October 24th, 2010

Tom (The Godfather)

"There is no way to tell his story without telling my own."

Francis Ford Coppola designed Apocalypse Now as a completely subjective experience. He wanted to immerse the audience into his mythic journey through the eyes and ears of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), and to that end he created some of the most awe-inspiring imagery and broke new ground in sound design. His maniacal attention to detail and (at the time) unhinged brilliance created what is undeniably one of the most stunning fusions of image and sound in cinema history; whatever one thinks of the film, one can not deny its pure cinematic power.

Apocalypse Now has always been a standard-bearer in home video presentation. It is a film that just always looked and sounded great and was designed to show off that fact; be it on VHS, laserdisc or DVD, this film always showed the limits of the technology to best advantage at the date of its production, so its arrival on Blu-ray comes with quite a bit of expectation. It's not that the disc doesn't disappoint, this is Apocalypse Now, a film that by nature demands a presentation that exceeds expectation. And the presentation does. It's phenomenal, everything that it should be and more. It is visual and sonic perfection.

No, the rub is that while Apocalypse Now is a film about spectacle, it is also a very intimate film. I've seen it at home, I've seen it in a theater, and it had always been a toss-up to me which was the superior experience because while the Techicolor dye 35 millimeter prints of the film and thunderous sound of the theater was overwhelming in the best cinematic way imaginable, the introspective nature of the film lends itself to be viewed at home. The Blu-ray format offers the first time that a home theater presentation could ever hope to approach a theatrical presentation and properly reflect the true scope of the film (pun intended, see below), and the potency of the film is perhaps at its peak. It feels very much like, as I stated on Tuesday, "The Blu-ray format was invented for Apocalypse Now."

My preference is for the original 1979 version over the 2000 Apocalypse Now Redux cut, but there are unquestionably interesting sequences in the Redux version, but it takes a film whose narrative was always episodic and elliptical and makes it dramatically unweildy. However, Coppola had never intended one version of the film to supplant the other (which is why each version has a different title), and the film is available on Blu-ray in both the original 1979 and the 2000 Redux cut through seamless branching; it is nice to have the option to watch either (and on a single platter).

The big news about the transfer is that it is the first time in the home video history of Apocalypse Now that it is presented in its original Technovision anamorphic aspect ratio. All previous widescreen video presentations were at Vittorio Storraro's 2:1 "golden ratio," which was ostensibly a replication of the 70 millimeter prints (which actually would have been a somewhat wider 2.2:1). While a decent presentation, there were a few moments where one can see blatant panning and scanning (Willard and Chief's [Albert Hall] confrontation springs to mind), even moments that were scanned slightly differently between the two laserdisc and three DVD transfers. It may not sound like much, but the 2.35:1 framing is much, much more balanced. Several sequences reveal a visual symmetry to them that wasn't apparent with even the relatively minimal cropping of the earlier transfers. Niel S. Bulk pointed out to me a rainbow in one of the helicopter shots that was just not apparent with more than half of it missing; many little things like that, but all adding further poetry to what was already a kaleidescope of terrible beauty.

One of the most interesting things about Apocalypse Now is that, as fascinating as the film itself is, so too was the odyssey the Coppola and his crew experienced whilst making it, as memorably chronicled in Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper's marshalling of footage shot by Eleanor Coppola in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, which itself has been included on disc three along with commentary by the Coppolas. But while it has become de riguer today, it was unusual at the time for a film to chronicle its own development to the extent that Apocalypse Now had been. This means that the special features are not only comprehensive, but also go way beyond the scope of Hickenlooper's documentary and yet remain consistently interesting. Many of them focus on the film's trail-blazing sound design as well as the rocky history of the casting and production. The creation of the score is gotten into in some detail as well, with some archival interviews with Shirley Walker who was a central figure in the music conforming process. Two of the most interesting features are the interviews Coppola conducts, one with John Milius and the other with Martin Sheen, which offer some very interesting perspectives on the film.

If it were any lesser of a film, all of this hoopla would be a bit much, but Apocalypse Now stands alone as a unique work of its own. It is at once many genres — a war film, a road movie, a psychedelic trip, an epic, a psychological thriller, a surreal nightmare — and none. It is one of the most ambitious films in history, perhaps all the more impressive because it managed to accomplish such lofty goals despite being hobbled by a chaotic and prolongled production. So many elements of the film that seem now to be so much an inalienable part of its architecture, including the Michael Herr voice-over and the opening shot, came up surprisingly late in the game, but were dovetailed cleanly into the style of the film.

While the final act of the film is often criticized for how disjointed it seems, but to me that has always seemed to me to be one of the film's greatest strengths. The further up the river Willard goes, the deeper in to the subconscious he travels, and when he confronts Kurtz (Marlon Brando), he is also coming face-to-face with the source of the madness that is war itself (this is reflected in the transition from Francis and Carmine Coppola's synthesized score to Mickey Hart's percussion tracks toward the film's conclusion), taking Joseph Conrad's titular "Hearts of Darkness" to its most animistic extreme. Where Willard finds Kurtz is not a place of logic, sanity or even linear thought, and for the film to have had a more conventional resolution would have betrayed the promise of everything up until that moment.

Kurtz explains to Willard the need to subjugate any compassion in pursuit of victory; the difference between him and Kilgore (Robert Duvall) is that Kurtz has thrown off the veneer of civilization and has accepted what a monstrous creature the human beast is capable of being, what he is capable of being. Willard's final decision in the film reflects not only his realization that Kurtz's contempt for the hypocrisy of the cutlural whitewashing of brutality, but also because he sees that Kurtz is the end result of his own reasoning until that moment (including his actions on the sampan). Willard's journey puts him in a PBR with people who not only represent the face of the American military in Vietnam, but also aspects of Willard that he must shed in order to confront Kurtz. Clean (Laurence Fishburn, then still credited as "Larry") is any remaining sense idealism, the Chief is the superego (the structure for society) and Chef (Frederic Forrest) is the last bit of compassion. Unlike Colby (Scott Glenn) Willard does not ever completely sever from the world which is externalized by Lance (Sam Bottoms), which is why he does not take Kurtz's place at the end of the film.
"Because there's a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature."

If already you've seen Apocalypse Now a thousand times but want to see it again for the first time, watch it on Blu-ray.

"Keep away. The sow is mine."

happy birthday


  • I mentioned this film in passing a few months ago, focusing how effective the use of 3-D was. This does the film a disservice, especailly as I have found out that it holds up quite well in a two dimensional high definition presentation. I can't deny that the 3-D element was used so well that the film does lose something without it, but like Up, it tells a good story without relying on the 3-D effect as a gimmick.

    How To Train Your Dragon manages to be more than just another "boy and his pet" story by creating a fun cast of characters, a colorful setting and interesting social complications for the hero. There is also the novelty of the dragons themselves, which along with the breezy pace of the film allows its first two acts to effortlessly invest the audience in preparation for its extremely intense final act. Indeed, the climax of the film has certain consequences which are quite suprising in this genre. John Powell's score has quickly become a fan favorite and it is easy to hear why: it is a chock full of delicious themes and motives for Vikings, dragons, Valkyrie maidens and epic conflicts and bristling with invested emotion. Powell's name is quickly becoming a reason to look forward to an upcoing project.

    This is one of the few films I would say probably would justify viewing on a 3-D monitor, but on the whole I don't find the format to justify the cost or inconvienience at present.


  • I'd not seen the original version of Revolution, and this film's reputation made it pretty low on my list of priorities for most of my life. I did, however, reprioritize the film once I heard John Corigliano's music score, which had a profound effect on me. This album represented everything I like about music in general and film music in particular, the drama, the intellect, the emotion.

    The film itself had undergone some revision since its original theatrical release, the most significant of which is the addition of a narration newly-recorded by Al Pacino. Watching the film, I often began to wonder how I would possibly have been able to follow the film without it, and I can understand its failure in its original form. Tom (Pacino) is by design not a very verbose character, and I can see how the original version of the film would have been very distancing. The narration turns the film into an constant internal monologue, with Tom often reflecting on his own difficulties expressing himself. Most importantly, it fills in important backstory to allow us to understand who this person is and what the full impact of all of this is upon him. As with Apocalypse Now, this internal monologue goes a long way to bringing the grand scale of the events on display down to human proportions.

    Even more interesting is that Hugh Hudson's documentary-style approach to the battle scenes were very much ahead of their time. Bernard Lutic's otherwise rather stately cinematography was shot in Super 35 and makes the best use of the inherent grain and color desaturation that process entailed (especially at the time) and the resulting footage is almost stylistically indistinguishable from a modern battle scene. Furthermore, the use of Corigliano's music is excellent (even if it is a bit low in the sound mix), often offering a brilliant psychological counterpoint to the on-screen action.

    I don't think this is a masterpiece, but it is definitely an interesting film, an interesting historical perspective and a fine performance from Pacino.


  • In general, I tend to find religious stories something of a drag, but I've always found this film to be an interesting "what if" that is still quite shocking today, although for different reasons than when it was released. One of the strengths of William Friedkin's approach is how relatively grounded it is; the central characters are all established very solidly as people who live in the real world (save, perhaps, Regan herself [Linda Blair], whose portrayal previous to her possession is rather idealized), and so their supernatural ordeal is that much more vivid when it arrives.

    Of the two cuts of this film, my preference is for the original 1973 assembly. While I do like some of the additions that Friedkin added to the film to made it conform better to writer William Peter Blatty's original vision, I found his subliminal inserts, jerk-cutting and omnipresent digital Pazuzus to be a cheap attempt to "spruce it up" and unworthy of the maturity of the film's tone.

    Thankfully, both the "Extended Director's Cut" (which would actually be more accurately called "The Writer's Cut," more so than its 2000 title "The Version You've Never Seen," which would only apply until you've seen the new version) and the original theatrical version are available on separate platters with an identical picture transfer but different soundtracks. The original cut has the basic 5.1 remix that was on the original DVD release (which is perfectly servicable and benefits significantly from the lossless presentation) while the 2000 cut has a much more powerful 6.1 mix which is well worth checking out. Friedkin's wacky requests to remove all color saturation on The French Connection thankfully haven't been replicated here; the movie has a strong color palette but hasn't been overly-scrubbed either; there is a certain amount of endemic grain throughout the film. It looks very much like the print I saw in 2000.