Posts Tagged ‘Movies’


by Adam-Troy Castro

A few words of explanation: while the examination of movies and their remakes will continue to be the major purpose of this blog, it is not the only movie writing I have done, nor will it be the only movie ranting I intend to do here. What follows is a previously-published blog post on the subject of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and its much inferior “Director’s Cut,” Apocalypse Now Redux. Consider it a palate-cleanser before the next big remake essay, still a week away. A-TC

Is more of the same too much? That’s the question that greets viewers of the restored, re-edited version of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War fantasia, Apocalypse Now, a film that codified genius in its first release and is here presented under a different title, with almost an hour of scenes cut from its original release. The critical consensus is that the re-edited version embarrasses current Hollywood product by emerging as the best film of the year. That happens to be more or less arguable, but that, alas, is more a commentary on the bankruptcy of so much of today’s filmmaking than it is on the the quality of the restored material. For while Apocalypse Now Redux contains much that is brilliant, it is almost entirely material that appeared in the previous release; the additions, while interesting on a historical level, dilute rather than enhance the impact of what appears on screen. It is all too often easy to see why these scenes were cut during the first release. They were either redundant or just didn’t work.

Both versions of the film are loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness,” transferred from Africa to Vietnam. In both, a troubled, burnout military assassin named Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is assigned by a group of officers that include a young Harrison Ford to seek out and “terminate, with extreme prejudice” the rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who is now somewhere in Cambodian jungle, operating a private war with natives and AWOL soldiers who “worship him like a God.” In both, Willard undertakes this journey up the river in a small patrol boat with several navy men who know nothing of his mission except that “it’s gonna be hot”; in both, he experiences so much surreal military madness on the way that by the time he gets to Kurtz he isn’t sure whether he wants to kill Kurtz or join him. Both versions suffer from a wonky geography, of the sort that requires a major military action just to get the boat into the river but then allows the crew easy contact with USO shows and mail drops much further upstream. Both versions end with the bloated Kurtz droning on about his philosophies at such length that the eventual assassination seems less like Willard carrying out his assignment and more like Willard doing something, anything, to get the blowhard to shut up.

It’s the journey to Kurtz that provides both versions of the film with its memorable power, but the meat of the journey is contained in the shorter version. Take the film’s greatest set-piece, an encounter with a mad Colonel named Kilgore. Duvall plays the role as if his life depended on it, giving what might have been the best performance in a career filled with great ones.  Kilgore is, now and then, one of the most chilling and perversely funny creations in the history of film: an arrogant, swaggering military man so lost in his own myth that he reacts not at all to explosions taking place right next to him. Willard knows at once that Kilgore knows he won’t be killed no matter what he does, a quality that makes him frightening even to an assassin like Willard. Kilgore, who blasts “The Flight of the Valkyries” from his choppers because it “scares the hell out of the slopes,” isn’t an evil man; he’s capable of wanting to give water to a wounded enemy soldier, but so easily distracted even from such moments of potential nobility that he walks away without providing the wounded man with so much as a sip. The distraction? Sheer fan-worship of a stoned Californian PFC named Lance (Timothy Bottoms), who happened to be a legendary surfer before being drafted to Nam. Kilgore, an avid surfer himself, mounts an airborne blitzkrieg on an enemy village not because it furthers Willard’s mission, but because access to its quality surf will provide Lance an opportunity to show his stuff.

 
What follows, a massive and terrifying aerial assault on both soldiers and civilians, for the most trivial of reasons, is one of the most indelible (and most elaborate) battle scenes ever filmed, all the more terrifying for the absurdity of forcing soldiers to surf under heavy fire. It ends, of course, with a genial Kilgore delivering the film’s best speech, declaring how he loves the smell of napalm in the morning. “It smells like…” he gropes for the word: “Victory.” Sheen’s character, a pretty cold-blooded bastard himself, stares at him in astonishment.

It’s a great moment. And in the film as originally released, it’s a punchline. But the restored print adds more. The napalm has blown out the waves, so Lance can’t surf.  The Colonel throws a tantrum about it. Willard takes advantage of the distraction to get Lance back to the boat so their mission can continue. Lance steals a surfboard. Everybody in the crew, including Willard, shares a hearty laugh as, shrouded by jungle canopy, they hide from helicopters broadcasting demands for the board’s return.

This is wrong, wrong, wrong.

We establish at the beginning of the film that Willard’s a major burnout case: alcoholic, self-destructive, even suicidal. He wants a mission in part because it’s all he’s good at, and possibly in part because he wants to be killed on the way. He never smiles at all during the edited film. Allowing him to laugh, and even to indulge in hijinx, humanizes him in precisely the wrong way. It also lessens the impact of everything that happened before with Kilgore. Coppola was correct in removing this scene the first time, as it deals the film a heavy blow. There are unfortunately others to come.

Another of Apocalypse Now’s set pieces is an encounter with a travelling USO show, where three Playboy playmates gyrate and shout come-ons to soldiers who then riot and force them to flee. In the original, this is a wonderful dark bit of comedy, contrasting the empty consolations of entertainment with the violence more central to the soldier’s lot. The re-cut version eventually brings us to an abandoned base where the chopper ferrying the playmates has gone down. Willard, humanized still further (and again, in the wrong way), trades their road manager precious fuel in exchange for getting his boatmates laid. What follows is grotesquely comical coitus interruptus as the Playmates, so busy chattering about nothing that they don’t even seem to notice the imminent sex, allow themselves to be used in a chopper containing occupied coffins. None of it plays: not the soldier who begs one Playmate to pose exactly as she did on her centerfold, not the same Playmate’s endless monologue about her birds, not the other girl’s emotional collapse about posing nude, and not the punch line involving the horny 17-year-old inner city kid Sweet, who has been pacing around waiting for his turn.

It’s wrong, wrong, wrong in part because the girls don’t come off as characters, in part because it stops the film dead, in part because it’s way too obvious that the film does what it can to get only the white soldiers laid, in part because procurement seems way out of character for the emotionally dead Willard, and in part because it defuses the tension that should be building at this point in the story — but mostly because it really has nothing to do with anything. The film has already made the presence of the Playmates, in the context of the war, grotesque; bringing them back for a little sex comedy adds nothing and subtracts a lot. Again, Coppola was correct to remove this scene in the seventies, and misguided to replace it now.

The longest of the film’s restorations occurs way upriver, after Sweet’s death, when the crew of the little boat discovers a crumbling plantation still occupied by its original French owners. The frenchmen live with their own private army, repelling assaults by both sides as they stubbornly hold on to that which they insist is theirs. There is a military funeral for Sweet, adding nothing, followed by a profoundly dysfunctional family dinner where the embittered frenchmen harangue Willard with a history of the french involvement in Vietnam. Some critics love this scene, considering it as surreal as anything that comes before or after. It is surreal, all right, but there are still problems with it, as the little history lesson (shouted in thick accents),  feels way out of place in a film that otherwise functions better as a nightmare than it does as a realistic portrait of the average soldier’s experience in-country. (I mean, give me a break). It also goes on way too long, and stops the film as dead as the second Playmate encounter, but that’s a minor point. What’s absolutely wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG, is Willard’s subsequent seduction by the beautiful french woman whose husband has been killed. This is the same guy who, we’re told at the onset, returned from his first tour unable to speak a word to his wife until he said yes to a divorce. This is the same guy who needed a mission because he wasn’t able to do anything else. Giving him a bittersweet encounter with a spacey french broad, whether she smokes a mean cigar or not, is the greatest mis-step in the re-edited version — and it’s even worse when you consider that these scenes, which feature the french broad going on and on about the two sides of Willard’s nature, also also include the only sappy syrup-music in the entire film. The brilliant making-of film, Heart of Darkness, shows us Coppola throwing a temper tantrum after several days of filming the sequence, cursing that it’s shit and doesn’t work. He was right then, and he should have resisted the temptation to restore it.

The most problematic sequence in either version of the film is the encounter with Kurtz, played by a Marlon Brando who showed up on the set weighing far too much to be a believable Green Beret (especially a dying one). Brando had yet to become comfortable with showing his increased weight on film, and insisted on being photographed only in extreme shadow. His mostly-improvised scenes are rough going even though he did produce a memorable monologue about an atrocity involving  innoculations. Many viewers believe they don’t work at all. I take the position that they work just fine in the original film, where the abrupt change in tone takes place at the end of a film that up until then moves like a rocket. I feel that, as cut, Brando gave the film precisely what it needed at that point. But the recut version places Brando after the second playmate encounter and after the interminable plantation sequence; i.e. after the film has already squandered its momentum and cannot afford anything that slows the story still further. Worse, it adds even more slow-motion Brando, who at one point reads at length from TIME magazine. By the time Willard finally gets off his ass and provides Kurtz with the mercy killing he desires, the film feels like it’s been dead for more than an hour.

Apocalypse Now, whether Redux or not, still looks fantastic, with brilliant photography that accentuates every bead of sweat, astounding visuals that elevate warfare to the level of literal as well as figurative nightmare and surreal comic-opera performances from, in addition to those already cited, Frederic Forrest and Dennis Hopper. The original version was a flawed work salvaged from one of the great disaster-ridden productions in film history; among other things, it almost killed Martin Sheen. Coppola himself thought the film was a disaster until he heard the critical reaction. But he came closer to a disaster than he ever knew. Redux is that disaster. Somebody once said that writing is an exercise in killing your darlings, by which he meant that writers need the courage to remove the lines and scenes and little bits that fail to work as well as intended. With Apocalypse Now Redux, we learn once again that the same is true of filmmaking, and see, with perfect clarity, just how crippled even masterpieces can become when those murdered darlings are pulled moldering from their graves and returned to that which was vital and astonishing without them.


commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

True Grit. *** Starring John Wayne, Glenn Campbell, Kim Darby, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, from the novel by Charles Portis. Directed by Henry Hathaway. Released 1969.

True Grit. **** Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailie Steinfeld, Josh Brolin. Screenplay by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, from the novel by Charles Portis. Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Released 2010.

Other Known Versions Not Covered Here: True Grit (TV-movie, possibly a series pilot, 1978; starring Warren Oates as Rooster Cogburn; more a sequel than an actual remake); also Rooster Cogburn (1975), theatrical sequel starring John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn.

*

It all comes down to dirt and lighting.

There are any number of great movie westerns prior to 1969, when True Grit was made, but to modern eyes, even many of the best of them look awfully antiseptic, more like the theme-park frontier town of Westworld (1973) than the actual dusty, unwashed, primitive, blood-soaked actual American west. The cowboys and gunfighters riding for days on end to get from one clapboard outpost of civilization to another may never change their clothes once between Desolation and Despair, but somehow they almost look minutes from their last hot shower, a short drive from a clothing change, one phone call away from a proper dentist. There are exceptions, of course; you need look no further than The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) to find a town where the saloon is clearly a dusty refuge for dusty men, and people organize lynching parties because that may be the only entertainment option that beats another long night spent listening to their grizzled neighbors suck food particles from between their few remaining teeth. But that movie was in black and white, which among other virtues can cut to the heart of the matter by eliminating the often false gloss bestowed by color. In all too many others, even those that work on other levels, the saloons, the hotels, the general stores, and the sheriff’s offices are all awash with steady light even at midnight, the illumination suggesting vast track lighting just above the frame; and the costumes suggesting that nobody in the old west was ever dirty, unless they were drunks who could be reformed and bad guys too mean by their very natures to rush down to Pop’s General Store for a six-pack of Irish Spring.

In 1969, this was just starting to change for the dying cinematic genre known as the western, in part because of the influence of foreign filmmakers like Sergio Leone and domestic ones like Sam Peckinpah, not too mention the technical advances that permitted scenes to be filmed in natural or dim light. The Wild Bunch (1969), released at almost the same time as the original True Grit, was then revolutionary in its presentation of a world where life was cheap, gunfights were not just deadly but ugly and brutal, and the right people didn’t always survive. But we were still years off off from the saloons of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Unforgiven (1992), bars where it really didn’t matter whether anybody had bothered to clean your glass or sweep the floor – let alone mop up the bloodstains – because it was just too dang-blasted dark in there to tell the difference anyway. The brightly-lit, well-scrubbed westerns sometimes give the impression that there wouldn’t be all those gunfights in the street if there weren’t some people created, perhaps off the assembly line, just plain bad; the newer ones that did a better job at capturing the ambience establish at a glance that life in this place and time is brutal and short and that regular showdowns between killers shooting at one another at close range might be the only natural reaction.

There are hints of this in the Hathaway version of True Grit, which movie icon John Wayne called the first real role anybody had given him in twenty years. You couldn’t not provide those hints and still provide a recognizable version of the hard-drinking, one-eyed, fat old Marshal Reuben Cogburn. His living conditions are exactly the same as those described in the Charles Portis novel, and later portrayed in the Coen Brothers remake. He lives in the back room of a dry-goods store, on what looks like a hideously uncomfortable rope bed, with missing cords that ensure he sinks halfway to the floor throughout the night. He shares his space with sacks of grain and a well-fed population of rats who feed with relative impunity thanks to a cat named General who can’t be bothered to kill them. At night, he drinks himself to oblivion with whiskey he has confiscated during his law-enforcement activities of the day; since he spends nothing on booze and doesn’t seem to spend much on rent or clothing, and has no dependents, it’s a relative mystery what he does with the pittance he earns for going after fugitives. (My theory is that he buys even more booze.)

Any close examination of this lifestyle, added to the subsequent revelations that he’s estranged from his family, can only establish him as a wreck of a man, living an empty and joyless existence punctuated only by the one thing he’s good at, killing.

And yet, with the evidence right there in front of our eyes, it’s not the impression we come away with watching John Wayne play the part.

In the 1969 True Grit, Reuben Cogburn is downright cuddly: a standup fella we’re downright happy to accompany for two hours.

It’s not due to any failure on his part as an actor. Though he did not possess anything close to the on-screen versatility of Jeff Bridges, John Wayne’s movie career possessed its share of nuanced roles, challenging roles, and even just-plain unlikeable roles. You only have to see his turns in Red River  (1948) or The Searchers  (1956) to know that he was capable of capturing a certain authentic human darkness.

But that human darkness seems absent from the 1969 True Grit. That movie’s Cogburn may be an alcoholic, poverty-stricken fat man who happily takes on the job of killing a malefactor in exchange for what we would now consider spare change, but the film makes him a comforting presence in a world where, thanks to him, all the correct people will soon be killed, and everything will turn out to be more or less all right. It’s a performance that pleased his fans and won him the only Academy Award of his long career. But it somehow doesn’t feel quite real. It feels more like it emanates from that theme-park west of the brightly lit saloons rather than the muddy, messy realities of the actual one.

Why?

Well, there are many reasons for that, among them Wayne’s shaky health at the time. The movie protects him very well, but he had just lost a lung from cancer, and couldn’t walk much more than ten paces without exhausting the little breath he had. On screen this is easy as attribute to the character’s fat; there is only one moment where he seems to lose his wind in the middle of a long speech and has to take a fresh breath in order to continue. He’s also acting alongside Kim Darby, who was stiff and wooden and eight years too old for her part; and the even more wooden and charisma-free Glen Campbell, latest in a series of pop singers considered square even at the time who got shoehorned into a number of Wayne’s movies in what amounted to a transparent and spectacularly tin-eared attempt to court the youth audience. (Others had been Frankie Avalon and Rick Nelson.) Actors blossom opposite good actors and look worse opposite bad ones, and the only great actors in the 1969 True Grit are Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall, neither of whom is on screen much.

But the real problem is that John Wayne is not playing Reuben Cogburn, but John Wayne: and not the John Wayne he actually was, a guy who loved Gilbert and Sullivan and harbored doubts about his acting abilities, but “John Wayne,” the character played by John Wayne who may have had different names and job titles over the years but who was always recognizably “John Wayne,” an iconic figure who rarely altered from one movie to the next.

This can be defined as a movie star’s job, even when that movie star frequently plays other people; Bruce Willis is not always “Bruce Willis” and Clint Eastwood is not always “Clint Eastwood” and Jack Nicholson is not always “Jack Nicholson,” but you know exactly what I mean when I put those names in quotes and you know exactly what I mean when I put “John Wayne” in quotes.  By 1969 it referred to a rough-edged, tough-talking frontier man with a lifetime of standing up for the right thing, who will not bullshit and not waver in his duty, and who will at one point prove that he has a heart even if he plays all his emotional cards close to the vest.

The second you see John Wayne playing “John Wayne” in the rancid little bed where Reuben Cogburn lays his drunken carcass to sleep, you know that it’s really “John Wayne” and that you should trust him implicitly.

By contrast, the 2010 Coen Brothers film has as its center a lead, Jeff Bridges, who might have a gallery of great performances behind him, but who has never developed a persona that amounts to his name in quotes. He doesn’t bring Reuben Cogburn to him, as John Wayne did in 1969, but instead goes to Reuben Cogburn. And so you begin with an advantage that services the story of the Charles Portis novel: namely, that you don’t walk in already knowing who this guy is. You can see how debased he is, and this time it isn’t a beloved actor performing a bit, but a character whose circumstances can be felt. You don’t know what he’s going to do. You certainly don’t know whether he’s going to rise to the occasion, and how. You may really know, especially if you’ve seen the prior movie or read the novel, but you can be a little less confident, a little less certain that this Reuben Cogburn won’t let you down.

This permits a scene that never would have appeared in any John Wayne movie, the one in the 2010 film where Cogburn gets drunk and discouraged on the trail and declares that he’s tired of hunting a bunch of bad guys he ain’t gonna find anyway, and that he’s giving up. John Wayne’s Cogburn never wavered. He was gonna find his man no matter what. This Reuben is, at heart, a mean old failure who gave up on his family and took to the bottle and pretty much ended up a nothing; giving up is after all what he does, and it makes everything that follows play at a much higher level.

There are many other things the Coen Brothers did much better, in 2010, than Henry Hathaway and company did in 1969. They used a grungier, and more authentic sense of time and place. They cast a better, age-appropriate actress as Mattie and made damn sure that the movie was about her, not about the hero she enlisted. For the most part, they cast better actors in the supporting roles (or at least using some who performed at the same level that Hopper and Duvall did in 1969).  They honored the dialogue and distinctive voice of the Portis novel. They preserved the downbeat ending. They staged just about every dramatic high point (and I include the famous action climax, with the line “Fill your hands,  you son of a bitch!”), better than Hathaway did, among other things making sure we remember that the heroine is a 14-year-old girl who, formidable as she might be, is still a child who knows that she initiated this trail of vengeance and must now react to the sight of bad men reduced to cooling meat before her eyes.

This is crucial to capturing the depths of the story. In the 1969 film, when Mattie falls in the snake pit at the moment her violent quest reaches its conclusion, it is just another thing that happens. In the 2010 film, we are reminded (consciously or not) that she has compromised her innocence, and perhaps damned herself.

The Coens also trusted the audience in a manner that the makers of the 1969 film did not, by sometimes trusting us to figure things out for ourselves. In 1969, John Wayne’s Cogburn saw Mattie crossing the river on horseback after being left behind, and beamed, “She reminds me of me.” (There was, in 1969 movieland, no higher praise.) In 2010, Jeff Bridges’s Cogburn just watches her, his eyes stony. His thoughts, his emotions, are his own. When he subsequently stops La Boeuf from beating her with a switch, it’s possible to debate whether that’s because he thinks her chastisement has gone far enough…or despises La Boeuf… or has just been taken by surprise by an actual feeling for the girl. In 2010, we can’t know. In 1969, John Wayne told us.

It’s no contest, artistically, which is more satisfying.

*

{Response by Judi Castro

True Grit. *** Starring John Wayne, Glenn Campbell, Kim Darby, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, from the novel by Charles Portis. Directed by Henry Hathaway. Released 1969.

True Grit. ***1/2 Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailie Steinfeld, Josh Brolin. Screenplay by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, from the novel by Charles Portis. Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Released 2010.

Let me get this out of the way first off…  I am NOT a fan of westerns.  I had my fill of cowboy films every Saturday afternoon of my early years.  They were as inescapable to me as the war films on veteran’s day weekends.  Every saturday I was thrown into some gunfight or Indian attack on the fort or whatever.  Just the perfect fare for a young reader in love with fantasy/science fiction/horror and historical biography. Right!   But, a few so called westerns stood apart from this pack of blood.   True Grit was one of the noble breed that fell into my “not really a western” group of acceptable films. 

The story I remembered from my childhood told of vengeance by a person I could relate to.   Mattie, as played by Kim Darby, was in her later teens, but still seeking the man who killed her Pa.  I could go with that, I have a Pa, I would kill anyone who shot him, so that worked for me.  Hiring John Wayne,(bigger than life in every film I remembered), smart move on her part, even if he was playing at being drunk (an unconvincing act by him for the most part).   So far, no problem.  Then along comes  Glen Campbell and blows every line he can get his mouth around.  The man couldn’t even die well.  I mean geesh!  But at least his part was small and I could forget it between viewings.  Because, alas, yes, there were many, MANY, viewings of this film.  It starred on of my Pa’s film icons and in one of his most famous roles, and therefore became required watching.

Now, jump ahead 40 or so years, and the Coen brothers, who I consider to be a good film team despite the tendency to allow the fool to overcome,  saunter in and show us that the movie I have a vague fondness for from my childhood has nothing whatsoever to do with the original material, and they are going to show us all how it should have been put together.  Quite the act of chutzpah on their part, wouldn’t you say?   I mean my Pa couldn’t have been the only one to enforce the love of this classic onto his impressionable children, so the outrage heard around the net(world)  was understandable.

But, they did  what they set out to do.  They brought True Grit back to its source material and hired great actors to play the iconic roles.  Joel and Ethan Coen gained a new notch on my respectability meter with their production. 

I won’t compare the actors in the roles, it would be unfair to the original.  This True Grit is a capital W western, a film (not a movie) to be watched over and over.  The scenes and lines to be savored like a great meal.  So fully satisfying that even I, the hater of westerns, fell in love with this production. 

In writing this, I have not read Adam’s portion, and I will continue to give my opinions in this manner.  I hope that this format will be able to give our readers a glimpse into our discussions in the car and our living room, after we have watched these films and the remakes.