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Decade

Anyone who watches movies knows that some of the greatest offerings of falsity come in the package of authenticity, and this is never more so than when a filmmaker takes his shot at rural or back home America. The pitfalls are many, and invariably, films about the small town succumb to oppressive nostalgia (Hoosiers), salt-of-the-earth worship (Promised Land), the presence of an impossibly attractive lead as he or she slums (Mel Gibson in The River, George Clooney in The Perfect Storm), cutesy “we’re jes’ folks” condescension (Passion Fish), amped up mythology (Out of the Furnace) or just plain old moronic messages, like money doesn’t buy happiness or home is where the heart is or safe sex is the best sex.

There are exceptions (Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade, Carl Franklin’s One False Move, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone), but they are rare and they are not current. In Mud, Take Shelter, and this film, a story about two modern Arkansas families drawn into a violent confrontation upon the death of their shared patriarch, writer-director Jeff Nichols cements that he can translate the patterns, pace and feel of the small town like no other. The actors portraying the family members are natural and unburdened by archetype, and the town itself is not presented to you as a metaphor or cautionary tale, just a town.

What Nichols does with actors and setting he achieves with tone. The families are seemingly in as safe a place as you can be, but when their animosities surface, their very environment becomes foreboding, and the pressure mounts accordingly. As the calamities befall them, there are no revelations or Hollywood speeches or screenwriter dot-connecting. Nichols is content to let you be the judge of what it all means.

This was Echol’s first film, and that may explain its brevity (about 90 minutes). The result is some backstory that is a tad rushed, but nonetheless, this is a gripping, thoughtful picture.

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In the vein of “awful people who became awful because they suffered childhood trauma” family drama movies, this one is not half bad. That’s mainly due to Adam Scott, who is one of the more versatile and under-appreciated actors working today.  Scott plays the damaged, stuck in the hometown older brother who picks up his younger brother and the brother’s girlfriend from college and proceeds to fall in love with the latter. Scott is a depressive, an alternately cruel and then apologetic anti-hero, who maligns the girlfriend as a whore who will hurt his naive little brother. The problem is that she succumbs to his damaged entreaties, thus partially cementing his earlier uncharitable appraisal.

There is the obligatory childhood trauma and the big reveal, and it could all be so pat, except for Scott’s ability to communicate real suffering and writer-director Lee Toland Krieger’s insistence on taking these characters seriously instead of using them as charming archetypes to condescend to the audience. More to the credit, there is no wrap-up or deeper understanding. It starts messy and ends up hopeful but still messy, which is commendable.

There are problems.  The hometown is overpopulated by distinctive characters, the father (J.K. Simmons) is too seminal to be so underdeveloped and the hipster soundtrack is now so obligatory it borders on self-parody.  Still, a worthwhile watch on a rainy Saturday.  Thanks, Xmastime.

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(Reporting from the blizzard of ’16)

My childhood memories of kick-ass Clint Eastwood are vivid. I think I was first mesmerized by him as the cool, sardonic killer in the World War II drama Where Eagles Dare, and after that, as Dirty Harry Callahan, a cops’ cop, rejecting Miranda and spitting in the eye of pencil-pushing bureaucrats who were the real menace to San Francisco. Somehow, I missed the westerns, catching them in the 80s.

The Eiger Sanction was on the Channel 7 daily movie rotation, and I’m sure I saw it several times. It’s a testament to the sway of Eastwood that I did, because I watched it today, and the impact was decidedly different. Eastwood directed (his fourth feature) and let’s just say he wasn’t at peak form. Very pedestrian, and hum drum, it tells the story or an art professor (Eastwood) who is actually a retired assassin for the government. He is summoned by his former boss, a straight-out-of-early-Bond albino with a Germanic voice who will die if the sun touches him, and cajoled into taking on a contract, an unknown member of a party he is to join attempting to scale the north face of the Eiger mountain. Eastwood’s clue as to the man’s identity? The man has a limp.

The mountain climbing sequences are the best thing about the film. Eastwood performed many of his own stunts, and, certifying the danger, a stunt climber was killed in the filming. But this is a dated flick, not only in its blocky, unimaginative feel, but in its dialogue.  For example, the bizarre line Eastwood gives to a stewardess he is seducing: “You never know. Sometimes people do things…they thought they’d never do again. (pause). Like rape, for instance. I thought I’d given up rape, but I’ve changed my mind.”  And then they kiss and make love by the fire.

This is the second film Eastwood got after Paul Newman passed.  Newman was wrong about Dirty Harry but not this one.

I re-watched and reviewed Apocalypse Now a few weeks ago and followed it up with the documentary of its making, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola’s wife Eleanor and two others, the documentary intersperses Eleanor’s “home movies” of the extended shoot in the Philippines with participant interviews and actual film footage. The result is a gripping, informational remembrance from start to finish.  The story is incredible.  Coppola put up his own money against the profits and endured a host of calamities:  a change in lead actor (Coppola brought in Martin Sheen to replace Harvey Keitel after reviewing a few weeks of footage); a typhoon that destroyed many of his sets; a Philippine air force (standing in for American Vietnam-era air cavalry) whose helicopters would often have to leave in the middle of his shoots to fight rebels; Sheen’s heart attack, which delayed filming further; and finally, the bewildered behemoth that is Marlon Brando, who came to the shoot fat, unprepared, and mercurial, insisting on spending days talking about character motivation rather than shooting scenes. On this last fiasco, Coppola realized Brando had not read the book Heart of Darkness as instructed nor was he in any shape to adhere to the script, Unfortunately, Coppola had given $1 million to Brando to show up, and it was non-refundable. In a particularly tragicomic part of the documentary, Coppola explains that he made a decision to have Brando just walk around and improvise during his time on set, and some of the rushes are painfully funny, as Coppola tries to prompt some sort of usable dialogue from Brando, and Brando rejoins with pomposity and ultimately, a certain “can I just cash my check and get out of here?” weariness.

This is just one of many brilliant nuggets exploring the process of filming this audacious movie.

Lawrence Kasdan sought to revive the western, and thank God his vision of it failed.  We can thank better filmmakers for rejecting settling for sweeping camera shots, Aaron Coplandesque scores, and stories where all the heroes are Clean Gene goody-goodies spouting banal, wistful tripe.

It has a few inspired moments, such as Scott Glen’s opening shootout rising above White Rock, New Mexico and the final Kevin Kline/Brian Dennehy gunfight in the middle of the windy town.  Kevin Costner also showed real personality as Glen’s wild younger brother.

Other than that, it’s pretty awful, made even more silly by the gritty realism that followed in Unforgiven and HBO’s Deadwood.  Nobody misses when they shoot, even with a pistol from hundreds of yards away.  The town of Silverado also has the best and quickest dry cleaners around, because everyone looks so damn fine in their cowboy get-ups.

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Ladies and gents, The Village People!”

The language and attitudes are as new as the fashion.  Danny Glover is enlisted as the proud, honorable messenger of racial tolerance; Roseanna Arquette is the feminist landowner; and Kline is a gunslinger with a sweet disposition towards animals and women (Kline’s casting is peculiar; he seems too nice to be the town barber much less a desperado).  It’s all very precious, and for each of our enlightened characters, there are ten chaw-spitting, sneering henchmen to assure us of their goodness.  Bad picture, getting worse every day.

Richard Donner’s devil picture was a big hit in 1976, and 40 years later, it’s easy to see why. Rejecting the dour, sinister tone of The Exorcist, The Omen also lacks that film’s intelligence and gravitas. In its stead, however, is schlock elevated by top-notch performances (Gregory Peck, Lee Remick and David Warner play it straight and true, and Billie Whitelaw is chilling as a modern Mrs. Danvers) and some truly terrifying scenes. A suicide by hanging at a child’s birthday party, an impalement of a priest, and poor Remick’s two falls are memorable, as is the demon child’s first visit to church (he is not happy) and his drive through a wild animal park (they are also not happy).  But it also follows the rules of a mystery.  Clues are given, investigation follows, and then, terrible dawning.  Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar winning original score rejects subtlety, and even as over-the-top as it is, heightens dread.

Best, any film that ends with Peck about to stab a child with ceremonial knives and an unmitigated win for the devil has a place in my heart.

Of Apocalypse Now, Director and co-writer Frances Ford Coppola famously told a room full of reporters, “”My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” Putting aside the cockiness and disrespect of such a statement, it is fair to say the film (and it is merely a film) is about a certain concept of Vietnam, one unique at the time it was released. Most Vietnam films fall into three categories. The first uses Vietnam as a mere location for a story about man’s triumph over adversity (see The Hanoi Hilton, Uncommon Valor, Rescue Dawn, Bat *21). The second, in the tradition of The Best Years of Our Lives, hones in on the war at home and the effect of the conflict in a much-changed stateside (Rolling Thunder, Coming Home, Birdy, Jackknife, Gardens of Stone and even the ridiculous Forrest Gump).  The third category shows the war in-country and orbits a central thesis; the war was not only a bad war, but it was a pernicious war, one where America lost its soul, to the jungle, militarism, hubris, the military industrial complex, or some combination of same. The Deer Hunter, Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon all fit this bill.  Most of these films are well made . But none bear any resemblance to Apocalypse Now, a harrowing visual nightmare drawing from all three categories, paralleling a novel (Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) as interpreted by a macho right-winger (John Milius) and Coppola himself.

The film begins with a portrait of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), an intelligence officer and assassin, as he endures a drunken nervous breakdown in a Saigon hotel. Coppola got Sheen wildly drunk for the scene, baiting him with verbal cues to elicit a reaction, and the effect is mesmerizing; Sheen even cut open his hand smashing a mirror, which perhaps should have been a portent for Coppola (later in production, Sheen suffered a heart attack that significantly delayed filming). Here, Willard has already been home to find his world changed, and he is back, hollowed out and estranged from his family, to take a new assignment.

That assignment, to “terminate the command” of a rogue American Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has created his own army as a god-like figure in Cambodia, propels us forward, as we travel with Willard and his boat crew to a final confrontation. The trip is a grotesque menagerie. A thrilling and sickening helicopter attack on a VC area led by Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) shows American ingenuity, power and recklessness. I’d never seen a battle re-creation so skilled and visceral until Spielberg’s rendition of the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan 30 years later.

Further up the river, Hollywood comes to Vietnam, as the USO brings in playboy bunnies for the entertainment of troops who are this point so on the edge, a near riot ensues. The scene is jaw-droppingly audacious, a brilliant representation of Willard’s observation, “the more they tried to make it just like home, the more they made everybody miss it.”  Willard tell us that “[Charlie’s] idea of great R and R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death or victory.” Coppola’s juxtaposition?

The crew also searches a suspicious junk, and edgy and exhausted, opens fire on its passengers, almost all of whom die (one woman survives, briefly, but Willard puts her down with his pistol so his mission is not delayed). This is Coppola’s My Lai.  Even further is the Du Lung Bridge, a stalemate where GIs either beg to be rescued by the boat or hunker down in a drug-induced haze, in a never-ending firefight with the VC (Willard asks a wired GI “Who’s in charge here?” and gets the response, “Ain’t you?”). Through it all, Willard provides a voiceover, which is half Sam Spade evaluating the situation, half epitaph for everything that went wrong for America in Vietnam.

Unfortunately, Willard’s mission ends. He finds Kurtz, distressingly played by Brando, who has shown up solely for the check. Brando was fat, unprepared, and uncooperative. In a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone, Coppola protected the actor, but only so much: “I shot Marlon in a couple of weeks and then he left; everything else was shot around that footage, and what we had shot with Marlon wasn’t like a scene. It was hours and hours of him talking . . . . Marlon’s first idea – which almost made me vomit – to play Kurtz as a Daniel Berrigan: in black pajamas, in VC clothes. It would be all about the guilt [Kurtz] felt at what we’d done. I said, “Hey, Marlon, I may not know everything about this movie – but one thing I know it’s not about is ‘our guilt’!” Yet Marlon has one of the finest minds around: Thinking is what he does. To sit and talk with him about life and death – he’ll think about that stuff all day long.”

Brando’s deep thoughts notwithstanding, there is no way around it; the last 20 minutes of the film near grind it to a halt, even with the addition of a frenetic Kurtz acolyte played by Dennis Hopper.  It is a testament to Coppola’s gifts that he was able to utilize Brando’s ramblings in as coherent a form as he did.

It hardly matters.  The film is otherwise a masterpiece and should be watched in conjunction with the documentary of its making, Hearts of Darkness, A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.