Tag Archives: jonathan pryce

Netflix’s The Two Popes (2019) explores the fallibility of the infallible.

It would seem to be something of a contradiction in terms to deliver a warm and whimsical drama about the leadership of the Catholic Church during some of its most tumultuous years but that’s exactly what Fernando Meirelles’ gently absorbing chronicle of this archly ceremonial game of Papal thrones.

Essentially a biographical film tracing the ordination of Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and his initial rival and eventual successor Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the meat of the movie takes place in the pivotal year of 2012, as Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis) requests permission to retire from Pope Benedict who is, himself, wrestling with a dilemma of faith and duty.

Much of the story is told through (largely fictionalised) conversations between Bergoglio and Benedict at the pope’s summer home as they clash on matters theological, political and even international sports. To their mutual surprise, they find that despite their rivalry – coming from very different factions of the Church – they have more in common than either suspected.

While the film isn’t afraid to touch on the scandals and problems which have plagued the church in recent years, and pose hard questions about its two lead characters, it’s much more interested in the papal pair as individual human beings, taking a sensitive and often amusing look at the trials and tribulations of leadership and the spiritual toll it can take to serve an often silent and inscrutable God and works as a fascinating character study regardless of your own personal faith or beliefs.

It benefits enormously from two deceptively effortless, brilliant performances from Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins. In many ways, Pryce has the easier of the two roles, with Pope Francis’ innate likeability bringing the viewer onside from the off but it’s a credit to Hopkins’ wonderfully nuanced and impishly intelligent portrayal that manages to bring both humanity and humility to the more foreboding figure of Pope Benedict as the two warily circle each other in an ongoing, delicately choreographed verbal sparring match.

By turns touching, poignant, pugnacious and illuminating, it’s a remarkable exercise in exploring the power and politics at the highest levels of the Vatican through the lenses of the lives of two very different men.

8/10

There’s no proxy for how much I love The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1989) 30th Anniversary Review

A notoriously chaotic and troubled production – not that that distinguishes it particularly in Gilliam’s oeuvre – “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” saw the idiosyncratic director coming off the back of a bitter but ultimately successful battle with Universal over the release and distribution of his previous film, “Brazil”. Once again, he found himself at the mercy of bureaucratic machinations that even he could not have dreamt up as the film – initially at 20th Century Fox then Columbia – became a casualty of the boardroom politics that saw a CEO fired and the new studio head refuse to sign off on the previously agreed budget. Thus, the film developed a reputation for being out of control and over budget although, in reality, the final cost was pretty much on the budget originally set at Fox. But reality has very little to do with the tales of Baron Munchausen and, in a way the eponymous hero would no doubt find extremely gratifying, the film’s reputation is decidedly wide of the mark in nearly every respect. Celebrating its 30th Anniversary this year, it remains a bravura piece of satirical fantasy that deserves far more success than it received at the time of release.

In European city under siege by the Ottoman Army, a touring stage production of Baron Munchausen’s life and adventures is taking place. The Mayor of the city, The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce), pays the show no attention as he busies himself with the bureaucracy of civic and military protocols, pausing only to order the execution of a soldier whose act of near-superhuman courage on the basis that such bravery would be demoralizing to other soldiers. When the play is interrupted by an elderly man claiming to be the real Baron Munchausen (John Neville), he reprimands the theatrical troupe for the play’s many inaccuracies. Having gained the audience’s attention, he proceeds to regale them with an account of his life-or-death wager with the Grand Turk, involving his trusty companions Berthold, the world’s fastest runner; Adolphus, a rifleman with superhuman eyesight; Gustavus, blessed with super-hearing and an extraordinary lung capacity that can knock down an army and the tremendously strong Albrecht.

I may have to go back and watch “Time Bandits” again (it’s certainly been too long) to break the potential tie, but right now, I’d probably have to say “The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen” is my favourite of Terry Gilliam’s loosely connected ‘Imagination’ trilogy and probably my favourite Gilliam film of all. It starts as sharp as you like with Gilliam’s camera flying over the siege in full swing, captioning the scene ‘The Age Of Reason’ and the satire cuts deep as he weaves a wonderfully intoxicating tale of fantasy versus reality, heroism versus pragmatism and the dark, dreary forces of conformity seeking to stamp out the whimsical and wonderful folly of grand storytelling.

In a fate, perhaps more chilling than the one which befell him at the end of “Brazil”, Jonathan Pryce here is cast as the villain – of sorts – an officious bureaucrat who prefers order and protocol to anything as messy as humanity and empathy.

The disdain, escalating to alarm, at the charismatic Baron and his tall tales inspiring the populace to hope is the driving force of the framing narrative which sees the elderly Baron (John Neville, more well known as The X-Files’ Well-Manicured Man) challenge the administrative view of the world with a more than inconvenient truth.

But where the Baron – and Gilliam – really lets his imagination soar is in the telling of the Baron’s past adventures which prompt the Baron to go to great lengths to round up his long-lost companions once again, for a last great adventure. From the palace of the Grand Turk and its fabulous treasury, to the moon and back, the Baron’s adventures with his young companion Sally (Sarah Polley, whose feelings towards the production are the epitome of ambivalence) bring them face to face with The King and Queen of the Moon, the Roman Gods Vulcan and Venus and even sees them swallowed by a giant sea monster.

Everything is served up with Gilliam’s trademark lavish visuals and the set designs and special effects are a constant joy. The movie, which blurs the lines between fantasy and reality to such an extent that the differences cease to mean anything at all, is a wonderful mix of pantomime, grand fantasy, savage satire and good old-fashioned adventure. It’s a marvellously modern fairy-tale, packed with twinkly-eyed wit and spectacle and a dream-like narrative consistency that works because it’s anchored by John Neville’s superb performance as Munchausen himself, a man supremely accustomed to meeting with the truth and legend and treating those two imposters just the same.

Now more than ever there’s thematic resonance in the movies foundation of a government in profound denial of the reality of their situation, obdurately continuing negotiations and discussions while their world crumbles around them, but “The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen” isn’t about those tedious, earnest and petty concerns. It exalts you to not only reach for the moon but enjoy tea with the Baron once you get there.

8/10 

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Dark Disney: Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) Review

Suitably Autumnal, with Halloween overtones, “Something Wicked This Way Comes” sets out to create and then subvert the Norman Rockwell archetypal small American town. The story cuts right to the heart of the fragility of the American dream and the constant paranoia that somehow, their self-evident utopian land of the free and home of the brave is vulnerable to corruption and decay only by dark temptations from without its borders. Its this key and ever-present flaw in the American psyche that Ray Bradbury sets out to explore in his novel which he himself adapted for the screen.

In Green Town, Illinois, best friends Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) are heading home after detention for ‘whispering in class’ when they encounter a vagabond lightning rod salesman who tells the boys of a strange travelling circus, Mr Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival. Jim is hopeful the travelling show will visit their town but Will is fearful as most carnivals end their tours long before Halloween. When the ominous Mr Dark (Jonathan Pryce) rides into town on a dark midnight and sets up his massive carnival in a matter of seconds, the boys are both thrilled and terrified. Before long, the forces of darkness manifest in tempting and tantalising wish fulfilment, seducing the fine townsfolk of Green Town. The boys, and Will’s father (Jason Robards), the town librarian, may be the only ones standing in the way of Mr Dark’s intention to take control of the town and condemn the souls of its population to eternal damnation.

Originally conceived as a movie, Ray Bradbury wrote the screenplay in 1958, intended to be a directorial vehicle for Gene Kelly but when the production fell through, Bradbury rewrote into a novel. It was picked up again by Paramount but again development stalled and, finally, Disney acquired it, seeing it as a perfect fit with their then strategy of moving into older-skewing entertainment, inspired by the success of the likes of “Time Bandits” and “The Dark Crystal”.

It’s a slow burn creepiness, rather than an out and out kid-friendly horror, the film is a classier, more elegant version of a really tight, high-quality episode of “Goosebumps”, but bolstered by a terrific performance from a young Jonathan Pryce as the Mephistophelean master of ceremonies. More notable now, maybe, for the properties it inspired: Stephen King’s “Needful Things” owes a great deal to this novel and movie and Rick & Morty’s “Something Ricked This Way Comes” lifts much of its source material directly from this movie, the film still has much to offer in its own right.

Like many of Disney’s hesitant steps into a young adult market which hadn’t yet really been defined, “Something Wicked This Way Comes” was a troubled production, which eventually compromised its box office performance. Bradbury’s screenplay was rewritten without his knowledge, resulting in him leaving the project. The original score, by Georges Delerue, was deemed too dark by Disney and replaced by a score by James Horner. All in all, Disney spent a further $5million dollars on reshoots, re-editing and re-scoring the film. Even then, initial test screenings went badly and Disney re-hired Bradbury to write the warm, folksy scene-setting opening narration and a new ending. They ditched some, for the time, pioneering CGI effects sequences too, robbing the film of some of its cutting-edge appeal.

Ultimately, its troubled journey to the screen couldn’t be disguised and audiences at the time punished it with disinterest. Bradbury himself summed it up as ‘not a great film, no, but decently nice one’ and he’s pretty spot on. But if you’re looking for something that’s a little bit spooky, a little bit creepy and has bags of atmosphere to watch as a family, you could do much worse than check out charming, chilling fable.

7/10 

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) offers a spirited romp through the writing of a classic.

There are two perennial tales we turn to at this time of year. One, The Nativity, may carry the self-righteous gravitas of religious dogma but it doesn’t really speak to the modern reality of Christmastime. For that, we turn to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol which, by its collection and curation of traditions, conventions and practical applications of the Christian principles of charity and compassion has, more than anything else, come to define the values and virtues of the season.

Following the success of “Oliver Twist”, Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) tours America, riding the crest of a wave of success and popularity. But two years later, after a string of flops, he finds himself teetering on the brink of financial ruin. Necessity being the mother of invention, Dickens sets out to self-publish a new novel, a Christmas ghost story which would go on to change the world.

While it may be a gently revisionist and rose-tinted biography of one of England’s greatest novelists at a crucial point in his career, this film adaptation of Les Standiford’s 2008 book is also a delightfully poignant and insightful deconstruction of “A Christmas Carol”, placing the various threads, themes and motifs of the novel into the context of Dickens’ life and times.

Dan Stevens makes for dynamic, Whovian Dickens – a single-minded man of literary action. As the novel starts to evolve, he too is haunted by his own dark past, the precarious present and the foreboding future. Dickens was always a journalistic novelist and this film pays rich tribute to his acute eye for dramatic reportage and moral crusading as he draws inspiration from the world around him and weaves it into a tale of redemption and enlightenment, bringing the social and economic injustices of Victorian society to a wider public awareness.

He’s aided in shaping the story by the characters themselves, with man-of-the-moment Christopher Plummer essaying a tremendous Ebenezer Scrooge who, as well as being the protagonist of the emerging narrative, allows Dickens to confront his fears and anger about his own past. A supporting cast including the likes of Miriam Margoyles, Jonathan Pryce, Donald Sumpter and Simon Callow (for once not playing Dickens himself) round out the sumptuous Victoriana which gives the film its rich backdrop.

As an examination of how out modern interpretation of what Christmas is all about, it’s an entertaining and instructive experience, dusted with the festive magic of a witty and warm twist on the evergreen story of “A Christmas Carol”.

7/10 

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) Review

With Bond firmly re-established as a cinematic heavyweight franchise and “GoldenEye” delivering the best box office returns of the series to date, the pressure was on to build on the success with the next movie. With Martin Campbell reluctant to direct two Bond movies in a row, Roger Spottiswoode was recruited and a script was written focussing on the forthcoming handover of Hong Kong to China. When this idea was scrapped quite late into production, Bruce Feirstein rewrote the script as a story about a power-hungry media mogul intent on starting World War III.

The films opens spectacularly with Bond infiltrating a terrorist arms bazaar (a scene originally earmarked for “The Living Daylights“) where we see an American terrorist procuring an American GPS encoder. When a remote missile strike is ordered, Bond has to escape in one of the fighter jets to avoid a nuclear accident. As we slide into the foreboding strains of Sheryl Crow’s theme song – lyrically a post-modern riposte to the lavish praise of ‘Nobody Does It Better’ – we’re again treated to Daniel Kleinman’s wonderful opening titles, which continue the direct thematic connection to the story approach adopted with “GoldenEye”. This film also sees the arrival of composer David Arnold who, although not involved in the theme song, delivers a fantastic score for the movie, honouring the brassy horn-driven motifs of Barry whilst making it contemporary and engaging.

The story itself is an intriguing one. A global media mogul manipulates events to bring about a confrontation between the UK and China with the twin aim of boosting his circulation and viewing figures and securing valuable media rights within China itself. It’s in the execution of the story that “Tomorrow Never Dies” gets into trouble, with a muddled tone and uneven pacing exacerbating an already weak script.

A Bond film is only as good as its villain and Jonathan Pryce is more than capable of playing a great bad guy. Here, though, he opts for a kind of breathless, camp villainy rather than the chilling ruthlessness he can bring which, together with his pseudo Andy Warhol styling, robs him of any menace. The sequence where Carver is instructing his various division heads is pure Saturday morning cartoon goofball evil, a real life Cobra Commander moment and cements his characterisation as simply no match for Bond. His henchman Stamper is likewise a disappointment, a cookie-cutter goon, absolutely anodyne and devoid of the usual quirks that make Bond villain henchmen great. It takes more than glowering and being able to take a punch to stick in the memory.

Terry Hatcher’s brief cameo as Carver’s wife and Bond’s former flame feels a little bit like stunt casting and she seems bored throughout. Perhaps it’s the perfunctory way the script treats her character, one of the Bond series’ most obnoxious Fridging moments. Michelle Yeoh, on the other hand, is a welcome breath of fresh air in the Bond ‘girl’ department, smart, capable and kick-ass: she’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. She’s the first leading lady who gives the impression that she would have got the job done if Bond hadn’t got involved – maybe even a little quicker – and one of the few to date who not only gets a fair share of the action scenes but even gets a fight scene of her own.

Although Spottiswoode seems unable to coax the cast into elevating the text on the page above the clumsy and obvious wordplay which seems to litter every line, he’s more than adept at bringing the big action sequences to life. The extended chase scene in Berlin culminating in the remote control car chase through the multi-storey car park is simply brilliant, and after a lean few films it’s great to see gadgets making a big comeback. Brosnan’s giggle of delight as the BMW’s tyres reinflate themselves is adorable.

The film loses a bit of momentum following the escape from Carver’s Vietnam headquarters [note to scriptwriters: learn what an Oedipus Complex is before having Bond accuse someone of having one] and the finale is pretty much a warmed over remake of “The Spy Who Loved Me” right down to the enemy agents working together to sabotage the villain’s secret ocean-going lair.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see “Tomorrow Never Dies” as an early attempt to court the increasingly important Chinese market but the film doesn’t suffer from it, if anything Michelle Yeoh’s involvement improves the overall product. Symptomatic of its rushed production and a few questionable casting choices (did anyone want Joe Don Baker to return as Jack Wade?), the film feels less than the sum of its parts. The script is really bad, and so the film stands on its action sequences alone, which thankfully are some of the best Bond has offered. The film is dedicated to the memory of Albert R Broccoli, who died early in production. His legacy was one of the world’s greatest franchises; it’s just a shame that the one to bear his dedication couldn’t have been a bit more polished.

Craggus’ Bond Voyage will return with The World Is Not Enough

6/10 


Brazil (1985) Review

How on Earth has it taken me so long to get round to watching Terry Gilliam’s classic dystopian Sci-Fi comedy? To paraphrase Admiral Kirk from “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn” (stay with me): I’ve managed to see just about every film it’s influenced but like a poor marksman, I’ve kept missing the target.

The film opens with a chillingly prescient, blackly comic take on an oppressive totalitarian government where an accident involving a swatted fly results in a bureaucratic error and causes an innocent man to be seized by the authorities as a terrorist. Although it plays out like a sketch from “Monty Python’s War On Terror”, it’s actually quite alarming. This film and its subject matter are more relevant and topical right now than when the film was originally released.

Despite the weighty themes, it’s a breezily brilliant, satirical swashbuckling fantasy adventure with Jonathan Pryce having the time of his life as the would-be dashing hero Sam Lowry. Sam is a low-level clerk whose dreams offer him a chance to escape from the grim and grey reality of everyday life and soar free. However, his dreams are haunted by a beautiful, mysterious blond woman and a ferocious, giant samurai. When Sam sets out to rectify the wrongful arrest of Harry Buttle, he inadvertently gets caught in the Orwellian gears of state, encountering the real terrorist, Harry Tuttle and literally meeting the woman of his dreams. Along the way, he encounters some villainous state technicians and battles his nightmarish samurai warrior in a confrontation that is more impressive, action-packed and thrilling than this summer’s Wolverine v Silver Samurai smackdown on the big screen despite being done on a fraction of the budget. It’s no wonder this is reputed to be Pryce’s favourite role of his career.

Ian Holm, Ian Richardson, Bob Hoskins and Michael Palin round out the rich supporting cast and Robert DeNiro delights in what’s little more than a glorified cameo as enemy of the state Harry Tuttle although the means by which he dispatches Bob Hoskins’ meanly officious state technician Spoor is worth the price of admission on its own.

The special effects hold up surprisingly well for a film from the 1980s and Gilliam’s signature visual genius is abundant in every single frame. Famously butchered by the studio for release in the United States, it wasn’t until Gilliam ran a sensational guerrilla marketing campaign in open revolt of the studio bosses that it was released in all its glory and to critical acclaim. It’s even more mind-boggling that I hadn’t got around to seeing it when you hear Gilliam views is as the fulcrum of not one, but two trilogies of his films: it’s the middle film of his ‘Imagination Trilogy’ consisting of “Time Bandits”, “Brazil” and the criminally underrated “The Adventures Of Baron Munchhausen” and it’s the first film of his ‘Dystopian Satire Trilogy’ which consists of “Brazil”, “12 Monkeys” and forthcoming “The Zero Theorem”. (Note to self: re-watch “12 Monkeys”).

It’s difficult to understate how influential the production design of “Brazil” has been on modern cinema and television. You can detect its DNA in everything from “Dark City” and Tim Burton’s “Batman” through to Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” (which could almost be classed as a remake or – shudder – reimagining of “Brazil”) and the character and occupation of Hermes Conrad in “Futurama”. Despite his rich and varied back catalogue, it’s hard not to think that maybe, just maybe, “Brazil” is Gilliam’s masterpiece.

8/10