Isak Dinesen), about her adventures as a plantation owner in Kenya.  There was interest in making a film of the story for years, (most intriguing, Orson Welles wanted to make it with Greta Garbo in the lead) but it was Frank Price, the head of Universal Pictures, who finally got the funding together and hired Pollack to direct.  Pollack assigned the script to former reporter Kurt Luedtke, who had worked with the director before on 1981's ABSENCE OF MALICE.  Initially, Pollack wanted Audrey Hepburn for the lead role of Karen, but she turned it down, so it went to Meryl Streep instead.  Streep, in her usual manner, researched the role and perfected her accent by listening to actual recordings of Blixen.  Robert Redford was hired as her love interest, Denys Finch Hatten; Redford reportedly attempted an English accent, but Pollack thought audiences would find it distracting and had him stop, even going so far as to rerecord  some of his dialogue.  The film was shot almost entirely on location in Africa, and production designer Stephen Grimes spent years recreating not only the  plantation but the surrounding town as well, even using actual furniture owned by Blixen for some scenes.  Made at a budget of around thirty million dollars, and buoyed by its romance and star power,  the movie would go on to make about eighty seven million in the US.

Robert Redford shampoos Meryl Streep

Beginning in 1913, it tells the story of Karen Blixen, a Danish woman who marries a poor but titled Baron Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer), more out of convenience than love, and moves with him to Africa to run a plantation.  Eventually, she does start to have feelings for the Baron, but he is a womanizer, and eventually she contracts syphilis from him, requiring a long period of recovery at home.  When she returns to Africa, she finds her husband still unfaithful, and she herself begins an affair with the free spirited big game hunter Denys Hatten, whom she had befriended earlier.

It's obvious that Pollack and Luedkte's script view this story as a romantic one first, while the rest just serves as an excuse to get our two big stars together in some lovely scenery, and so no time is wasted: although they may not get together romantically until later, the two lovers  first meet sometime within the first ten minutes (amusingly, Redford is first seen hauling a big, somewhat phallic ivory tusk), and the audience just knows that it is only a matter of time before they will come together.   Personally,  I don't think this was the right way to go; the emphasis on romance leaves other aspects of the story unfulfilled.  Karen has to run the plantation by herself when her no good husband leaves, but we only hear a little about her hardships.  So little that even the accidental burning down of the plantation late in the film fails to make much of an emotional mark on the audience.  The same goes for her relations with her African workers, which are not as moving as Pollack seems to think they are, and could have been fleshed out much more.  And Brandauer has such a thankless role as Karen's husband that he only shows up every once in a while to remind the audience what a loser he is.   I think a film that  shows this woman bravely working  on the plantation alone that had  some romance on the side would have made for a stronger film.  As it is, it's mostly just a pretty romance.

To be fair, the love story here is often effective; Streep and Redford make for an interesting couple: she with her chameleon like ability to disappear into a role, complete with foreign accent and dyed hair, and he giving a classic, relaxed star turn, much like the same ones he had been giving for years.  Somehow it works when it shouldn't;  Redford has such immediate charm, and Streep such intelligence that their attraction to each other seems natural, and it makes sense that the more Karen gets used to life in Africa, the more she is drawn to a man who seems built for the land.  I like the sensual shampoo he gives her on the banks of a wild river, or the shy, boyish way that he asks if he can leave his things at her place, implicating that he wants to keep seeing her.  And I can almost forgive the film's weaknesses for the beautiful scene in which he takes her flying over the mountains of Africa, surrounded by flocks of flamingoes.  If their relationship sometimes bogs down into typical emotional language (he leaves her to go on safari because it's something he has to do,  telling her "I don't want to live someone else's idea of how to live") the love story still is the heart of the film, and works better than anything else around it.

The lovely flying scene


It should also be noted  that the filmmakers and Streep want Karen to be seen as a proto feminist: along with running the plantation, she also explodes with righteous anger when she finds her husband has changed their plantation from a cattle farm to a coffee farm without telling her, and when she realizes that her husband will not cease his philandering, she guiltlessly takes a lover of her own.  And, in the film's only truly exciting moment, she calmly shoots down a charging lioness with a single rifle shot!  (I like this scene not only for the excitement, but also for Redford's look of amazement and awe afterwards, a nice example of his growing respect and attraction for her).  While I'm not sure how historically accurate this  characterization is, it works for the story and makes the character more interesting. And that leads to one nice detail: at the end of the film, she is invited to have a drink in the men's only Muthaiga Country Club.  This really happened, and Karen Blixen remains the only woman ever to be served a drink at that club to this day!

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

It's probably pretty clear that I have a mixed reaction to this film, despite its lovely visuals; personally, I think any of the other films nominated for best picture that year (THE COLOR PURPLE, WITNESS, PRIZZI'S HONOR, KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN) would have been a better choice.  I also prefer  some films that weren't nominated, such as Terry Gilliam's crazed BRAZIL, and Woody Allen's delightful fantasy, THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO.  Yes, OUT OF AFRICA is only a pleasant movie at best, and it remains one of the Academy's weaker choices.


Friday, August 17, 2012

AMADEUS(1984)


AMADEUS (DIR: MILOS FORMAN) (SCR: PETER SHAFFER, BASED ON THE PLAY OF THE SAME NAME, ALSO BY SHAFFER)

AMADEUS, was the second best picture winner for director Milos Forman (the first being 1975's ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST), and it's a intelligent, literate  and wildly entertaining film, sparked by great performances and gorgeous period recreations and filled with beautiful music.  Despite some moments of crude humor, it is a classy, high brow film all the way, and although it has its detractors, and its historical accuracy is certainly questionable, it seemed an obvious prestige film for the Academy to choose.  And, speaking for myself,  I think it stands as one of their best choices.

Before it was a movie, it was a play; written by English playwright Peter Shaffer, (and based loosely on an 1830 play by Alexander Pushkin called MOZART AND SALIERI) it premiered in London in 1979  and eventually made its made to Broadway in 1980.  There, it was seen by director Forman, who immediately called producer Saul Zaentz (with whom he had also worked on CUKOO'S NEST) about making a film out of it.  Zaentz agreed, and Forman went to work on the script with Shaffer, turning an often surreal play into a far more realistic film, and being sure to add, as Forman put it, "more Mozart and more music".  While many high profile actors were interested in playing the two rival composers Mozart and Salieri, Forman wanted lesser known actors.  While auditioning for a smaller role, F Murray Abraham helped test out possible Mozarts by reading Salieri's lines to them; he did such a good job that Forman wound up giving him the part.  And, after testing such performers as Mel Gibson, and Tim Curry for the part of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Forman went with American actor Tom Hulce, who at that point would probably be best known for his sizable role in 1978's ANIMAL HOUSE.  Notable conductor Neville Marriner was hired to conduct the score, demanding that a not a note of the original music be changed.  The film was shot almost entirely in Czechoslovakia, mostly in the city of Prague, which still had much of the 18th. century architecture needed for the film.  (Ironically,  Forman was born in Czechoslovakia and had fled the Communist government years earlier).  Amazingly, the debut of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni was shot in the Tyl Theater, where Mozart himself had conducted its premiere two centuries earlier. Forman had his longtime cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek use only natural lighting for the entire film, including lighting the Tyl Theater with hundreds of candles.  The effect is marvelous, giving the film a look that is both beautiful and realistic.  Despite shooting in a country that was still under Communist rule (apparently some of the extras were secret police!), the making of the film went with any significant problems, and it came in at a budget around eighteen million dollars.  It would go on to make around fifty two million.

Tom Hulce


It's story begins in 1823 when elderly former court composer Antonio Salieri (Abraham) attempts suicide while begging forgiveness for killing Amadeus Mozart (Hulce)years earlier.  Later, in an asylum, Salieri tells a young priest(Richard Frank) the story of how as a boy he longed to be a composer and idolized the famed, even younger composer Mozart.  Years later Salieri has become the court composer to Emperor Joseph II(Jeffrey Jones) , and he is excited to meet Mozart for the first time; but upon meeting him, he finds Mozart to be a "giggling dirty minded creature".  And after he discovers that Mozart has seduced one of Salieri's female students, Salieri dedicates his life to destroying Mozart's career.  All the while, he loves Mozart's music and realizes that the young composer's talent was superior to his own.  Eventually, he secretly engages the financially bereft Mozart to write his own requiem.

The first impression I always have when viewing this film is just how great looking it is: each costume, every set and location, even the enticing food that Salieri loves is gorgeous to look at in its own way, and this is especially true of the wonderful recreations of the operas of the day (the costumes used were based on sketches for the actual shows).  And, it goes without saying, there is lovely music nonstop(and I'm not what you would call a big classical music fan).  But this isn't just a movie that is pretty to look at; at its core stands,  for me, one of the most fascinating characters in movie history.  Antonio Salieri is a man who thanks God for his musical talent, but then curses God for giving even more talent to Mozart.  "Why would God choose an obscene child to be his instrument?" he asks, knowing that there can be no reasonable answer.  The cruel irony for him is that only he and Mozart himself realize just how great a composer Mozart is; while others dismiss Mozart, it is Salieri who sees his undeniable talent and realizes that his own music will be forgotten while Mozart's will endure (a cruel truth he lives long enough to see happen).  So, he both works to destroy Mozart's career and adores every aspect of it, and he purposely drives Mozart to an early grave and then laments at all the wonderful music that he has stolen from the world, eventually driving himself to suicidal madness, sowing the seeds for his own destruction.  The movie also gets into other aspects of the nature of art and artist that endure to this day: Mozart often faces censorship, and has to defend his work more than once before priggish fools, something that the Communist fleeing  Forman could identify with I'm sure.  The question of art versus commerce is also raised, with Mozart's works, despite their brilliance, never finding a popular audience is his lifetime, (they are challenging and ahead of their time) and he is eventually forced to write THE MAGIC FLUTE, even though its comic opera story is beneath him.   And has there ever been a better cinematic display of artistic creation than the scene in which the ailing Mozart transcribes his own requiem to Salieri, with each piece of music played over the soundtrack as its written?  It's a marvelous bit of filmmaking.

The casting of Tom Hulce as Mozart seemed controversial at the time; after all, an American actor to portray the Salzburg born composer?  But Hulce is winning in the role, perhaps because his character is supposed to be brash and vulgar, and perhaps it takes an American in a  European country to play that so well!  Forman clearly tries to sell Mozart to modern audiences by making him out to be a rock star of his era (the pink wig he fancies in one scene looks almost like a punk rock hairdo, and his purple outfit at one point resembles that of rock star Prince), and certainly his drinking, his arrogance and his crassness fit that nicely, along with his untimely demise; but Hulce is also excellent as Mozart the passionate artist.  I love the scene in which he convinces the Emperor to allow him to make an opera of the story of Figaro despite the fact that the story has been banned.  Hulce is so determined, so driven to describe his ideas that his enthusiasm is infectious and inevitably wins the Emperor over.  Although I do think that Hulce overacts in some of the film's later scenes as he spirals into drunken madness (I'm really not a fan of the scene in which he drunkenly thumbs his nose at his father's picture), he still holds his part of the film well, and manages to be sympathetic while believably annoying the hell out of Salieri.

F Murray Abraham


F Murray Abraham was an unknown actor who seemed to come from nowhere, give a brilliant, Oscar winning  performance, and then sadly fade back into obscurity again.  But for this one film, he is great, wonderfully delivering dramatic monologues on his hated of Mozart and love of his music directly into the camera with joy and energy; even though his character is an old man in a wheelchair for much of the film, we still feel his drive and determination about events that happened decades earlier.  (I should also mention that the perfect old age makeup he wears was designed by the legendary makeup artist Dick Smith and that it adds to the performance enormously).  

Along with the two leads, the film is filled with excellent performances, and I especially love Jeffrey Jones as the tin eared Emperor Joseph II, who's word is law even though he's a fool; Jones plays every blank expression and ignorant utterance for maximum comedic effect, and he's a delight.  Also very good are Elizabeth Berridge as Mozart's long suffering wife Constanze and Roy Dotrice as Mozart's formidable father Leopold.  Yes, this is an excellent film that is both visually stunning and thought provoking.  And while some have criticized its historical accuracy, I personally have no problem with a story based on real people from centuries ago taking a few dramatic liberties.  Really, it's what story tellers like Forman and Shaffer have been doing for years.  

It's clear that I love this movie, and while 1984 also gave us Roland Joffe's excellent THE KILLING FIELDS, I still think that AMADEUS stands head and shoulders above the rest.