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.