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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.

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Robert Benton’s adaptation of this Richard Russo novel is centered in the wintry environs of North Bath, NY, where everyone knows each other so well they can be regular poker mates while simultaneously failing each other in any number of ways. Paul Newman plays Sully, an off again, on again employee of property contractor Bruce Willis (who he is suing in a personal injury claim) and the only tenant in an old Victorian owned by Jessica Tandy (in her last role before her death). Sully is woven into the fabric of the town, but he is at heart detached and cynical, and the only hint we get of any warmth are in his interactions with Willis’s wife, Melanie Griffith, who suffers her husband’s callous infidelities with a defiance that saps her verve. When Sully’s estranged son (Dylan Walsh) shows up in the midst of a marital and professional crisis, Sully becomes re-engaged, recognizing his role in the community and accepting the responsibility that comes with it, a George Bailey for the 1990s

The film is alternatively very funny and sneakily touching. Benton expertly captures the claustrophobia of a small town and even its collective ethos without letting eccentricity become cloying. Almost all of the characters are good, and Newman, who was rightly nominated for an Oscar, is perfectly suited to the material.   Of Newman, David Thomson wrote:

As a young man, Paul Newman was so handsome he developed a sneer as if to frighten away the fans – the women, especially – who assumed he was ready and available. There were times when this arrogant manner seemed ready to dismiss not just most of his work, but anyone who took it seriously. He seemed to be saying, “Can’t you see – I’m not like this. I’m a real person, unfairly afflicted with movie looks. I’m Jewish!”

Newman was 30 when he first appeared in a movie; it meant he was a grown man, with hard-earned experience, before he started pretending in public. He had been three years in the Navy, as a radio operator; he had helped run his father’s store in Cleveland; he had been married and had children.

Later in life, the sneer fell away, along with the prettiness, until he was left a stoical old man with pain and losses, as well as the abiding perplexity that anyone should take him or acting that seriously. By then, he was one of the finest and most resolute old men in pictures – some achievement in a culture horrified by age.

The observation perfectly captures Newman in this picture.  Newman communicates the pain and loss in Sully in barely perceptible ways, and when he does so, he doesn’t linger in a manner at odds with his core.  He retreats to the crass aside or the blithe “oh well” and that’s that, making those moments of introspection and dawning even more affecting.  It’s a sharp and knowing performance.

The film suffers a few missteps.  Dylan Walsh, as Newman’s son, is badly miscast. He not only looks nothing like Newman, but he doesn’t share a teaspoon of his inner strength or mystery.  Worse, when he arrives with family and children, they are played too broadly, with modern domestic woes and a miscreant younger child (who nicknames a child with a hitting problem “Whacker”?).  So too is a very young Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the anal town deputy, and Josef Sommer as Tandy’s cowardly son.  In a movie where every other character plays the line between comic and grounded beautifully, these turns are a shame, if easily overlooked.

I only thought of this film because of Deadspin’s ode to Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday, and on reflection, Kilmer’s performance is not only the best thing about this western, it’s the only good thing about it. Thus, to have one performance account for 2.5 stars – that’s really something. But Kilmer’s languid, dissipated Holliday is a treat to behold.  He is having a blast with the role, and while everyone else is somber or uncomfortable (or both), he chews and chews and chews.

Unfortunately, no one else (except perhaps Powers Boothe, who actually twirls his mustache as the evil leader of the redlegs, Curly Bill) is having any fun. The Earps (Kurt Russell, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton) are dull as dishwater, particularly Russell as Wyatt, who decides that fury and blue eyes will see him through.  The villains, and there are scads of them from any number of sitcoms, look like they’re at cowboy camp. In fact, this whole movie has a certain slipshod, Eagles photo-shoot for Desperado quality to it.

The women are weak as well. As Kilmer’s moll, Joanna Pacula is just a hair shy of the cartoon Natasha, and Dana Delaney as Wyatt’s love interest lacks the lustful lure necessary to break down a rigid lawman. Delaney is a school marm, not a vamp; she doesn’t sizzle so much as reach room temperature.

Director George Cosmatos’ best efforts besides this leaden dog are Stallone vehicles, Cobra and Rambo: First Blood Part II. After Tombstone, he got one more feature (a Charlie Sheen vehicle) and that was that (he died in 2005). After Tombstone, which is a pedestrian, forgettable, script, writer Kevin Jarre penned The Devil’s Own and The Mummy and, again, that was that.

But oh what Kilmer does with what he’s given:

The charms of the character are legion.  As explained by Kilmer in a recent interview:

So Bob Dylan loves “Tombstone”, It turns out. I found out he was in New York so I called my friend and I said you know, I’d love to meet him, is there any chance and he says, “I don’t know, I’ll find out.” And the next call I got I thought was going to be my friend, but it wasn’t, it was Bob.

I was real excited, like a crazy fan, like a child; it was so great. Basically it was like nothing. It was like we were old friends, it was like “you want to come over?” and he was like, “yeah.” So, hangs up the phone, I was newly married and we had a baby and I went in and said “I think Bob Dylan’s coming over…I’m not sure, it could be a hoax…” 

He shows up and sits down and he wants to talk about “Tombstone”, but I just can’t, you know, nor can I talk about any of his stuff. Eventually he says, ‘ain’t you going to say anything about that movie?’ and I said, “do some ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and I’ll…” 

That’s what I said to him, basically I said no. I get like that sometimes. So I turned him down and, I thought, no one turns this guy down. Anyway, I felt like an idiot afterwards, well, yeah I could have said a few lines. They’re fun lines too, like people still ask me to say lines and now I’ll tell any schmo in the airport, I’ll say “I’m your huckleberry”, but I wouldn’t say it Bob Dylan! 

I felt so bad about it. I was like how could I make it up to him? So what I did was, I recorded “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” but as Doc Holiday and I put in all of the big lines from the movie into the song and made him a little tape

There’s not a scene in this Coen Brothers film I don’t like, and the story of a Clifford Odets-esque playwright’s (John Turtorro) introduction to the oily world of Hollywood is both visually and thematically ambitious.  But no matter the film’s striking look or intriguing interpretations (the mind of the writer, the dangers of solitude, the corruption of money), by the end, you feel trifled with, as if you watched a very meticulous parlor trick supported with a cast of broad, comic actors (John Goodman, John Mahoney, Michael Lerner) for no greater purpose than the goof.  Like The Hudsucker Proxy and Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink has its joys, but the feel is sterile and your investment unrewarded.       

On the heels of Robin Williams suicide, a review of one of the few films I liked him in is apt. Williams’ community college prof and shrink, a potential brilliant who became waylaid by love and is now stricken with grief at her passing, is not exactly an original character. We know he is there to guide the damaged savant, Will Hunting (Matt Damon), and we also know that when all is said and done, both characters will have taught each other something valuable about life. Still, Williams is very subdued and meticulous in this performance, the exact opposite of his manic persona that, with the exception of The Fisher King, became more schtick and adrenaline than acting over time. He exudes a patience and knowledge that elevates much of the film’s schmaltz, and when he is riled, it is on the bedrock of communicated internal pain.  It is a very fine performance and his sole Oscar for best supporting actor was well deserved.  He is similarly restrained, and thus effective, in The World According to Garp, Dead Poets Society and Insomnia.

As for the film itself, I’ve always been very torn. The concept is smart (a working class Boston kid is also a genius, sadly, mopping floors at MIT), Gus Van Sant’s direction is inventive (the slo-motion rumble to Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” is a particularly nifty scene), the exchanges between the Southie pals (Damon, Ben Affleck – again, proving he can be very good in small doses – Casey Affleck and Cole Hauser) is believable, there is actual heat between Damon and his romantic interest, Minnie Driver, and Elliot Smith’s musical contributions are memorable. On the downside, while Damon is quite good as the lead, his character is kind of one big cheat. Plagued by his own demons, we are supposed to empathize with Will, but he seems a rather selfish, smug prick throughout. And this, despite just about every assist you can give a protagonist – he’s lonely, he was shuttled from foster home to foster home, he was beaten as a child, his enemies are grotesque caricatures that lack only the villain’s mwahahahahahaha, and yet . . .

Perhaps it is just me, but I think it’s a toss-up here as to who is the real shit. I guess it goes to the Hah-vahhhd pony tail on the strength of the pony tail, but much of the film is Will Hunting sneering at and making fun of the uptight folks who admire his genius, and while seeking to profit from it, don’t do him any injustice at all.

It reminded me of Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome: “There’s Hawkeye and Trapper John back in Korea. I never did like those guys. They fancied themselves super-decent and super-tolerant, but actually had no use for anyone who was not exactly like them. What they were was super-pleased with themselves. In truth, they were the real bigots, and phony at that. I always preferred Frank Burns, the stuffy, unpopular doc, a sincere bigot.”

So, as the music swells, and Will Hunting escapes the clutches of Southie to chase love, I’m pretty sure he’s going to revert to being a big prick soon enough. Only now, Minnie Driver will be there to socialize him.

This is one of Spike Lee’s better films, an audacious picture of Americana (scored by Aaron Copland no less) that both mythologizes and indicts the sports culture while dramatizing the strained relationship between a convict father (Denzel Washington) and his son (Ray Allen), a prized high school basketball recruit. Washington is released from Attica with the promise of a lessened sentence if he can convince Allen to sign with the governor’s alma mater. He has one week to do it, and has to overcome several hurdles, the greatest of which is the fact that he is in jail for accidentally killing Allen’s mother in a domestic fight.

As in Summer of Sam, Lee’s appetite is enormous, and he typically tries to tackle too many issues in this sweeping story. He also includes a pointless subplot between Washington and a prostitute (Milla Jojovich) and indulges in his unfortunate penchant for speeches (Roger Guenveur Smith plays the local crime boss and delivers a PSA soliloquy on all the perils of fame that brings the picture to a screeching halt). But at the heart of the picture is Lee’s love for basketball, which he portrays as something truly majestic and unifying, skillfully interspersing old footage to punctuate the revered history of the game.

Washington is also commanding as the father who drove his son to succeed, and we see in him the love as well as the excesses of a parent who wants too much for his child. The scenes of a younger Washington pushing his little boy to be Jordan and their later one-on-one are beautiful and heartbreaking. Allen, an acting novice, does surprisingly well as the son, communicating the wonder of it all as the world opens itself for him.

This is a flawed picture, but Lee is working from the heart and shooting for the stars and it shows.

Not just historically inaccurate, but outright hostile to the facts, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart matches its puerile fantasy with cheezy romance, splatterfest battle scenes, and cartoonish characters (Patrick McGoohan plays King Edward Longshanks as Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Peter Hanley plays his son as if auditioning for La Cage Aux Folles). Then, there is the James Horner score that brings you back to the ye olde highlands of Busch Gardens. Naturally, like Robert Redford and Kevin Costner before him, the Academy honored an actor turned director with an undeserved Best Picture statuette. But Ordinary People and Dances with Wolves are merely pedestrian. Braveheart is bad through and through and often, excruciatingly so.

On the plus side, when you decide to rewrite history, you might as well give William Wallace a haircut straight out of Duran Duran.

Hungry like the wolf for FREEEEEDOOOMMMMM!!!!!”