Saturday, June 15, 2013

I Like Coppola in June, How About You?

A number of new and notable titles snuck onto Instant this month. Among those are a handful of films directed by Francis Ford Coppola, an important filmmaker by any standard and one who obviously needs no introduction. What makes these titles worth noting is that they join Tucker (also reviewed) and The Conversation to form a solid collection of the director's least heralded, but most interesting, work. The one exception is the indispensable Apocalypse Now (1979), second only to The Godfathers I and II in the director's ouevre and arguably the greatest war film ever made--even if calling it merely a war film fails to account for its greatness as a film, period. There's simply no movie that better depicts the darker corners of man's soul, particularly as filtered through the psychedelic fog that permeated the conflict in Vietnam. With its basis in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the film elegantly channels a literary sensibility into one that's uniquely cinematic, creating a dramatic and powerful journey upriver that's as much existential meditation as war drama.

Less necessary but perhaps worth a look is Apocalypse Now: Redux (2001), a longer, rejiggered version also available for streaming. Intended as a definitive, post-facto statement by Coppola and editor Walter Murch, it reorders the film's chronology while restoring previously cut scenes that spend far too much time answering questions most of us never had. As a companion piece to the original, this overstuffed special edition may satisfy the curious (especially if, like me, you spent decades hoping to see the French Plantation sequence or more Playboy bunnies), but it also dilutes the original's strangeness and mystery. I'll never quite forgive Coppola for showing us a laughing, pranksterish Willard stealing Col. Kilgore's surfboard. Some things--including an iconic character's grim, humorless visage--should remain sacred.

After four years living in the literal and metaphorical jungles of Apocalypse Now (which was as famous for its production history as its artistic merit), Coppola decided to make something frothy and light and entirely within the confines of a studio. One From the Heart (1982) was going to be everything Apocalypse Now wasn't: a simple love story with a small cast, a few musical numbers, and a soupçon of fantasy, all staged entirely on an artificially constructed Las Vegas. But Coppola's brain was clearly suffering from residual jungle rot, as his "little movie" ballooned into a $26 million flop that managed to transform impressive sets, gorgeous cinematography, a game cast, original Tom Waits songs, and gratuitous Teri Garr nudity into a nearly Heaven's Gate-level disaster that barely squeaked into theaters.

Still...there remains something compelling about this wide-eyed attempt at an old-style musical. Is the script as shallow as the toddlers' end of a swimming pool? By all means. Does the direction of the actors seem secondary to Coppola's elaborate camera moves and Vittorio Storaro's complex, theatrical lighting? Certainly. Are the dance sequences almost entirely bereft of inspiration? Pretty much. And yet the film has earned a kind of cult status beyond its Tom Waits-Crystal Gayle soundtrack (which provides a doleful running commentary on the film's events). I've always maintained that the failure of a great artist is almost always more interesting than the success of an average one, and One From the Heart is no exception: its transparent artificiality and outsized ambition combine with an off-kilter whimsy that can leave you befuddled, but not unpleasantly.

After all, when a movie's male leads are Frederic Forrest, Harry Dean Stanton, and Raul Julia--and of the two female leads, Nastassja Kinski isn't the one getting the most naked--you know only the loose screw of genius can be behind it. One From the Heart may be as wispy as Teri Garr's costumes, but as a beautiful, colorful yin to Apocalypse Now's yang, it's intriguing nonetheless. (And Garr is gorgeous in what was her most significant leading role.)

Unfortunately, Heart's commercial failure forced Coppola to sell off his studio, declare personal bankruptcy, and spend most of the 1980s and '90s paying off massive debt. Working primarily as a director for hire, he piloted a number of undistinguished studio ships that were mostly poor shadows of his '70s greatness (with occasional idiosyncratic exceptions such as Rumble Fish, Tucker, and Bram Stoker's Dracula). The last such venture before spending a decade to tend to his wine business was the unlikely The Rainmaker (1997), an expertly directed John Grisham legal drama with a script by Coppola himself. Starring Matt Damon and a diverse ensemble of character actors who were clearly eager to please the veteran director, the movie is a perfect example of old-fashioned Hollywood craftsmanship.

Coppola directs Matt Damon and Claire Danes
With an effortless, almost casual air belying its complexity, The Rainmaker rolls out its tale of The Little Guy vs. Evil Healthcare with a professional competence that never trades humanity for Hollywood slickness. Each character has his moment to shine (Danny DeVito and Mickey Rourke are among the standouts) in a picture filled with smart plotting and low-key humor. Working entirely in the service of his source material, Coppola closes this middle chapter of his career with a film that's a master class in commercial, adult storytelling (which was already becoming a rarity outside of television). If it's missing a bit of the fire and individuality of his more personal work, it still shows a director enormously confident in his craft who knows exactly which knobs to pull and pedals to step on. Like a more restrained precursor to Stephen Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich, The Rainmaker is a satisfying genre exercise with hardly a false step. [8/1/14 Update: This title has now expired.]

Tim Roth in Youth Without Youth
For the next ten years Coppola concentrated on his winery while quietly encouraging the work of offspring Sofia and Roman, whose indie films represented exactly the type of small, personal work he started his career with and always hoped to return to. The eventual success of his wine business brought not only solvency, but financial independence, putting him outside the reach of big-studio whims and commercial constraints. His first self-financed feature was Youth Without Youth (not currently on Instant), an intensely romantic and surreal meditation on love and aging. Beautiful, cerebral, and often mystifying--much like the Romanian novella it was based on--its flaws were matched by an undiminished visual flare and an invigorating sense of risk that signified the rebirth of the young, experimental filmmaker whose early Hollywood success had diverted him from what he'd always deemed his true calling.

Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich
The cobwebs effectively shaken, Coppola's next film, Tetro (2009), showed the director on more solid narrative footing if still unwilling to compromise an unashamedly personal and artistic vision. Representing his first original screenplay since 1974's The Conversation, Tetro offers what appears to be a darkly mirrored version of Coppola's own early life. Told mostly in expressionistic black and white, it's a tale of sibling rivalry, family secrets, a domineering father, and the tyranny of the artistic imagination, all set within the bohemian and theater worlds of Buenos Aires.

The film's title character is played by the unlikely Vincent Gallo, an enfant terrible known not only for directing and starring in his own off-Hollywood films (Brown Bunny, Buffalo 66) but for his reputation as "difficult" (industry code for "pain in the ass"). He acquits himself well here, deferring to the older auteur's sure hand and committing fully to the prickly, secretive and damaged Tetro. The other actors are equally good, including Maribel Verdú (Y Tu Mamá También), a welcome Klaus Maria Brandauer (Out of Africa), and newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, who plays Tetro's worshipful younger brother while evoking a young Leonardo DiCaprio (maybe a bit too much).

Maribel Verdú
Coppola has called the film a spiritual cousin to Rumble Fish--partly why he shot it in black and white--and with its troubled family dynamics it's easy to see the comparison. But Tetro is its own animal, more subdued, more layered, and--despite the black and white--less self-consciously arty. (I'm a big fan of Rumble Fish, but unless you really tap into its very subjective point of view, it can easily seem to be trying too hard.) The ironic thing about Tetro--and even Youth Without Youth before it--is that if either film had been made by some young upstart, it would likely be hailed as "promising" or even "visionary." But when you've directed two or three of cinema's most revered works, the bar will always be set unreasonably high.

I have yet to see Twixt--Coppola's most recent act of cinematic rebellion (a 3D horror fantasy starring Val Kilmer, of all people)--but I remain grateful that the man continues to make movies and that he's found a way to make them exactly how he wants. Unlike longtime pal George Lucas, who's been threatening to direct "small, experimental films" for decades, Coppola actually puts his money (literally) where his mouth is. What more can one ask of an artist working in such a commercially driven medium, especially an artist in his seventies with the vision and drive of a 30-year-old? No matter how you cut it, that takes a lot of grapes. May his harvests be forever healthy and his wine barrels always full.

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