May 24, 2011

#30: Apocalypse Now

"You understand, Captain, that this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist..."

Francis Ford Coppola gave us some of the very best films of the 1970s and was a master of the age of New Hollywood. After the worldwide critical and commercial success of the first two Godfather films, how could a man possibly top that? He certainly tried with Apocalypse Now in 1979, based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and re-imagined in the context of the Vietnam War. This is the fourth Vietnam War film on this list (after Platoon, The Deer Hunter and M*A*S*H) so you know that American filmmakers were and are obsessed with this conflict and all its complexities and larger statements about the nature of humanity and war. This film does an excellent job of bringing us deep into the visceral horror of that conflict, but rings hollow for me thematically. I'll try to explain why.

Company: just me this time. Another tough sell.

Cuisine: charbroiled chicken rice from Jasmine Deli (Vietnamese food, delicious and appropriate) and a Diet Coke

"Every minute I stay in this room I get a little weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush he gets a little stronger."

After a spooky and silent prologue, we are introduced to our narrator and (anti-?)hero, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen, who looks eerily like his son Charlie here), a special operations veteran who has returned to Saigon after field deployment. Needless to say, he's doing super well adjusting to life off the battlefield, and when he's approached with a mission he's drunk, naked and probably pretty stinky. As my sister Stephanie once said about Amber Waves in Boogie Nights, Willard is "real messed up."

His mission: to "terminate with extreme prejudice" the command and life of Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a formerly respected general who has gone off the deep end himself and amassed a rogue army of dissidents in the jungles of neutral Cambodia. So we're on board with one crazy going to find and kill another even crazier crazy. Ready?

The film then follows Willard and his boat's crew down the fictitious Nung River, and at various times depicts in graphic detail the horrors of Vietnam combat, juxtaposed by lighter moments like the one above, in which Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Oscar nominee Robert Duvall) introduces the starstruck crew to a famous surfer who's joined the crusade (Sam Bottoms) amidst explosions and genocide.

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

The attack on the beach is famous for its use of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," and surely influenced the similarly graphic opening of Saving Private Ryan. In his original review, Roger Ebert wrote that "Apocalypse Now achieves greatness not by analyzing our 'experience in Vietnam', but by re-creating, in characters and images, something of that experience." While I totally agree, there's a different level of satisfaction to be taken in meaningful analysis of experience than in simply recreating it. The imagery, specifically in this scene, certainly evokes a strong emotional response, but how to turn that response into action and discussion?

The journey down the Nung grows gradually darker as Willard's obsession with learning about Kurtz and his military record grows. At some point the obsession even leans to idolization, and you start to understand the rumor that an American photojournalist is now living under his command and spell. Meanwhile, the men come upon a USO show with Playboy Bunnies that devolves into total sexual rebellion and chaos as the soldiers rush the stage to take advantage of the women. Again, the imagery is so striking (in fact, I think the screen shots from this film are maybe my most consistently beautiful collection of any film on the list so far) but the scene then ends and what has been gained? What knowledge have we taken from it? Maybe it's that I'm far along on this project now and having seen several war films that depict the humane toll of war I'm immune to these messages, but I think it's been more clearly stated in other films.

But here's an interesting reaction: in the scene pictured above, the crew encounters a Vietnamese boat with crops which they deem to be suspicious. After boarding and searching the vessel, a young woman makes a start toward a barrel that she hopes the soldiers won't uncover and in an instant she and the inhabitants of her boat are shot down. It turns out she was hoping to protect her pet puppy. Now anyone who knows me knows that I'm a major sucker for a cute puppy, and though I jumped when the humans on the boat were shot, I flat out convulsed in fear and disgust when the soldiers grabbed the puppy forcefully to bring him onto their own boat. An hour or so of genocide that I've seen and I've barely reacted physically, but making a puppy squeal in fear is over the line? Then I think, "well that puppy is totally innocent!" Guess what, Max? So were ALL THOSE FOLKS ON THE BEACH. Now that's analysis, Coppola. Lesson learned.

Unholy hell.

Willard and his crew, some of whom have been lost along the way, finally reach the camp where Kurtz is presiding over a terrifying army of ghostly-white-body-painted natives. He's greeted by the photojournalist (Dennis Hopper)... and you know when you meet Dennis Hopper in a movie that it's not a good sign. ("Bluuuuuue velveeeeet...") And you know someone worse is in store when Hopper says that Kurtz has "enlarged his mind." Indeed, Willard and his crew are taken hostage and imprisoned, soon to be forced into labor by Kurtz and his jungle cronies.

"Are you an assassin?"
"I'm a soldier."
"You're neither. You're an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill."

Willard's interactions with Kurtz, played with restraint and heft by a restrained and hefty Brando, are chilling, as we thought they might be, but Kurtz's rants lack cohesion for me. They're the babblings of a man driven mad by war and human suffering. Is Coppola telling us that we ought to be Kurtz, that we ought to be enraged by the degradation of human life? Answers are never given, only diatribes with lines like "Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies!" It's a war film that deals in poetry, not prose. Is it effective? Yes. Is it haunting? Of course. Does it stick with me? Not as much as I thought it would.

The climactic scene is scored to make everything seem terrifying, epic, and otherworldly -- and it succeeds. But suddenly the story is over and we are left with... what? A great story? Sure. Not a terribly complicated plot, but more a backdrop for musings on the terrible toll that war takes on human life, those living and dead. Perhaps the movie ends abruptly because it ought to. I hadn't thought of that. But man, what a ride.

I think I can be done with war movies for a while. They exhaust me!

Next up: Billy Wilder's 1944 thriller Double Indemnity.

May 13, 2011

Cine-Smackdown: #31-#40

70 movies down, chummies. Only 30 to go, and I am newly reassured that I will make it to the end in two years' time. That is, if summer and life don't get in the way. They might. Oh, they might. And now for the smacking!

31. The Maltese Falcon
32. The Godfather Part II
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
34. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Annie Hall
36. The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Best Years of Our Lives
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Dr. Strangelove
40. The Sound of Music

I had not seen The Maltese Falcon, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Best Years of Our Lives or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (all four totally dude-bro movies) previous to the blogviews.

Of these ten, which would I move further up the list?
I think most people would say The Godfather Part II should be further up on the list, but I think it sits farther down the list than its predecessor for a few reasons. But I can't ignore how affected I was by The Best Years of Our Lives. I know, right? Black and white WWII weepie? WHAT? But it's true. I don't think it smashes any boundaries, but it's a great story well told and that's all I really want. It got to me and stuck with me.

Of these ten, which would I get rid of?
There's too many classics at this point on the list to be able to do this very easily, but it's probably got to be The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The Maltese Falcon comes in second. Sorry, Humphrey.

Who in these movies do I want as my best friend?
It's probably too easy to say Fraulein Maria (The Sound of Music), but come on: she's got confidence in me (and sunshine), she plays guitar and sings, and she's brave... once she gets over her love-phobia.

Who in these movies do I want to have my back in a bar fight?
Well, Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) is clever enough to trick anyone out of knocking me out, and Captain von Trapp (The Sound of Music) could stop anyone will those Siberian-husky eyes, but I think the sheer loyalty and power of Michael Corleone (The Godfather Part II) would be unstoppable ... as long as you didn't make him think twice for any reason. I mean, ANY reason.

Who in these movies is your worst frienemy?
Michael Corleone (Godfather) takes the cake. Who wouldn't he betray? Who wouldn't he snuff out? But Dobbs (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) would betray me pretty quickly too, although that's gold blindness talking, and there's a pair of female villains (in Cuckoo's Nest and Snow White) who seem cool and collected at first but who would just as soon feed you a poisoned apple or blame you for your buddy's death as look at you.

Who do I take home to Mom?
Homer (The Best Years of Our Lives)! She totally won't mind that he's got no arms, and neither would I. She'd probably be better enamored with Snow White or Annie Hall too, although they might both drive me nuts.

You're going on a date with these movies. Who do you agree to meet for coffee but never call again?
The Bridge on the River Kwai. We had a nice time, but I'm all set. And I don't want to end up in a POW camp in Burma, especially since my bridge labor is pretty much futile.

Who do you agree to meet for coffee, and then say you'll call but never do?
It's so weird for me to say this, but Snow White! I didn't hate it, but I have seen it and now I know I don't need to watch it again. But I think I maybe would. But I probably won't.

Who do you agree to meet for coffee, and then not show up?
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. They showed up, and meanwhile I stole their gold and headed back across the border.

Who do you meet for a first date, ends up staying the night and makes you breakfast in the morning?
Annie Hall. We'd talk a lot too, and the omelette would be kosher.

Who do you meet for a first date, ends up staying the night and then leaves in the morning without saying goodbye ... and steals your favorite sweater?
The boys in the Cuckoo's Nest, though they might not know any better... and Gutman (The Maltese Falcon) would probably also spike my drink and steal my artifactbird. And I think Rolf (The Sound of Music) would probably ditch me to be a Nazi. Harsh. Why am I choosing these people?!

What other questions would you have asked about these movies? I'd love more ideas! Leave your thoughts, reactions, passionate defenses and harsh critiques in the comments!

#31: The Maltese Falcon

It was a dark and stormy night...

Okay, it just goes to show that I'm a product of the 90s when I say that the next film on the list reminded me of a Tracer Bullet story (thanks, Calvin). John Huston's 1941 thriller The Maltese Falcon represents a film genre so far undervalued on this list -- film noir -- so while I'm not sure I agree that it's a brilliant film, it does perfectly personify the tropes of Hollywood crime drama that became so popular throughout the middle of the century, and which still heavily influence modern cinema.

Company: all on my own, like our antihero and our antiheroine.

Cuisine: chips and queso and a whiskey Diet.

The stories in this genre usually follow a certain number of rules: a cynical detective (here played by, who else, Humphrey Bogart) takes the case of a distressed damsel with a secret (played effectively by anyone, it seems, since little is required besides beauty, but here played well by Mary Astor) and solves it in moody lighting accompanied by alternately swoony and murky violins. The case usually has elements of deceit, long-kept secrets, ancient artifacts, or humongous booby trap boulders chasing you down. Okay, well, that last one is really just in Raiders of the Lost Ark (influenced, too, by film noir).

Here, in a screenplay based on Dashiell Hammett's novel of the same name (that had already inspired two films), Sam Spade (Bogart) is a hard-boiled copper with a cocked fedora and a cocky attitude. When his partner Archer, assigned to trail a man in question, is murdered, he forges on alone. It's telling that in the moment he learns of Archer's death, Spade hardly reacts, barely even emotionally registering that this has happened: we get the sense that this has happened before, and considering how swiftly he gets Archer's name taken off the window decals, Spade is probably used to it. One of the hazards of the trade. But there's no time for nonsense, and Huston believes it, too, as we're whisked immediately into this story.

Don't look now, Spade, but you're being trailed yourself.

Spade is an old pro at these sorts of cases, and he's a prototype: self-assured, clever, resourceful and attentive to detail. There's not much guesswork to be made here. This kind of film, although this was one of the first of its ilk in America, was made over and over again in the 1940s and 1950s, the way romantic comedies are churned out of Hollywood now, but in the same way that we know the guy and the girl will end up together at the end of those movies, we know here just what to expect ... and yet we're on the edge of our seats anyway. A man is following him! What is he up to? Who does he work for? I bet it's some fat cat, out to hurt/extort a dame!

"I'm so tired of lying, not knowing what's a lie and what's the truth."

Lookit! A dame!

Lookit! A fat cat (Oscar nominee Sydney Greenstreet)! Ooh, and don't forget a creepy villain with a whispery weirdo voice and whites-all-the-way-around eyes (who else? Peter Lorre)! All the elements are lining up! Add on top of that the low-key direction and high-contrast black-and-white style, and the audiences will start lining up!

I mention all these partially because The Maltese Falcon feels like a movie you've seen before, even if you haven't, because it's so purely noir, and that seems like the reason it's on this list rather than its quality. It represents an entire generation of moviegoers who grew up listening to these detective stories on the radio or reading comic books under the covers at night, hoping that Tracer Bullet would solve the case. Those people who grew up watching these movies are probably a big part of the reason why there's ten editions of Law and Order and three editions of CSI: Crime Investigation. An audience loves an exciting problem, stock characters and a quick, clean wrap-up. I don't mean to belittle this genre at all -- I love all those things too! -- but I mean to point out that sometimes you don't need to reinvent the wheel to make a classic story. That might be what I take away from this genre (which I should see more of, by the way).

Oooh, so creepy! Love it!

My legitimate complaint about this entry into the film noir genre is that in the climax of the film, where everything is explained... everything is explained. Nothing is visually created for us. So much of the story has to be summarized by characters summarizing it onscreen -- couldn't we see all this unfolding? Or maybe that would have given too much of it away? It does feel anticlimactic to me -- the title treasure is unwrapped, it looks just like you expect it to, and then you're told that it's a fake? So what happened to the real one? Well, let me explain it to y-zzzzzzz...

Now of course, this is one of the earliest films noir (?), and opened the door for the genre to define itself over many years and through many scholarly debates and inspired blogs like this one (ha), so it can't be blamed if it's not the pinnacle of the category. But it's John Huston, and it's Humphrey Bogart, so it's here. I'm not 100% entranced by it, but I'm intrigued enough to explore.

Wow. This entry's maybe half the length of the one for The Godfather Part II. Fitting, maybe, since the movie itself is about half as long too. Ah well. It's time for another cine-smackdown, and then -- more Brando, please! Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was the book you read in high school, even though maybe you should have just watched Apocalypse Now instead.

May 10, 2011

#32: The Godfather Part II

Pretty much without fail, I've kept this movie-watching experience in order, starting at the bottom of the AFI's list and climbing up. Sometimes it feels like I'm Sisyphus, but I digress. I bring it up at all because Frances Ford Coppola's 1974 epic The Godfather Part II is the only sequel on the list, and so it felt weird not to watch the first film too, not because I hadn't seem them both before (I had), but because the second is such a companion piece to the first and benefits from the context of the original. It was all one book, folks (which I've read and highly recommend), and really, Coppola meant the first two parts to be a pair, with the third film (which I haven't seen all the way through) functioning as an epilogue. Food for thought. And SPEAKING of food!

Company: this was the biggest of all the diablogue events so far, and I hope it's a trend I can continue. A lot of movies here are a tough sell ("anyone wanna come over and watch Intolerance?") but The Godfather ranks among the best regardless of who you ask, and a lot of my friends hadn't seen it and had always meant to. Those folks included my roomie Kecia, Italian meatball maker; Alex, actress and Brando impersonator; Marisa, childhood friend and close buddy to Kecia; Marie, movie maven; Ali, movie maven; Anna, sister who is not that old; and Stephanie, sister who is not that much younger. A couple ringleaders had seen these: Matt, pianist and film fanatic, and Matt and Katie, bringers of salad and wine. All of us watched the first film (which I'll blog about in a few months, I suppose) but only the Matts made it all the way through both. That's eleven people in our little living room! Movies bring us together.

Cuisine: spaghetti with homemade meatballs and marinara...

... delicious Caesar salad...

... an incredible antipasto platter provided by pianist Matt ...

... along with garlic bread, gelato, and enough wine to keep the entire Corleone family good and drunk. It was a feast of epic proportions; would that they were all like this, that all the movies lent themselves so easily to thematic food!

Okay, onto the movie.

The second film in this series functions as a parallel prequel and sequel to the first, chronicling both the early childhood and young adult life of Vito Corleone in the early 20th century as well as the rise of Michael Corleone after his father's death in the middle of the century. Marlon Brando had already immortalized the Don in the first film (to Oscar-winning effect, although he famously declined the award), so the audience is hungry to understand the complex character. Orphaned at nine years old and sent to America to escape the mafia, he is destined to become the leader of one himself. This story serves the audience by emphasizing exactly how little he had starting out, while in the present day we see the immense scope of his power.

Cut to 1958, when the Corleone family, now led by Michael (Oscar nominee Al Pacino) after the death of father Vito and eldest son Sonny, has relocated to Nevada in order to gain controlling of the burgeoning gambling business. The shot above is beautifully reminiscent of the opening sequence in the first film, in which Michael's father sits in a very similar office, listening to pleas for help. This time, however, the Don is listening to Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin), who despises the crime family and demands kickbacks. Michael's counter-offer: nothing. Bad ass.

But life has grown more dangerous, not less, in Nevada. Michael and his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) are ambushed in their bedroom and luckily make it out alive, but the safety of the family has been compromised. Something must be done. Michael flees and leaves consigliare Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) in charge, not, as would be custom, his younger brother and underboss Fredo (John Cazale, gone too soon).

Meanwhile, young Vito (Oscar winner Robert De Niro) is depicted as having fallen into a life of crime, seeing it only as a way to attain the American dream and grow powerful enough to someday avenge his family's murders. This half of the story definitely supports the contemporary half, but it's interesting nonetheless to see the beginnings of friendship with criminals we've met later in life in the first film, and more importantly, his single-handed victory over Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin), the reigning crime boss in his neighborhood who cost him his humble clerk job.

Revenge is sweet, and wrapped in a towel disguise so it's quieter.

What's most unnerving about these flashbacks is the easy tendency toward violence, whether inherited or out of necessity, that Vito possesses. Is Vito (Andolini) Corleone a man of nature or nurture? I think with these questions, Coppola and Puzo (who co-wrote all three films, based on Puzo's novel) are making a statement about the ruthlessness of American capitalism. Criminal politics don't function so differently from our own government, and in fact they are woven from the same thread in Coppola's overwhelmingly bleak vision.

And its downfall is at stake, as Michael meets tycoon gangster Hyman Roth (Oscar nominee Lee Strasberg) in Havana to discuss possible investments there that Michael believes will be rendered useless by the possible upheaval of the Cuban government and its takeover by a young Fidel Castro. This section is long and somewhat confusing to a first-time viewer, but essentially Michael is caught in the middle, believing that Roth ordered him dead, and betrayed by his brother Fredo. "I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart."


The film's dense plot involves so many subplots and sub-subplots that it's difficult to even summarize the film (go read the synopsis on Wikipedia and you'll see what I mean), but the film expounds on the first film's affirmation that the Corleone family's reach extends so far as to keep it safe from government interference, even when Michael and his family are put under federal investigation. The scenes in the court room are fascinating: while Michael appears to be lying out his nose, nothing around him would prove it since loyalty to him is so far-reaching that the frustrated men on the other side of the table have little to no corroborating evidence. The Matts and I were amazed.

"At this moment I feel no love for you at all. I never thought that it would happen but it has."

But Michael Corleone makes his ruthless father look like an angel in comparison. While Vito was calm, collected and relatively level-headed, Michael's let the power go to his head, and why wouldn't he? In his position, I can't say I wouldn't be a paranoid mega-bully too. But it's destroyed his relationship with his brother, about whom he says "I don't want anything to happen to him... while my mother's alive," and more fatally, his wife. The ultimate binding loyalties of marriage and brotherhood have been broken, and they'll have brutal consequences for all involved.

Only at the film's end, after the triple climax of assassinations and deaths, do we truly see Michael Corleone for the monster he's become. As he sits alone at the estate overlooking the lake, we contemplate his fate as the film fades to black. Betrayal and ruthless vengeance: a memoir. Harshest of harsh.

The Godfather Part II is longer than the first film by about 20 minutes, clocking in at nearly three and a half hours, and it can't claim the same sense of urgency and efficiency of the first, but the real power of the film lies in its dual depictions of father and son at the same age in parallel stories. Next time I watch these, I think I'll do it on different nights -- six and a half hours is a long time to watch one extended story.

I'll be excited to come back to this in a few months (December, if my pace holds and I can finish the blog by the new year) and compare the films side by side. Hope you'll join me!

Next up: from 1941, The Maltese Falcon. Another that I have no idea about, but I've been pleasantly surprised before and hope it'll happen again. Until then!