Tag Archives: Francis Ford Coppola

Month in review: films of August

The month of August was a bit more productive in terms of film watching than the previous 3 or 4. Life has slowed down a little, even if this seems to be more like the typical calm before the storm.

In August I watched a total of 11 films for an average score of 3 out of 5 that could have been higher had I not watched the woeful “The Circle”on the last day of the month.

Without a doubt, the best film of the month was the Korean-American film Okja, bought by Netflix and directed by Bong Joon-Ho. Other worthy watches were The Founder, a biopic on the rise of Ray Kroc, the mastermind behind the McDonald’s empire; and The Rainmaker, a modest adaptation of John Grisham’s novel directed by the great Francis Ford Coppola.

OKJA (2017) [ 4/5 ]

Okja has it all: visual splendor, a thought-provoking storyline that says more than meets the eye, a handful of entertaining action sequences, some wonderful characters and the kind of over-the-top comedic performances that keep things light even when the film gets dark.

For director Bong Joon-ho, Okja is yet another statement piece against the ills and excess of mankind. The Host (2006) was a larger statement about man’s effect on the environment. Snowpiercer (2013) offered a post-apocalyptic view of a future where mankind had all but extinguished in a planet that had reclaimed itself after so much abuse. In Okja, the director tackle the indiscriminate practices of the food industry which, the majority of us, would rather ignore.

To do so, the film creates a wonderfully loveable CGI creature named Okja which is described as a super pig that was created in a lab by the same corporation that is now preparing to sell the meat en masse after a long PR campaign.The ultimate success of the piece is that it makes you root for the relationship at its center, that between a teenage girl named Mija (Seo-Hyeon Ahn) and her pet. In doing so, we might be tempted to advocate for better animal treatment, or turn ourselves into devout vegetarians. 

JOHN WICK 2 (2017) [ 3/5 ]

The first time Keanu Reeves’ embodied John Wick he was driven by revenge. His impetus that of a man with nothing to lose.

As far as sequels go, John Wick 2 starts with the wrong footing. No longer is there an emotional motivation for revenge beyond a mere desire to stay alive. So, from the beginning, John Wick lacks that kind of kamikaze attitude that made the original so wonderfully intense.

The film does have its share of pleasures, but most are expansions of ideas and characters that were already in place on the first installment.

As it was the case before, the fighting choreography is fantastic, even if it suffers from repetitiveness, and Keanu Reeves, channeling his brooding and hyper masculine alter ego, continues to be an effective action hero well past his Matrix days.

THE FOUNDER (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

After Spotlight and Birdman, this is now the third film in a short period of time that marks the triumphant return of Michael Keaton to the front and center of some of Hollywood’s A-list projects. This time, Keaton plays Ray Kroc, the famed businessman responsible for turning McDonald’s into a global brand. From beginning to end, this is Keaton’s film, inhabiting nearly every scene as a man so tired of failure that, when he finally encounters success, commits to stop at nothing to reach ever-greater heights. In many respects, The Founder is also the story of the modern American enterprise: a sort of modern Wild West where unimaginable riches can be attained as long as you’re willing to stomp on those whose values are at odds with unrestrained capitalism.

The Founder is a profoundly American film where money and access are the thing that dreams are made of. Keaton’s Ray Kroc is a nearly perfect representation of that ideal in an always entertaining and larger-than-life performance that effectively makes the man at its center both a villain and a hero.

ABOUT ALEX [ 3/5 ]

The moment a character walks in to his or her cheating partner is usually the moment a film runs out of ideas. Such is the case in About Alex, a film filled with half-baked storylines and half-built characters that seem to have come together, despite one’s attempted suicide, by little more than loyalty to a past spent together in college. About Alex is a film that resists its potential, taking shortcuts when the story asks for greater nuance and depth. On occasion we get moments of emotional resonance that fade away as quickly as they appeared, either by fault of the script, or by the uneven quality of the performances.

Having said that, the film does pick up towards the end, once the masks between these friends begin to fall, offering us some touching moments that get at the heart of the complicated relationships between these characters.

SILENCE (2016) [ 3/5 ]

It may come as a revelation to some that Martin Scorsese is a man of faith. In a career spanning decades that has seen the Italian American director at the helm of modern American classics like Raging Bull or Casino, there has not been much room for faith in his oeuvre beyond 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

Silence is Scorsese’s longest running passion project, a film deeply rooted in Catholicism, but not as an exclamation of its goodness, but rather as an exploration about the practical and human limits of faith.

Silence, like so many other Catholic-centric films, focuses on the nearly inexplicable devotion many people have towards the Bible’s teachings. Such blind abnegation, the film argues, almost capable to withstand inexcusable persecution, violence and torture.

Thematically, Silence is rich and thought-provoking but, sadly, it is also an overlong, tedious and repetitive two and a half hour affair that is filled with suffering, death, violence and unimaginable cruelty. Fortunately, the suffering pays off at the end, not by giving us a neatly wrapped happy ending, but by giving room to the other side of the coin, offering the Buddhist perspective in awesome scenes between Liam Neeson’s father Ferreira and Andrew Garfield’s father Rodriguez.

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (2016) [ 2.5/5 ]

The latest film set in the magical universe of J.K. Rowling follows Newt Scamander, a “magizoologist” and former Hogwarts student that finds himself in the midst of a crisis when he travels to New York City.

As apparent as its connection is to the Harry Potter franchise, the film relies too heavily on that thread, thinking it can make characters we can empathize with without giving them substance. It is a shame that Eddy Redmayne, who is supposed to be the focus of the film, ends up being the least interesting of the bunch.

It’s also remarkable that such a big-ticket Hollywood production can also “boast” special effects that are far less convincing than those found in an episode of Game of Thrones.

THE RAINMAKER (1997) [ 3.5/5 ]

A procedural courtroom drama with the rather simple story of a well-meaning and noble young lawyer fighting for justice against a rotten and corrupt system.

Based on a book by the best selling author John Grisham, this Francis Ford Coppola directed film excels in making us empathize with these characters, even if the story moves forward predictably and it is all too neatly resolved when the end credits begin to roll. A young Matt Damon, fresh off his success in Good Will Hunting delivers a nuanced performance that is both intense and soft, finding a balance between a decisive and confident adult and one that is just beginning to find his own voice.

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (2014) [ 3/5 ]

There are two parallel themes at work in the film. The first is about the psychological toll that an actress endures when her youth and the spotlight have been left behind. The second is about the connection that exists, purposefully or not, between a play she is preparing to participate in and her personal life.

Of the two, the second one is, by far, the more interesting and uncomfortable to watch, even if it becomes readily apparent what the film is trying to suggest.

As it often happens, characters who are emotionally hermetic, unable to speak truth about their inner tribulations, deny us the satisfaction of cinematic release. Thus making the film feel rather stale and impenetrable. Another problem is that Clouds of Sils Maria gives little voice to characters who seem to be important to the central story, teasing with depth that remains at an arm’s length.

The saving grace is that both Kristen Stewart and Juliet Binoche both deliver interestingly ambiguous performances that are open to interpretation.

CAMP X-RAY (201X) [ 3/5 ]

There is a good and a bad Kristen Stewart. As a soldier in Peter Sattler’s Camp X-Ray we see some of both. At times, Kristen is irresistibly natural, an extension of our awkward and most informal selves. At other moments Kristen is frustrating in that she never ceases to be that kind of actress, even if some scenes demand something a little bit different.

As valiant an effort as Camp X-Ray can be for exploring the subject of the military’s role in human rights violations at GITMO, there is a better film hidden underneath; the one that could have dared to go a step further and give Peyman Moaadi’s detainee a violent past, and not one that hints at innocence in a case of mistaken identity.

Perhaps it would have been a step too far to explore a friendship between an American soldier and a former terrorist, but it could have given the film the kind of daring reformist statement that I believe it needed.

THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN (2014) [ 3/5 ]

For the first time in the short history of this blog, I will give a passing grade to an absolutely terrible film. A production that lacks the kind depth, consistency and finesse that is needed in any film to have some semblance of artistry.

However, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn saves itself from total mediocrity by making Robin Williams flex his acting muscles one last time in order to sell us a rather unlikeable and angry middle-aged man who must confront his own mortality and take a look at all the bad choices he has made in his recent past.

It is, by no means, one of Robin Williams most nuanced or controlled performances, like we saw, for instance, in movies like Good Will Hunting and The Fisher King. Instead, it is perhaps Williams’ most indelible and harrowing performance given his untimely death by suicide shortly after the film’s release. I couldn’t help but see Williams’ incredibly sad eyes that, despite a wide smile and a lot of anger, could not be dismissed, even during moments of quiet happiness and cheerful introspection.

I miss his genius.

THE CIRCLE (2017) [ 1.5/5 ]

Not to be outdone by The Angriest Man in Brooklyn in terms of wasting talent, The Circle is the kind of mind-numbing exploration of science and its dangers that can make even Tom Hanks seem ridiculously unfit as an actor.

The Circle doesn’t surprise despite its every attempt to do so. The script is a mess of disparate ideas that are not explored sufficiently and with enough nuance. The parallels with Apple don’t exactly help it either because it is neither a direct imitation, nor a satire; instead, The Circle is this kind of uncomfortable in-between that does nothing but distract.

Emma Watson, who is often good, is absolutely terrible here, incapable of selling us her character’s arc, never quite providing enough insight to truly understand her motivations beyond merely superficial and obvious ones.

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IMDB Top 250: Platoon (1986)

Platoon

Genre: Drama

Cast: Charlie Sheen (Private Chris), Willem Dafoe (Sergeant Elias), Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger)

Director: Oliver Stone

Alongside Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Oliver Stone’s Platoon is the best representation I have seen of the devastation caused by the Vietnam War. Of the two films, Platoon’s approach is a bit less poetic, opting for gritty and harrowing realism, quickly turning into a fairly direct indictment of one of history’s most violent and pointless armed conflicts.

The film focuses on a group of soldiers who, in most cases, had been stripped of most (if not all) of their humanity by the time we are introduced to them on screen. War in Platoon is nothing to glorify, there are no winners, losers or heroes to be found. In the Vietnam of the film there are only victims and victimizers. There are no attempts at turning war into an entertaining sensory spectacle, nor are there any attempts to glorify violence and brutality in any way. In fact, the image of the American soldier is downright controversial, depicting battle-scarred soldiers that have long forgotten how to distinguish between right and wrong.

Continue reading IMDB Top 250: Platoon (1986)

IMDB Top 250: Ran (1985)

Ran

Genre: Drama, Epic

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai (Hidetora), Akira Terau (Taro), Jinpachi Nezu (Jiro), Daisuke Ryu (Saburo), Mieko Harada (Lady Kaede).

In Akira Kurosawa’s impressive oeuvre, Ran is often described as his most epic and ambitious contribution to the art of film making. Inspired by the Shakespearean tale of King Lear, Ran is delivered with the discipline of a perfectionist, with the visual richness of a master craftsman and the obsessive attention to detail of a director who had conceived the idea about twenty years prior to the release of the film.

After a long and fertile film-making period that spanned from 1944 to 1955, which included gems like Ikiru (the ending of which was part of my best moments in film history special found here) and Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s style had fallen out of fashion in Japan by the late 1960s. Once the pride of an entire nation, his films were considered conservative relics not to be reproduced. Beyond stylistic concerns, studio heads in Japan were particularly wary of Ran given its ambitious scope and how much it could potentially cost.

Continue reading IMDB Top 250: Ran (1985)

The Best Moments in Film History: The horror of war, “Apocalypse Now”

Today I return to my blog to continue with my series on “The Best Moments in Film History”.

After my first post touching upon the magnificent performance of Kevin Spacey as John Doe in Se7en, I switch gears to a touching moment in film personified by the timeless Marlon Brando.

By the way Apocalypse Now is constructed, the screen required someone with the presence and emotional power of Brando, Hollywood’s ultimate acting virtuoso, to bring the story arch to a satisfying close. The film had traveled, in a metaphorical and literal level, to a point in which it could have collapsed under the weight of its own expectations. Brando did not only bring the excellence of his craft to the fore, but all the mystery of his persona and the aura of greatness that accompanied him from early on in his career.

The success of a performance, as actors themselves would tell you, comes also from listening to other actors. In this film, Martin Sheen plays Captain Willard in a performance that is powerful because it is restrained. In the more of two hours of film, the Captain does a lot of listening and observing, acting as a small pawn thrown into the middle of the Lion’s den. When Willard becomes Kurtz’ prisoner, the Captain acts in reaction to the madness that surrounds him, in an attempt to stay alive and gain the trust of Kurtz until he can achieve his mission: killing him.

Marlon plays Colonel Kurtz as a man that has lost his mind but who, at the same time, can be rational enough to eloquently reveal part of the torment that haunts him.
When Colonel Kurtz decides to open up to his prisoner, the movie reaches its climax. Marlon lurks in the shadows, his face only revealed by strings of light as he’s sitting down eating a fruit. Slowly the Colonel speaks to reveal the horror that consumes him. The emptiness in his eyes is remarkable and we believe this is a man that has lost himself completely in the carnage of the conflict. There is no glimpse of hope, he is but a mere shadow of his former self and his words are poignant and bizarre enough to make anyone cringe:

I’ve seen horrors… horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that… but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… 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! I remember when I was with Special Forces… seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember… I… I… I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn’t know what I wanted to do! And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it… I never want to forget. And then I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men… trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love… but they had the strength… the strength… to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us

It can be argued that Apocalypse Now does have other moments that are indelible and helped make the movie what it is. However, if it had not been for the great Marlon and his hopeless words that summarized the goal of the film, there would not be an Apocalypse Now in any list comprising the best films of all time. For Brando it was perhaps the last great role of his incredible carreer, one that changed the concept of acting forever.

Niels

IMDB Top 250: Apocalypse Now (1979)

My challenge to watch the IMDB TOP 250 films of all-time continues.

Today is yet another pleasurable encounter with my keyboard as I get to review a very unique and accomplished film: Apocalypse Now.

At 153 minutes, Apocalypse Now is a very long movie that fails only in its lack of momentum which, at times, can make the movie drag a bit in its final few scenes. However, the film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, moves with a gentle pace so we can absorb and get to know the Vietnamese jungle intimately at the time of the American occupation following the rise of Comunism in the Far East. It is a film that, without a doubt, pays homage to its title by attempting, with great success, to capture the apocalyptical devastation caused by the war in the hearts and minds of the people of Vietnam, of American soldiers, and of a country that had grown doubtful of the whole military campaign.
For most of its length, the film follows Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) on a strange mission to assassinate a rogue Green Beret beyond the thick jungle and into the depths of remote Cambodia where he is believed to be. We first encounter Willard laying anxiously on his bed, back in the United States, narrating his inability to lead a normal life while his mind and heart had stayed in Vietnam. He waits for a new deployment, abhorring his new uneventful life away from the chaotic setting of the war. When Willard finally gets his wish and is reassigned to the war, he narrates from the future, explaining that the place he was headed to was the worst place in the world.
It comes as no surprise that the movie becomes more about the path than about the destination. After meeting with some officials that include a very young Harrison Ford, Willard is assigned a small group of soldiers to navigate across Vietnam and into Cambodia. Along the way we are reminded of the objective of the mission by Willard’s narration, but it slowly fades into the background as we are presented with the horror of the war and the collapse of the American endeavor.
First, Willard meets an official, masterfully played by Robert Duvall, who is portrayed as an odd mutation of the rigid West-Point trained officer, always walking with confidence and unafraid of his surroundings, as if he knew he wasnt meant to die in the war. Such confidence borders with insanity as he seems detached from what is happening around him and asks the impossible from his troops, repeatedly risking their lives more for his depraved entertainment, than for a true military purpose.
Like the officer, Willard encountered one odd situation after another, showing us an American force that was poorly trained, managed and directed, with soldiers that had lost their grip on reality, leaving morality far behind.

In this context, Willard begins to find a strange wisdom in the words and actions of the mad-man he is supposed to kill. Willard doubts the purpose of the mission more and more as it becomes clear to him that a rogue Green Beret is just a small problem in a war effort that is falling apart in front of his eyes.
In the more than 2 hours of the film, Willard remains the more sane of all characters, even when he is part of a mission with little purpose and that is depicted as a consequence to the insanity of the circumstances.
By the time Willard finally meets the rogue Colonel Kurtz, he is only with a couple of soldiers, trapped in a foreign world where madness was apparent everywhere, yet no one seemed to notice.
Sadly, the film anticipates the moment so much and for so long that even if the Colonel, played rather subtly by the great Marlon Brando, had been wearing an elephant head for a hat, we would have felt a bit let down by the “monster” Willard was supposed to encounter.

Above all, Apocalypse Now is an effective atmospheric poem about how pointless and tragic the War in Vietnam was. Marlon Brando, in this sense, becomes Coppola’s flagship to represent the ultimate American tragedy: a promising, smart and courageous leader of men driven to despair and insanity by the horror of a needless war.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 (masterpiece)

Niels