RIVER PHOENIX – 2 Scenes

Symposiums - Reverse Shot
photo courtesy of Reverseshot.org

The greatness of River Phoenix is only underscored by the tragedy that he has been gone for 27 years. Many artists have died without ever realizing their full potential. River Phoenix not only realized his full potential but soared past it in a way that made you think the possibilities of his talent were endless. Look at the career that Leonardo Dicaprio has had and try to imagine River Phoenix in those same roles or possibly the two megastars sharing the screen. And what about the outstanding career of his younger brother, Joaquin Phoenix, and the thought that movie fans could’ve been watching them compete for awards while giving the audience unforgettable performance after another. Unfortunately, the world lost a beautiful soul when River Phoenix passed away but his performances and legacy will live on forever. Two films he made in 1991 are true classics in the portrayal of a lonely, sensitive, brooding outsider. A role that Phoenix perfected, maybe because it was so close to who he really was.

DOGFIGHT (1991)

River plays Eddie, a young Marine on the eve of his deployment to the simmering situation in Southeast Asia that would become the Vietnam War. The film’s title refers to the inciting incident of the film when Eddie and his fellow Marines scour the streets of San Francisco for dates to a “Dog Fight.” This is the crude title of a contest where whoever shows up with the ugliest date wins a cash prize. Eddie settles on Rose, a waitress and aspiring folk singer played by Lily Taylor. The two are perfect opposites as they wander the streets for a night with Eddie looking around every corner for a fight while Rose preaches about non violence and being more understanding of the people around you. Rose’s compassion wins over Eddie’s gung ho attitude and the night culminates with them making love and promising to write each other while Eddie is away at war.

The end has Eddie back where he was at the start of the film in San Francisco and limping around the same streets he and Rose had drifted through together. This is where River Phoenix’s brooding intensity shines as he stops into a bar, dressed in his fatigues, and orders a beer. The bartender and two patrons don’t know how to treat the returning veteran so they make an awkward attempt by buying him a beer. Eddie, noticeably limping, crosses the street and enters Rose’s cafe. In this scene, which runs over two minutes, the star of the film says two words: ‘Rose?’ and ‘Hi.’ River Phoenix could have said nothing in this scene because it is his eyes and face that do all of the talking. With his hair slightly messed up and pushed down on his forehead, he looks like a little boy, his face on the verge of crumbling. It is finally when Rose hugs Eddie that he lets go and allows her to comfort and love him. Alternating close ups show the emotion on both actors faces as they contemplate what this reunion means. Rose looks a little frightened where Eddie looks remorseful and grateful to be back in Rose’s arms after everything he has just gone through.

MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)

The role of ‘Scott’ in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho would be a courageous choice for an actor in 2020 let alone in 1991 when it was made. It amazes me how many courageous and challenging roles River Phoenix was able to squeeze in in such a short period of time but none more than this role where he plays a male prostitute who suffers from bouts of narcolepsy and memories of an abusive childhood. So many great wide landscape shots with only Phoenix on the screen show this man’s isolation from the world around around him. Phoenix drifts through these beautiful landscapes for the entire film, from Idaho all the way to Italy and back, as he says “this road will never end. It probably goes all around the world.”

This film is extraordinary in the brilliance of its subject matter coupled with some truly beautiful filmmaking. One scene that I believe makes the entire film was one that was actually written by Phoenix himself. The ‘Campfire’ scene. While not in the original script, Phoenix decided the character of Scott needed to tell Mike, played by Keanu Reeves, how much he loves him. Phoenix stares at the fire, a soft orange glow illuminating his face, and tells Mike that he knows his life has been hard due to trauma from his childhood. While Mike tries to brush off Scott’s advances with wisecracks, Phoenix digs in and tell him that he just wants someone he can love and he knows that someone is Mike. Sadly, but not surprisingly, Mike shoots down Scott and tells him he can’t be in love with another man. Knowing he has shattered Scott’s hopes and dreams of being in love, Mike invites him over to sit next to him. Phoenix, like a ghost, crawls into Mike’s arms and the two hug in the glow of the campfire. For Scott, this is an omen for the heartbreak and rejection that will continue to follow him for the rest of the film.

If you haven’t seen these two films or any of River Phoenix’s films in a long time, I recommend a retrospective. While we will never get another River Phoenix film, the performances he left are timeless.

UNIVERSAL HORROR: The Legacy of the original ‘Monster Movies’

Bela Lugosi will always live as Dracula
photo courtesy of syfy.com

‘Universal Horror’ was the very first shared franchise in film that ran successfully from the late 1920’s to the early 1950’s. The studio gave the world the visual embodiment of some of the greatest characters in literature with Bela Lugosi as ‘Count Dracula’ and Boris Karloff as the ‘Monster’ in Frankenstein. While theses two images stray somewhat dramatically from the original characters from the classic novels it has not stopped the public image that still exists of Lugosi and Karloff as ‘Monsters’, only proving how powerful the impact of ‘Universal Horror’ has been on the world. While these films are certainly classic and have stood the test of time on their own merits they clearly have been surpassed by contemporary horror films. John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, considered by many to be the gold standard of horror movies owes much to its ‘original talkie’ predecessors.

Dracula and Frankenstein, both produced in 1931 are the most famous horror stories/films in the world. Based on two novels that also run high on the list of greatest novels ever written, the films were adapted for the screen by Universal Studios at the advent of the ‘Sound-era.’ It is crucial to understand the time period of when these films were made, along with The Mummy in 1932 to know their greatness and their flaws. In the 1920’s, German expressionism film was revolutionizing the movie industry. Films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, and Nosferatu are only the tip of the iceberg for the style that thrived on abstract set designs and dark, moody lighting with more shadows than had ever been seen on screen to that point. One of the movements most famous members was Cinematographer/Director Karl Freund who had shot some German expressionism showcases like Metropolis, The Golem, and The Last Laugh. Freund was also credited with inventing the technique called ‘Unchained Camera’, which is basically a fluid camera, detached from a tripod, and really the forerunner to the modern ‘Steadicam’ used brilliantly by directors such as Martin Scorsese.

The marriage of German Expressionism with Universal Studios was one made in heaven. One of the signatures of ‘Universal Horror’ films is the ‘gothic’ style sets matched with shadows and light. The magic of Hollywood was able to give us the dramatic sets of ‘Dracula’s Castle’ and ‘Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory’ with winding stone staircases and cobblestone alleys that in German films to that point were mostly paintings on a wall. Viewers at the time did not need to stretch their imagination too far because with the set design and cinematography, Universal transported you to the Carpathian mountains or the Bavarian hills. Makeup, most notably in Frankenstein was another signature of ‘Universal Horror.’ Boris Karloff is almost unrecognizable in his two most famous roles as the ‘Monster’ and as the title character of The Mummy in 1932. In the days of ‘CGI de-aging’ it is even more impressive that the original filmmakers and special effects artists were able to get it right “in camera.”

Fast forward to the late 1970’s, during a decade of true rebellion in filmmaking. Epic studio pictures with wider screens, larger sets, and exaggerated special effects had long ruled the previous two decades. When John Carpenter set out to make the independent horror film Halloween he had no more than a bundle of fake leaves, a ‘Captain Kirk’ costume mask, and a long kitchen knife. What Carpenter did have was the blueprint of how to make a great horror film straight out of the Universal playbook. Halloween employed a few of the classic horror film ‘tropes’ that go all the way back to the 1930’s. One of them being the ‘Monster escaped/unleashed.’ Michael Myers may sound like the boy next door but it is in the first scene that we are thrust into his homicidal past when he murders his sister on Halloween night. While he is a mental patient, confined to an institution for 15 years, as soon as he escapes the mental hospital he becomes no different than Dracula unleashed in London, Frankenstein’s Monster terrorizing the Bavarian countryside, or the Mummy roaming out of the museum.

Another lasting theme is that of the ‘Doctor’ as savior. Dracula and Frankenstein were both written at moment in history when science was seen as something mythical or supernatural. Therefore, when an ‘evil/unnatural being’ or creation was unleashed, only a scientist, such as ‘Dr. Van Helsing’, was able to capture and defeat the evil. The three classic Monster movies from ‘Universal Horror’ mentioned here even had the same actor, Edward Van Sloan, play the ‘Heroic Doctor’ in all 3 films. In Halloween this role belongs to the outstanding Donald Pleasance as ‘Dr. Sam Loomis.’ Pleasance reprised his character in several sequels, unfortunately watering down the intense ‘tour de force’ he gave in the original production where his maniacal pursuit of Michael Myers carries the whole film.

Lastly, while this ‘trope’ may seem minor, if you watch any horror film you are most likely to find it. It is the ‘Creepy Hand’ of the the monster. When Michael Myers escapes from the mental hospital at the start of Halloween he commandeers the nurses car in dramatic fashion. While parked waiting for Dr. Loomis to check out a strange scene outside the hospital gates, the Nurse hears a rumble on top of the car. When she rolls down the window to take a peak, a large hand creeps in through the window and grabs her hair. Without seeing his face, we already know who the hand belongs to. This technique is no different than the moment Dr. Frankenstein tries to reanimate the Monster with electricity and we are shown a close up of Boris Karloff’s large, rugged hand hanging off the table, fingers twitching. Or a coffin in the basement of Castle Dracula, whose lid slowly opens and a hand with long, wiry fingers creeps out from under the lid. And what about Boris Karloff again in The Mummy, at one moment, standing up in the coffin, arms folded, lifeless, to the next moment when his hand reaches out from behind the museum worker, and grabs the Egyptian scroll off of the desk, then escapes from the museum as the worker can only watch and scream in terror.

Very few films can still have an impact almost a century after they were made. In the case of ‘Universal Horror’, although these films may be more comical now than frightening, they laid the groundwork for the horror films that followed. The ones that haunt our dreams and make us want to sleep with the lights on.

Is McCabe & Mrs. Miller a film about Gentrification?

Photo courtesy of IMDb.com

Robert Altman’s classic film McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one of the best anti-Hollywood, anti-hero pieces from the 1970’s, a decade which perfected the anti-hero genre. I believe, however, that the film may have been a foreshadowing of something that, almost 50 years later, is sweeping through the communities all over the world, displacing residents, and ruining small businesses. I’m talking about “gentrification.”

When we first meet John McCabe, he is a lone rider, stalking through the wilderness to the haunting sounds of Leonard Cohen on the guitar. Shrouded in mystery, the residents of the mining town are apprehensive when McCabe arrives and sets up shop, dealing poker at Pat Sheehans inn. It doesn’t take long before we realize that McCabe is a shrewd operator with his sights set on setting up shop in the town and making money. McCabe sets up a gambling saloon along with a makeshift brothel of tents. In a town full of men, miners, McCabe knows his customers wants and needs. For this reason, his business quickly takes off. At the same time, we see that John McCabe is not a cold hearted businessman looking for a quick score. With his business thriving he also contributes to his fellow townsfolk and the town starts to boom.

The arrival of Mrs. Miller, a beautiful & icy cold Julie Christie, throws a slight wrench into McCabe’s plans. Being a professional and successful ‘Madam’, Mrs. Miller immediately thrusts herself into McCabe’s operation and makes herself a partner. McCabe now has to cope with not only a strong and determined woman but one that he is very attracted to. The two small business tycoons end up falling for each other and for a short while they are blissfully in love and enjoying their booming business, albeit a very unsavory business, but this is the Wild West.

The film changes dramatically when two representatives from the ‘Sears’ company show up looking to buy out McCabe and take over his very successful business. It’s hard to watch this scene and not think of the thousands of small businesses around the world that have been bullied into selling or shutting down by big corporate entities. Wild West type bullying comes in the form of three assassins descending on the town to take care of John McCabe and it ends as you would imagine it but it still is relevant to today’s bullying of small business. The modern day John McCabe feels the passive-aggressive bullying from corporations & cannot stand up to them in a dramatic shoot out in the snow. Instead it’s just another ‘For Sale’ sign in the window where a small business that was vital to a community used to be.

TESLA: Ethan Hawke’s ‘Tragic Hero’ Tour de Force

Tesla movie review & film summary (2020) | Roger Ebert
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If you’re looking for a biopic of Nikola Tesla that will tell you he was born, made some grand innovations in electricity that have shaped our own current world, and that he died alone then this is not the film for you. If you are looking for a biopic that is as imaginative, mysterious, and enigmatic as the title character himself, then Michael Almereyda’s Tesla is just what the doctor ordered. It is an abstract look at the personal and professional history of one of history’s most troubling and unfortunate figures. It is also just another performance on the long list of great performances by Ethan Hawke whose brooding stare gives a glimpse of the madness that cohabited with the genius inside of Nikola Tesla.

The film’s strongest aspect besides its solid cast is the mise en scene. Immediately the viewer is sucked in by the costumes and set design that literally transport you to the Gilded Age. It is in this first scene where we meet Tesla as he dreamily roller skates around a palatial parlor with some friends and a violin player, all dressed impeccably in their turn of the century best. We also meet the narrator played by Eve Hewson who not only tells us the story but captivates us with her natural beauty as Anne Morgan, the daughter of J. P. Morgan. It is Anne who tells us about Tesla’s first run in with electricity when he received a static shock as a young boy while stroking his cat’s back. She narrates that it is Tesla’s desire to “stroke nature’s back” just as he did to his cat. Many have complained about the narration as Anne breaks the fourth wall, tell’s the audience that some of what they are seeing “most likely never happened”, and speaks over black and white photos as though she were narrating a PBS special. I heartily disagree. Anne’s narration is the perfect foundation for sorting out the facts in between the dramatic scenes and struggles we see Hawke endure as the tortured and mostly exploited genius from Serbia.

Being a big movie star, it is incredible to watch Ethan Hawke play Tesla as someone who is merely a pawn being pushed around by not just Thomas Edison(Kyle MacLachlan) and George Westinghouse(Jim Gaffigan) but also by the money men of the time. The turn of the century was a time when everyone was trying to get rich at any cost. Sadly, the film shows you how investors would use Tesla, not to support his visionary and groundbreaking ideas that had the chance to change the course of history, but to profit off of his inventions and leave him broke because he was not business savvy. As mentioned earlier, there are several scenes where Hawke is left brooding and sulking after he is either just finding out he has been swindled by investors or being berated and publicly humiliated by his bitter rival, Edison. Hawke’s scenes with Jim Gaffigan, in an excellent portrayal of George Westinghouse, are exceptional with Gaffigan actually overshadowing Hawke at times.

Much of the talk around this film has been about the strange ‘karaoke’ performance toward the end by Ethan Hawke. This scene, even more so than “Edison’s iphone” and the “Google searches”, shatters the conventional historical biopic structure. Hawke steps up to a contemporary microphone and in front of a screen that continues to change colors, he croons the 1980’s Tears For Fears hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” In his strange Serbian accent, this scene will certainly not bring Hawke any comparisons to Eve Hewson’s father but Hawke’s daring, sub-par singing is even more riveting. The audience is clearly forced to listen to the lyrics and see how they related to Nikola Tesla. ‘I can’t stand this indecision, married with a lack of vision.’ In so many ways this could be a motto or epitaph for a man who the world disregarded during his living years and now owes so much to his legacy.

“LATE SPRING”: Quintessential Ozu

Three Reasons: Late Spring - YouTube
photo courtesy of Criterion Collection

          The opening scenes of Ozu’s “Late Spring” are not only full of his iconic filmmaking style but also hints at the culture clashes in Japan at the time the film was made.  This film is a perfect analysis of culture in post war Japan where some embraced the new modern society while others held on to the traditions of the past.

          The film opens in typical Ozu style with some “pillow shots” or shots that may be aesthetically appealing to the audience but really have nothing to do with the main plot of the film.  Ozu opens with three shots of the “Kitakakamakura Train Station” from three different angles.  We then see the exterior roof of a Japanese house before we enter the house and see characters.  The characters, a group of Japanese women dressed in traditional garments are all kneeling down having tea.  The composition, low angle(3 feet) long shot of a group, is another trademark of Ozu.  This scene is portrayed to be a traditional tea party with a group of Japanese women.  When Nori, the main actress enters the scene, Ozu gives the viewer subtle clues that she is someone who may not fully belong in such a traditional setting.

          Nori, a young Japanese woman who cares for her widowed father, enters the scene dressed in a traditional kimono.  She kneels down and bows respectfully to the group but when she gets up to change seats we see the first clue of Nori’s modernity.  When she stands up we see her pick up her purse and try to hide it under dress.  The purse looks very out of place at this almost “ancient” setting.  Then when Nori sits next to her Aunt Masa, Aunt Masa immediately adjusts Nori’s dress, indicating that she may not know how to properly wear such a traditional outfit.  Then Nori and Masa take part in a conversation about domestic duties which Nori seems to enjoy but already the audience can tell she is faking.  I believe this was a masterful job by Ozu to show in the first few minutes of the film that we are about to see a major culture clash between Nori, the young modern woman, and Japan, a country still clinging to its strict traditions.

          This dialogue between Nori and Masa in the opening scene is also another example of how Ozu’s style differs from the Hollywood model and remains effective.  The traditional Hollywood model of over the shoulder shots in dialogue or medium shot to close up never existed in Ozu’s world.  As in all of his films we often see characters, when speaking, looking directly into the camera.  This was something that was thought to be a cardinal error in among Hollywood filmmakers.  In the opening scene when Nori is talking to her Aunt Masa, she delivers all of her lines while looking directly into the camera.  I must admit that I found Ozu’s style a little jarring at first.  Seeing characters looking directly into the camera does not feel normal nor does an entire film of low angle shots with no movement appeal to most viewers.  Ozu, however, won me over.  His techniques, although different and far from mainstream Hollywood, do not get in the way of the dramatic and intimate stories that his films tell.  It is possible to think that his Medium shot direct address style gives the characters more depth and strength.

          Ozu used marriage in his films as a way of examining its perceived importance to Japanese society.  “Late Spring” is a very powerful look at the struggle a young woman in Japan went through for many years facing the choice of getting a job and being independent or getting married.  Nori is portrayed as someone who toes the line between a strong independent woman and a domestic woman.  She wants to marry a man who she truly loves not someone who’s been chosen for her.  Through Nori, Ozu shows how desperate a young woman in Japan would feel when the people around her were making the decisions about her future.

MUSTANG (2015)

MUSTANG (2015) - Movie-Blogger.com
photo courtesy of Movie-Blogger.com

One of the director’s of the new HBO reboot of Perry Mason is responsible for one of the most outstanding debut films in recent memory. Deniz Gemze Erguven, a French-Turkish director toiled away at filmmaking for years, almost giving up on her dreams before she wrote and directed Mustang, her first feature film that went on to win multiple awards around the world and be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category. Being Turkish, this film is a very personal exploration into the treatment of women, especially young girls, in a male dominated society that sadly reflects the current climate that still exists in Turkey today as well as many other countries across the globe.

The film follows 5 sisters, all between the ages of pre-teen to late teens, who have lost their parents and live with their grandmother in the rural countryside of Turkey. One day when walking home from school with their friends, some of whom are boys, the girls are spotted innocently splashing and playing with the boys in the ocean. This sets off the rest of the film as we see the sisters are about to pay the awful price for what is really just a fun activity at the beach for any child or teenager. Erguven does an excellent job of not wasting anytime presenting the major conflict of the story: the manipulation and controlling of young girls by society. The director doesn’t even give the audience a moment to question what happened to the girls’ parents because right away we see that it doesn’t matter. The girls are now under the care of their grandmother who ultimately allows their Uncle to take control of their lives. It isn’t long before we see the girls being forced to transform from playful, innocent children having fun after school to young available virgins being showcased to young men as prospects for marriage.

The film takes place almost entirely in the girl’s grandmothers’ house. Nestled in the mountains, the house offers picturesque views of the Turkish countryside. This is another marvelous choice by Erguven as we view the beautiful landscape from the girls’ perspective. Sadly, this perspective is through a bedroom window which the Uncle and Grandmother gradually turn into a “prison” with gates and bars on the windows. Erguven also adds elements of familiar “fairy tales” into the plot. When the youngest sister, Lale, in an excellent performance by Gunes Sensoy in her first film, tries to escape to Istanbul, a friendly man on the road kids her for her “muddy shoes.” On her second attempt at an escape, Lale finds a pair of red heels which can’t help but bring to mind Dorothy and her ruby slippers trying to get to the Emerald City, which in this case for Lale is Istanbul. Other scenes of boys and boyfriends coming to the house and calling up to the girls as they stand in the window, “Rapunzel-like” looking down at the boys but being unable to leave their captivity. These “fairy tale” references only serve to underscore the conflict of the film which is the sisters realizing that they cannot wait for a “prince” to come and rescue them. They are the ones who can control their own fate.

This film is an outstanding achievement for any filmmaker let alone someone who was making their debut. Sadly, in an ironic twist, just before Erguven was about to begin production, her original producer backed out after finding out she was pregnant. Fortunately, for Erguven she found another producer and finished the film, giving the world a beautiful, intense, tragic, and uplifting story about women overcoming the oppression that has gone on for too long around the world. Hopefully, thanks to Deniz Gamze Erguven and her message of hope, we are another step closer to women being empowered and treated equally.

THE ENDLESS SUMMER

Movie Retrospective: 'Endless Summer' : NPR
photo courtesy of NPR

The title really says it all. ‘The Endless Summer.” Most filmmakers would kill for a title like that. It could mean anything. The possibilities are, literally, endless. Is it a romantic story about young lovers falling in love at the beach? Or maybe it’s a story about two innocent kids living it up while school is out? No it’s not, but in some ways it could be. Bruce Brown’s classic surf movie is so much more than a surf movie. It is a tale of innocence, excitement, daring, and most of all, good, clean, fun.

In 1962, after cutting his teeth on a few surf documentaries, Bruce Brown was ready for something big. Brown had been an avid surfer and started photographing and then filming his surf sessions just out of pure love for the sport. With fellow surfers Robert August and Mike Hynson they set out across the globe to follow the summer around the world. The crew started in Africa where they visited Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria. Then it was on down to South Africa before heading to Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Hawaii, which Brown calls “truly, the land of the endless summer.”

It is hard to pinpoint which was Brown’s greatest achievement in this film. With his two stars, August and Hynson, he was able to showcase the sport of surfing to civilizations in Africa that had never even seen a surfboard, let alone a blonde surfer from California. While watching the film I could feel as though Robert August and Mike Hynson were the “Lewis and Clark” of surfing as they were given an opportunity to explore beaches that were virgin, pristine, and begging to be surfed. The two surfers are certainly not lovers falling in love at the beach but they are exploring exotic places to find the one thing they do love: surfing. A sad element pervades the film as the viewer laments the fact that this trip could probably never happen in the 21st century. The world is not as innocent and welcoming as it was for Bruce Brown in 1962. This fact is actually underscored in the fantastic sequel The Endless Summer II where Brown takes two new surfers on an almost identical trail as the original film. Places like Cape St. Francis in South Africa, which was an empty desert-like beach in the original is now a well developed vacation community. Bruce Brown produced what is arguably one of the greatest documentaries of all time and the greatest contribution to surfing ever made but it also unintentionally led to the development and displacement of some beautiful natural wonders. But, I could never hold this against the director as he put the fire in me, like millions of others over the last half century, to get a surfboard, paddle out to a wave and catch one, albeit after several wipeouts.

The Endless Summer is many things. A time capsule of the 1960’s surf culture. A National Geographic trip around the world. A funny, goofy look at surfers on vacation in exotic places. Most importantly, The Endless Summer is a view of the world through the eyes of a few California surfers who crossed the globe with nothing but a few longboards, a 16mm film camera, and some swimming trunks. If you’ve seen the film then I think you’ll agree: the view is spectacular.

‘APOCALYPSE NOW’: ART IMITATING LIFE?

The 'Final Cut' of 'Apocalypse Now' Is Coming to Theaters and Blu-Ray
photo courtesy of Screen Crush

“The Horror…The Horror…” – Col. Walter Kurtz

Apocalypse Now is one of the most polarizing films ever made. While some may deride it as a mediocre war film from an egomaniacal director at the height of his power others laud it for it’s intense examination of the catastrophe’s committed by the United States in Vietnam in the style of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I believe that the legend of how the film was made should not be seen as a punchline but instead seen, sadly, as art imitating life.

Francis Ford Coppola’s legend as a director was already cemented when he obtained the rights to Apocalypse Now in 1974. The original screenplay was written by Coppola’s friend, John Milius in 1969. Milius wrote it after he was told at USC that no one had ever made a good adaptation of Heart of Darkness. Milius who had tried and failed to serve in Vietnam due to his asthma set about tackling what would become as stark a comparison to The Vietnam War and the disastrous European colonization of Africa that has ever been made. When Coppola took over the film he tried to make the adaptation to the book as literal as possible, even saying years later that he did not use a script on set instead just a copy of the book in his pocket. Coming off multiple Oscars for The Godfather, and The Godfather Part 2, Coppola was probably more powerful than any filmmaker on the planet and this is clearly what drove him to pull out all of the stops for his next project.

Most often when the film is discussed its achievements get lost under the legend of the director’s Heart of Darkness. There was even a documentary made about the film with the same title, pieced together with behind the scenes footage. It is easy in 2020 to look back and see that Coppola was the most powerful writer/director during a renaissance for writer/directors. Of all of the success that Spielberg, Lucas, and Scorsese would accomplish, it was Coppola who paved the way. This is not an excuse for the limits he pushed and literal dangers he may have thrust upon his cast and crew but to be sympathetic, he had no restraints. This is where sadly the art imitating life factor comes in. Coppola himself said it best at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979: “My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.” While the ego and audacity behind this statement angered many, and rightfully so, it is a devestatingly honest comment by Coppola and may or may not be a veiled shot at the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. Certainly the film was but unfortunately, in this case more attention was paid to an egotistic director than a film whose message trashes the horrific actions of the most powerful nation on the planet.

The word ‘masterpiece’ gets used in movies way too often, no more than the current era. Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece and there’s no denying it. Sure Coppola bit off more than he could chew but what he was able to capture in some scenes was truly breathtaking in scale. The famous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ helicopter invasion. The PBR boat floating down the river into a burning sun, toward the ‘heart of darkness.’ Marlon Brando shot in shadow with his voice bellowing from the darkness. Even that is a cinematic feather in Coppola’s cap. Brando had famously arrived at production severely overweight for his character so the director decided to shoot him in shadow and half light to cover his size. The result was an even more haunting vision of Col. Walter Kurtz who appears as a wraith dressed in black and covered in shadow.

While this film may be remembered as a journey into the director’s Heart of Darkness it may also be the best film made by one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the art form. Most directors can never even dream of the type of power and freedom wielded by Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now and that is probably a good thing. Tyrannical behavior has no place anywhere including film sets. But strictly speaking, as a work of art, the film is nothing short of a masterpiece.

“FOLLOWING”(1998): A daring debut in 16mm from Christopher Nolan

Film International
photo courtesy of Film International

Christopher Nolan is many things. A self made filmmaker who skipped film school to study English Literature. The creator of one of the most successful action franchises of all time. A Commander of the British Empire. A man who according to Steven Spielberg has managed to combine “art films” and “big studio blockbusters” with The Dark Knight trilogy. But more than anything else, Nolan is a masterful storyteller, maybe the best since his career started in the late 90’s with a little film called Following.

If you’re a fan of Christopher Nolan and you haven’t seen his debut film then make it the next film you see. It’s easy to watch Following more than two decades after it was made and say “yeah! That’s a Christopher Nolan film!” but it’s not a trite statement by any means. In fact I think it enhances the film knowing that the director, who only made two films before getting signed by Warner Brothers, has directed epics like The Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar, wrote, directed, and shot an outstanding neo-noir film in black and white for $6,000. This film dabbles in so many cinematic elements that it is staggering to think it’s not just a debut, but that Nolan pretty much did everything but act in it.

The film starts off with the introduction of the main character, “Bill”, explaining his “story” to a policeman. It appears Bill is a struggling writer who decides, out of pure boredom, to follow strangers around London. Nolan shows us Bill’s activities in a perfect guerilla shooting style as he wanders through busy streets, staying just out of reach of his subject. Nolan, shooting Bill through a store window with the “Dunkin Donuts” sign on the glass is an excellent scene steal. The grainy shots work in this sequence as it lends a ‘surveillance’ aspect to what starts out as a very mysterious hobby of our main character.

Several critics have designated this film as a “neo-noir” but I believe it can be considered just classic Film Noir. Nolan’s decision to shoot in black and white was a magnificent one and I do wish he would return to it someday. The lighting in some scenes is absolutely stunning, most especially in the house occupied by “The Blonde” played by Lucy Russell. When Bill begins to get closer to The Blonde, he spends an afternoon at her house where she tells him about her connection to her boyfriend “The Bald Guy.” The stories of the violence she experiences are underscored by the dark shadows on staircases and the characters walking in and out of the light and shadow. Without any spoilers, there is an excellent scene toward the end of the film that is straight out of 1940’s Hollywood Noir. When Bill gets suspicious of The Blonde he goes to her house and gets tough with her. Nolan has The Blonde, dressed in black, up against a white wall with a soft light illuminating her pretty face as she gets grilled by Bill. In this scene, Nolan has recreated the typical “femme-fatale”, immediately getting the viewer to think of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.

The film’s most important quality is its story. As mentioned earlier, while Christopher Nolan’s films have all been visually stunning, his greatest talent is in his story telling abilities. Following itself is not an easy film to follow. While I don’t intend to give away any spoilers, it would be difficult to do so with a story that, like Memento, snakes back and forth between present and flashback and a few surprises from the minor characters. The story will hook you from the beginning but you better not let up because Nolan doesn’t.

As we await the release of Nolan’s latest epic, Tenet, I encourage to go back and look at his body of work. From comic books, to outer space, to War epics, to the gritty streets of London. Christopher Nolan can truly do it all.

IS “SUNSET BOULEVARD” A HORROR MOVIE?

Sunset Boulevard: The Relationship Between Viewer and Film
PHOTO COURTESY OF MEDIUM.COM

Let me begin by saying that the title of this article is by no means a trivialization of what I believe is one of the greatest films ever made in any genre. That being said, Billy Wilder’s classic film about Hollywood’s dark side is downright frightening in its portrayal of a former Silent-era megastar and her descent into delusion.

The film begins with one of its signature shots: Joe, floating face down in a swimming pool as policemen use hooks to retrieve his body. Immediately through the use of this shot and William Holden’s narration, we know this is a film about a murder at an old, decaying Hollywood Mansion. Sounds like the makings of a Monster movie. When Joe begins his flashback narration we see him elude the debt collectors and end up at the Mansion. It is at this moment when the film takes on an extremely creepy tone that doesn’t let up until the closing credits roll. This is when we meet the “Monster.” Joe is spied by a woman from inside the house, standing in shadow behind the window blinds. Wilder’s judgement to introduce Norma with such a veil of mystery is outstanding. Norma, played by Gloria Swanson, stands attentive at the window, gazing out at Joe, her eyes covered by dark sunglasses. There is a very strong resemblance of this shot in the way Hitchcock introduced “Mrs. Bates” in Psycho. We see Mrs. Bates stroll past the window of the Bates’ house, catching Marion’s attention and letting us know that she is still the “Woman of the House.”

As the plot progresses we see Norma aggressively taking control of Joe through her wild outbursts of mania and sadness. Joe appears to be trapped in Norma’s mansion, his only way out, if any, is to finish her screenplay and deliver it to “Mr. Demille” at Paramount Pictures. This aspect of the film brings to mind Misery, the Stephen King thriller where Kathy Bates holds her favorite writer hostage, forcing him to write for her. Is Joe really trapped? Surely he can leave under his own free will but Norma and Max, the butler are both doing all they can to keep him there. They give the debt collectors the slip as a show of goodwill to Joe but really we know it’s a ploy to keep Joe writing for Norma. The films climactic confrontation between Joe and Norma also proves that Joe really was doomed and that from the moment he steered his broken down car into Norma’s garage that he would never leave her home alive.

Sunset Boulevard is really a film that has it all. A monumental performance by Gloria Swanson. Beautiful cinematography in shots like Norma screaming about her comeback, bathed in the glow of the film projector in her salon. An exceptional script that not only gives the audience the creeps by showing us Norma’s madness but also lets us feel a compassion for a megastar who has now been cruelly cast aside by the very industry that she once owned. Another shot worth mentioning for its “horror” factor is the light shining through the empty doorknobs of the many rooms in the Mansion. It is a sad moment when Max reveals to Joe the reason for the empty doorknobs: “the doctor thought it was a good idea after Madame cut herself.” This line is very chilling in relation to Norma’s deranged mental state but later in the film the doorknobs take on a symbolic tone of how Norma is “watching” and controlling Joe. After an argument in Joe’s bedroom, Norma excuses herself and goes to her attached bedroom and closes the double doors. When Joe turns off the lights in his room we see, in the darkness, Norma’s light shining through the two circles, mimicking her eyes, constantly watching and hovering over Joe.

“An old Hollywood actress lures a young writer to her mansion, manipulating and controlling him. When he tries to escape, the unspeakable happens!” Sounds like a “Saturday Night Horror Film” at the Drive-In right? Maybe. For now it will stand as an indictment of Hollywood’s treatment of its original stars and the one thing all of us “wonderful people out there in the dark” never get to see: The Price of Fame.