COVER

HOLIDAY HEAVYWEIGHTS

A BLACK CHRISTMAS FROM HOLLYWOOD

Brian D. Johnson December 24 1990
COVER

HOLIDAY HEAVYWEIGHTS

A BLACK CHRISTMAS FROM HOLLYWOOD

Brian D. Johnson December 24 1990

HOLIDAY HEAVYWEIGHTS

A BLACK CHRISTMAS FROM HOLLYWOOD

Deceit, disease, corruption, betrayal and slaughter—those are some of the festive themes that pervade the holiday movie schedule this year. The operatic tragedy of The Godfather Part ill sets the tone for a black Christmas on the big screen. The season’s movie heroes include a gangster who tries to buy back his soul from the Vatican (Godfather III), a broker who plummets from Wall Street heaven to Bronx hell ( The Bonfire of the Vanities), a gambler who plays poker by the fire of the Cuban Revolution (Havana) and a medieval Mad Max who discovers something rotten in the state of Denmark (Hamlet). Hollywood has tracked despair to the most exotic locations, from the Sahara Desert (The Sheltering Sky) to Red Square (The Russia House). Not even Robin Williams, playing a neurologist with paralysed patients (Awakenings), offers much comic relief.

There is, of course, a menu of junk-food alternatives.

Kindergarten Cop, Look Who’s Talking Too, Three Men and a Little Lady and Home Alone are all cute formula comedies featuring cute formula children. And they should do brisk business at the holiday box office. Meanwhile, Cher finally plays Cher on-screen in Mermaids, a nostalgic coming-of-age story. And Edward Scissorhands—an adorable fable about a sweet teenage Frankenstein—seems destined to be the sleeper hit of the season. But each year at this time, Hollywood puts its faith in grown-up movies, heavyweight contenders with Oscar potential.

The Godfather Part ill is a disappointment, a fascinating and frustrating lesson in Hollywood destiny. As the final chapter in the saga of Michael Corleone, it has to be seen—because it had to be made. Michael (AÍ Pacino) is vastly changed. No longer the poker-faced tyrant, he has acquired a profound sense of remorse and a subtle sense of humor. After having arranged his brother’s murder at the end of the previous movie, he wants to go straight. He has sold off all his underworld interests and is struggling to

consolidate what is left of his family. He is dismayed, however, when his son, Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio), rejects the Corleone business to become an opera singer.

Michael tries to purify his money and his soul by playing high finance with the Vatican. But hotheaded Vincent (Andy Garcia), the illegitimate son of Michael’s slain brother Sonny, rekindles a Corleone feud with a New York

crime boss. Meanwhile, a villain within the Vatican moves to block the Corleones’ $600million bid for a piece of its real estate empire. And Michael is stricken with diabetes.

Pacino creates an engaging portrait of human erosion—a dying Godfather who goes looking for God and finds nobody home. As his ex-wife, Kay, Diane Keaton remains as marginal as ever, yet she brings startling conviction to the role. Garcia projects a smouldering charisma as Michael’s heir apparent. But Coppola’s daughter, Sofia, is a poor match for Garcia as Mary, his kissing cousin. George Hamilton, meanwhile, in a bit role as the Corleones’ lawyer, only confirms his reputation as a bad actor.

But even the good actors seem adrift in Coppola’s movie, which never finds its rhythm. Both the script and the editing betray signs of confusion and haste. The story opens with great promise, ends with a spectacular finale and sags heavily in the middle. Godfather movies are supposed to be exquisitely long and slow. This time, the pacing is more stilted than stately. The plot unfolds awkwardly, without

creating enough dramatic tension to sustain a 23/4-hour movie.

In key scenes, however, Coppola combines violence and pageantry with masterful sleight of hand. The climax, which involves a lavishly staged opera, mimics the climax of the first movie, with its intercut sequences of murder and ritual. It leads to a wonderfully unpredictable twist of melodrama, then tragedy. But it is an ending in search of a movie: Godfather III falls tragically short of its great expectations.

Hamlet defies expectations in an entirely different way. At first, the idea of happy-golucky Mel Gibson portraying the melancholy Dane seems preposterous. But from his first moments on-screen, the Australian actor builds a performance that amounts to a miraculous vindication. His Hamlet is not especially complicated. He is a heroic prince, better suited to outbursts of avenging rage than sulks of suicidal introspection. Swinging a broadsword, he becomes an Elsinore Road Warrior. But Gibson displays impressive range and control, with a resonant voice that explores both the meaning and the music of Shakespeare’s verse.

Italian director Franco Zeffirelli has judiciously slashed the play to two brisk and uncluttered hours. His interpretation offers more surface than subtext. But he has captured the energy of the drama with crisp direction, lucid images and lush photography.

His camera roams from cavernous castle interiors to breathtaking seaside cliffs.

For Gibson’s soliloquies, Zeffirelli magnifies intimacy in unflinching close-ups.

Zeffirelli, who also directed Taming of the Shrew (1967) and Romeo and Juliet (1968), has assembled an excellent cast. With her glacial poise,

Glenn Close seems bom to -------

play Gertrude. Although she looks too young to be Gibson’s mother, that serves to heighten the hint of incest. Meanwhile, Helena Bonham Carter’s Ophelia, a dark-eyed gamine with a mind of her own, is refreshingly plain. Alan Bates is an inscrutable Claudius, Paul Scofield a grave Ghost, and Ian Holm a punch-drunk Polonius. Galvanized by Gibson’s surprising performance, a fine cast helps Zeffirelli turn a classic into thrilling entertainment.

Havana features a less flexible Ho! lywood star. In his seventh movie with Oscar-winning director Sidney Pollack, Robert Redford is once again playing the golden boy. A Casablanca love story set against the Cuban Revolution, Havana re-creates the casino deca

dence of pre-Castro Havana with extravagant detail. And like Casablanca, it stars a Swedish beauty and a rugged American actor. Jack (Red ford) is a maverick gambler uniquely dedicated to his own pleasure. He falls in love with Bobby (Lena Olin), an aristocrat's wife dedicated to the revolution.

Like a glittering casino, the movie at first seems rich with seduction, excitement and promise. But the script turns out to be a loser. The chemistry between Olin and Redford nev er ignites. And as the rugged individualist convinces the impassioned revolutionary to abandon her goals because "you can't live ideas," their romance becomes a sick joke at the expense of history. A brilliant actress, Olin makes the best of a bad situation. Redford

performs his usual jaunty star turn. But with his burnished features looking more bumpy and ravaged than ever, Hollywood's attempt to preserve the golden-boy image has become a bizarre conceit.

The Russia House stars Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer in a spy story that offers a much less hysterical view of communism than Havana. Based on the 1989 novel by British author John le Carré, it is the first major Hollywood feature to be filmed in the Soviet Union without Soviet co-producers. Australian director Fred Schepisi also faced the challenge of making a spy movie without a single scene of

sex or violence. Like most of le Carré's fiction, The Russia House is a maze of deception, confession and intrigue. Peo pie keep meeting each other and trying to communicate, but very little actually hap pens-"spying," writes le Carré, "is waiting." Connery portrays Barley, a scotch-swilling publisher with an affection for Russia. A dissident scientist smug gles a manuscript of military secrets to him through a friend, Katya (Pfeiffer). When the material falls into the hands of British inteffi gence, its officers send Bar ley to Moscow to find its source. Connery, who just gets better as he gets older,

lends a salty tang to le Carré's cynicism. Pfeiffer makes a surprisingly credible Soviet mother of two-her glamor is suitably scarred by fatigue. And as Ned, a British intelligence officer, James Fox is serenely acerbic amid a crew of CIA caricatures. Schepisi frames his drama with lyrical panoramas of So viet architecture, intercut with the high-tech absurdity of the intelligence headquar ters. The script, by British playwright Tom Stoppard, is clever but overwritten. Still, aside from deadening the nov el's ambiguity with a happy ending, the film-makers have remained scrupulously faithful to the book. For those who have read it, the movie beauti fully illuminates le Carré's Byzantine world. Others may wonder what on earth is tak ing so long to happen. The Bonfire of the Vanities, by contrast, runs roughshod over its source, Tom Wolfe's 1987 best-seller about power and corruption in New York City. Tom Hanks is woefully miscast as Sherman McCoy, a

Wall Street "Master of the Universe" who `is devastated by scandal after his Mercedes-Benz runs over a black man in the Bronx. By casting Hanks, who specializes in vulnerability, director Brian de Palma has turned a target of satire into a sympathetic victim. Tabloid journalist Peter Fallow, who is British in the book, becomes a slick American played by Bruce Willis. Melanie Griflith, with souped-up hair and a southern drawl, is amusing as McCoy's mistress, Maria, but looks strikingly different from the dark featured character in the book. Finally, in the most strategic revision, the book's Jewish judge has been changed to a black judge named White

(Morgan Freeman). None of those cosmetic changes would matter if the movie worked. But de Palma's farce is not very funny. Filmed with a dizzying array of wideangled gimmickery, its satire becomes cartoon-like: Wolfe's ethnic caricatures appear more lurid on-screen than in print. And Freeman's court room diatribe at the end of the movie-a good black preach ing decency to bad blackssmothers Bonfire's infernal charm with moral' sentiment. The Sheltering Sky por trays a season in hell worlds removed from Bonfire's Manhattan. Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, pro pelled by the success of his Oscar-winning China epic,

The Last Emperor (1987), travelled to the Sahara Desert—and into the fevered imagination of American novelist Paul Bowles. Based on the author’s 1949 cult classic, The Sheltering Sky is a tale of gorgeous desolation— a tragedy of doomed lovers at the ends of the earth. Rekindling the theme of Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1973), which explored the frontiers of anonymous love,

The Sheltering Sky is about a couple who have been married for a decade but remain strangers.

Port üohn Malkovich) and Kit (Debra Winger) arrive in postwar Tangiers with a mutual friend. As they travel into the desert and away from each other, they confront sex, sickness and oblivion. Malkovich portrays Port with searing intensity. Winger is too contemporary for Kit, but she brings a raw edge to the role. Despite a clumsy cameo by Bowles himself, Bertolucci lets the camera do most of the talking. The movie is too long, slow and plotless for the average taste. But the rhapsodic beauty of its desert images is rarely gratuitous: it casts an emotional spell. The Sheltering Sky is a mesmerizing excursion, not just into a landscape, but into a Sahara of the heart.

Awakenings is set in the wasteland of a chronic-care ward for patients with profound neurological disease. It is the saddest movie of the season—and one of the year’s best. Playing a patient, Robert de Niro gives an amazing peformance, breaking a new threshold in what is already an unparalleled acting career. As the shy physician who tries to cure him, Robin Williams steps out of character to play a straight man.

Adapted from a 1973 book by American neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, Awakenings is based on a true story about some patients who seem frozen in time, like living statues, unable to speak or move. In the film, Sacks becomes Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Williams), who discovers that all of the patients were once victims of the great sleeping-sickness epidemic during the 1920s. Sayer gives them experimental doses of a new drug that suddenly awakens them from their immobile states. But many of them have been in suspended animation for decades. And there is no guarantee that the drug will work in the long term.

Directed by Penny Mar-

shall (Big), Awakenings starts with humor and ends with sorrow. The actors playing the patients cover an impressive spectrum of emotions. Leonard (de Niro), the first patient to take the drug, does not just change—he passes through phases of catatonia, adolescent innocence, adult maturity and paranoia. Convincing throughout, de Niro seems certain to win an Oscar nomination.

Meanwhile, as the gnome-like doctor who undergoes his own awakening, Williams displays unusual restraint. He cracks few jokes. Instead, hiding behind a beard, he gracefully lets de Niro steal the show. Awakenings is a Rip Van Winkle story with the charm of a fable, the suspense of a mystery and the sobering impact of a documentary on a tough subject.

Edward Scissorhands, on the other hand, is pure fable, more poignant than sad. Director Tim Burton has used a wildly eccentric premise to create a tale with universal appeal. The setting is a suburban-gothic world in which everything is painted in surreal pastels—houses, cars, clothes, phones and furniture. Rising out of the neighborhood is a rocky crag with an old mansion on top. There, a mad scientist has created a punk android named Edward Oohnny Depp), who has razor-sharp shears for hands. It sounds like the premise for a gruesome horror movie, but Edward is a sweet, delicate creature, and Edward Scissorhands shows barely a scratch of real violence.

One day, an Avon Lady

named Peg (Dianne Wiest) knocks on the mansion door and, taking pity on Edward, invites him to live with her family. An instant sensation, he cuts a fashionable swath through the neighborhood. He sculpts hedges, cuts hair and dazzles the local matrons. Peg’s son brings him to showand-tell. Her teenage daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder), falls in love with him. But inevitably, the fickle community betrays him.

Like Burton’s Batman and Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands is an art director’s dream. The visuals are richer than the script, whose narrative follows a predictable arc. But, with minimal dialogue, Depp uses artful pantomime to create a truly memorable character. With his innocent eyes, sexy scars and tentative smile, he is a novel incarnation of a familiar archetype.

a Like most supernatural visitors who come down from on high—from Jesus Christ to E. T.—Edward cannot create peace on earth. But amid a black Christmas from Hollywood, his appearance has all the magic of a first snowfall.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON