Back in 1979, $31 million, much of it from director Francis Ford Coppola's own pocket, was considered overly indulgent by critics and poo-pooers, as was everything about Apocalypse Now. Many cinefiles were outraged over the vastness of the film and Marlon Brando's big paycheck for his supporting role. And then they were disappointed, calling the film empty and void of ideas or, worse, solutions. But now, decades later, it can be seen for what it is, a big, exciting masterpiece. Coppola was a major filmmaker working at the peak of his powers; the spectacle is as good as it gets, especially in a pre-computer manufactured effects era.
Kinda-sorta based on Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now opens with a distraught and drunken Captain Willard in a Saigon hotel room battling his demons. We now know from Eleanor Coppola's book on the making of the film and the brilliant documentary Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse that actor Martin Sheen was actually drunk on the set and fighting his own personal demons which helped lead to his astounding performance (he replaced Harvey Keitel two weeks into shooting). Willard is one of the black-op soldiers brought in to do dirty jobs for his handlers. After getting cleaned up, he is given a new assignment: get a boat crew together, travel up the river (into the heart of darkness), out of Vietnam and into Cambodia, and assassinate a decorated American Colonel, Kurtz (Brando), who, with a ragtag army of followers, has gone AWOL, gone native, and gone quite mad.Continue Reading
Che: Part One
Everyone can come up with their "overlooked for an Oscar nomination" mis-justice list. Such a list may start with the fact that Martin Sheen wasn’t nominated for Apocalypse Now. And if you want to dig deeper, my list would point out that Orson Welles’ brilliant performance (and direction) in Touch of Evil was overlooked by awards givers. But out of the last ten years the performance and film that had Oscar pedigree written all over it and got no love was Benicio Del Toro and the film Che: Part One. Frankly it barely even got a theatrical release. Of course Che was director Steven Soderbergh’s epic story of the revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara and, like Tarantino’s Kill Bill double bill, it was so big it was lopped into two different films (and its awards consideration, totally mishandled). They are two very different movies, and Part Two is worth seeing (though much harder terrain if you don’t already know the history of Che’s involvement in trying to bring a revolution to Bolivia). Like history itself, Part One is a more easily digestible piece of pure entertainment, though in the end, the two together help give Che a bigger arch. Like the Cuban revolution itself, the romance is in the buildup, the planning, and the underdog story. The actual governing, not so pretty. But don’t think this is some kind of boring homework assignment, it's wonderful filmmaking anchored by Del Toro’s brilliant performance as the future college dorm-room poster superstar.
The film picks up almost where Walter Salles’ much more popular The Motorcycle Diaries ended. Exiled in Mexico the young Argentinian doctor, Che, is introduced to the budding Cuban intellectual revolutionary Fidel Castro (the also excellent Demian Bichir, who scored a forgotten Oscar nomination for the film A Better Life). Like everyone else Che is mesmerized by the charismatic leader and he agrees to join up. Cut to the jungles of Cuba where a weak Che eventually learns the ropes of a fighting guerilla (wonderfully spoofed in Woody Allen’s Bananas, thirty years earlier). He slowly earns the respect of his comrades and the peasants he meets along the way, to whom he gives free medical care and insists on educating. And though Che becomes a tough talker, he seems to be a poet at heart, a quality Del Toro always brings to his roles -- no matter the part there always seems to be a hipster softy lurking in there. Che also develops a relationship with a young protegee, Aleida March, who actually became his second wife (played by the beautiful Catalina Sandino Moreno, an Oscar nominee for her harrowing work in Maria Full of Grace).Continue Reading
Hearts of Darkness
Francis Ford Coppola said of Apocalypse Now at its 1979 premiere in Cannes, “The way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little we went insane.” That madness is what you see in Hearts of Darkness, an extraordinary documentary about the film’s torturous, quixotic shoot.
With her own crew, Coppola’s wife Eleanor documented her husband’s protracted struggle to complete his epic about the Vietnam War; her footage is the basis of Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s feature. She came away with an intimate picture of the feature’s near-catastrophic progress, or lack thereof. Shooting in the Phillipines, Coppola replaced a lead actor after filming began; saw helicopters on loan from Ferdinand Marcos’ army diverted to fight rebels in a real civil war; witnessed the destruction of a main set in a ruinous typhoon; and was forced to halt production when one of his key players suffered a near-fatal heart attack. And then the volatile Marlon Brando showed up, overweight and unprepared for his role as the monstrous Colonel Kurtz.Continue Reading
After his death, Steve McQueen reached rebel-cool icon status based on his off-screen machismo (racing cars and motorcycles, martial arts with Bruce Lee, stealing Robert Evans’ wife) and partly on his actual film resume, which in retrospect isn’t as great as you would expect. His peak years start in ’63 with his one masterpiece, The Great Escape (he did the overrated but still influential Western The Magnificent Seven a few years earlier), a couple of big hits that now feel more like remake-bait time capsules (The Thomas Crown Affair and The Cincinnati Kid), and of course there is also Bullitt, largely famous for its amazing high-speed San Francisco auto chases. But for the most part the late sixties were rounded out with forgotten melodramas (Love with the Proper Stranger, Baby the Rain Must Fall and The Sand Pebbles). The early seventies include a couple lesser collaborations with Sam Peckinpah (Junior Bonner and The Getaway) and the super cast/super dud The Towering Inferno. But besides appearing as himself in the Oscar-winning motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, McQueen’s best film since The Great Escape is the epic Papillon, a film that has been written off by some as overly long and cold. But for my money it’s one of the best prison escape movies ever, as well as an eye-opening look at worlds I knew little about. (ALSO OF NOTE: I first saw it as a very young kid, in its second run at a drive-in, and there are some moments of violence that then confused me, but have stuck with me ever since.)
Based on the questionable autobiography of French petty criminal Henri “Papillon” Charrière, (played by the very American McQueen and shot in exotic locations all over the world) the script is credited to blacklisted legend Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (one of the creators of the '60s Batman TV series). The film begins in pre-WWII France with Papillon and other convicted criminals being marched through town and on to a boat to be shipped off to a French penal colony work camp. On the long and brutal ship ride, Papillon strikes a deal with a wealthy and rather famous forger, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman in full nebbish mode), for protection. With a promise to keep the meek embezzler alive, Dega will finance any escape attempts. Through the course of time, the two strike up an unlikely friendship (a prison adventure Midnight Cowboy). The film covers years in swampy, tough malaria-plagued conditions, finally ending on the infamous Devil’s Island. The film is loaded with wonderful set pieces, including long and short escape attempts, a leper colony, sadistic guards, creepy prisoners, solitary confinements and lots of double crosses (even a nun stabs Papillon in the back). It’s a survival saga and a friendship story, though the survival aspect is the highlight.Continue Reading
Back in ’77 the film Sorcerer was considered a mega-bomb, both artistically and financially. Coming off the mammoth success of both The French Connection and The Exorcist, it would mark the beginning of an enormous career decline for director William Friedkin. However in retrospect, Sorcerer is one badass action thriller and one of the most underrated films of the '70s.
By the end of the decade many of Friedkin’s peers, that great class of '70s film directors who set a new benchmark with their important and revolutionary films earlier in the decade, seemed to get bitten with the overindulgent bug. After years of hitting it out of the park, a number of these "geniuses" created what were considered duds with would-be epics. Spielberg had the loud 1941, Scorsese made the boring musical New York, New York, Coppola put forth the unwatchable One From The Heart, and Bogdanovich had a string of disasters. And of course Michael Cimino, after the success of The Deer Hunter, would help to sink a whole studio with his artsy Western Heaven’s Gate (which was derided for years, but more recently has found a new wave of critical support). Then it was Friedkin's turn to swing for his home run. For his epic he would do a remake of French director Henri-Georges Clouzot's adventure movie, Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages Of Fear). Clouzot had of course also done the greatest French mystery thriller of all time, the more Hitchcockian than Hitchcock Les Diaboliques (Diabolique). Friedkin developed the remake for superstar Steve McQueen to head the international cast. Sorcerer was green-lighted with a budget that in its day made it a big, big event movie. But unfortunately McQueen got sick and then died and the film never made back its bucks. But what ended up on the screen is wildly spectacular filmmaking.Continue Reading
The Deer Hunter
The Deer Hunter - a film about three Pennsylvania steel worker buds who go off to fight in Vietnam, and how the war affects them and the people around them - was massively praised on release back in '78. Time has been a mixed bag for the film, though everyone would agree the acting, with Robert De Niro leading a cast of then mostly unknowns, is exceptional; it’s the film’s murky politics and point of view that has been put into question. Much of the reevaluation has arisen with the epic rise and brutal fall that director Michael Cimino went through. But regardless of what the film was trying to convey, what is on screen is a stunning looking piece of filmmaking. Like a great symphony, it is often gentle and quiet, but still emotional and then loud with a horn section of shocking violence, giving the film a massive punch to pack.
The first third of the film’s three-hour running time follows a group of steel workers first preparing for Steven’s (John Savage) Russian Orthodox wedding and then a deer hunting trip as Steven, Michael (De Niro), and Nick (Christopher Walken) are about to be shipped out to Vietnam. They are joined by three other friends played by George Dzundza (Basic Instinct), Chuck Aspegren in his only film role, and the great John Cazale (Fredo of The Godfather and Sal of Dog Day Afternoon in his fifth and final film role before he died). The overly tense Michael also has a little thing for Nick’s girlfriend, Linda (Meryl Streep), but acting on it would play against his machismo code.Continue Reading