The Conversation is a dark and introspective study of a private surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), whose private life becomes increasingly infected by those traits his profession requires, namely, paranoia and anonymity. When Caul comes to believe that his latest subjects’ lives could be in danger due to his recordings, past anxieties emerge to ultimately tear down the fragile order he has created in his life. Hackman is superb in the lead role and gives a breadth of reality to the deeply idiosyncratic Caul. Furthermore, he is well supported by John Cazale, Harrison Ford, and Robert Duvall. Coppola’s taut direction is at its best here as he assembles and disassembles reality primarily through his use of sound but also through his use of darkly lit interiors and ambiguous dialogue. And it is this ambiguity that dominates the film’s theme as Caul’s overconfidence in words and voices become a lesson in the subjectivity of life. The influence of Japanese cinema is all over this film, particularly in the dream sequences and that memorable final scene which strongly echoes the extraordinary ending to Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom.
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|Rating: The Good – 64.3
Duration: 91 mins
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Stars: C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Tom Cruise
Francis Ford Coppola’s uneven adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders features a host of household names albeit before they hit their prime. Matt Dillon, Estevez, Swayze, Lowe, Macchio, Howell, and Cruise play the “Greasers” from the wrong side of the tracks who are locked in class warfare with the wealthier more privileged “Socs”. The intentions were right and there are some nice glimpses of the great Coppola (check out those Godfather-like close-ups of Estevez’ feet changing direction and pace to indicate danger) but they are all too fleeting as this film runs away from him and its two main leads (Howell and Macchio) towards the end of second act. Worth sticking with it for the great rumble scene at the end though.
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Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness switches the action from Africa to Vietnam to telling effect given the reverberations the East Asian context would have with an audience of the late 70’s and beyond. Thus, in Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard journeys up the Nung River with a boat full of assorted and richly drawn American GI’s to deal with Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz.
The stories behind the film’s making are legendary (a typhoon destroying the helicopters being used on the film, Martin Sheen’s health troubles, etc.) but the end product is a mesmerising and reflexive exploration of the dark side to humanity. Brando makes a brief but arresting appearance as the disturbed but magnetic leader of a rag-tag jungle army which includes Dennis Hopper in one of his more deranged roles (and that’s saying something!). However, Sheen’s contribution is just as important as Brando’s, if not more, as the film rests on his shoulders for the vast majority of its long duration. It’s a powerfully tempered performance that encapsulates, more than any of the others, the fragile and disturbing yet steely nature of man.
The last word, of course, should be reserved for Coppola for Apocalypse Now is a sublime piece of film-making. From the very opening sound that phases between the sound of helicopters and that ceiling fan to the illuminating shots that followed it to the audacious La Cavalcata Delle Valchirie sequence now immortalised as perhaps the most famous movie sequence of all time, the level of inspiration and innovation demonstrated here, both technical and from a purely artistic point of view, is simply spell-binding. It was also arguably Coppolla’s last truly great work and given that it was capping films like The Godfather Part I and Part II and The Conversation, he certainly seems to have burned twice as bright as practically every other director working at that time. And if Apocalypse Now really was his denouement as a genius director, it’s an utterly unforgettable piece of work to sign off on.
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Francis Ford Coppola’s follow-up to the seminal The Godfather is generally regarded not simply as the best sequel of all time but one of the best films of all time. The linear format of the first story is relinquished in favour of two interwoven tales. One focuses on Michael (Al Pacino) as he continues to lose the battle for his soul while the other tells the the tale of how a young Vito (played by Robert De Niro) managed to rise to the rank of Don Corleone during his early years in the US.
The Godfather Part II differs from the original in many distinct ways beyond the obvious format changes. The themes explored are much darker as Michael Corleone’s arc is replaced by a straight line of descent. While many authors would’ve been tempted to turn him into another Vito, it’s a sign of genuine integrity that Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola remained loyal to the character’s original complexities and charted an uncomfortably believable journey. Pacino has less range to play with, given that he was no longer juggling a contrasting character shift but he does have some murky depths to plum and he responds in astonishing fashion turning in one of the most intense performances we’ve ever seen on screen. De Niro rightly got much plaudits for his uncanny depiction of a young Brando but the more weighty and arresting acting was done by the former. That said, De Niro is truly magnetic as Vito Corleone in his prime and, as such, he gives the flashback sequences a different energy all together. Through his retro-engineering of Brando’s Vito and some awfully clever writing, these segments are chock full of fascinating clues as to what made Don Corleone the man he was. These sequences are also directed with more verve when they need to be but, during more important moments, they are slowed down to create a breathless tension. The rooftop sequence in particular (like the restaurant scene in The Godfather) is a veritable masterclass in pacing as Coppola lures us into the mind of Vito as he crosses that same threshold Michael was to cross years later in Louis’ restaurant.
The Godfather Part II is as much a masterclass in composition, lighting, framing, and pacing as the original was. The film opens with another gloriously constructed family sequence which Coppola uses to once again outline the various political and personal circumstances of the main players. The Cuban segments in particular stand out not only because they lighten the heavy mood of the Nevada segments and the earlier timeline but because of how Coppola incorporates the political intrigue (both outer and inner) into the wider story of Michael’s search for his hidden enemy. That said, it must be noted that, due to the inevitability of the Corleone family’s trajectory, The Godfather Part II does not maintain that same warmth and sense of connection that the events of the first film took place within. Even during the more unsettling moments of the original, there was always a sense of family and protection surrounding Michael and co. In this film, those securities have been almost completely eroded. Michael’s relationship with Kay (in another brilliant performance from Diane Keaton) withers and, with it, his trust in others begins to falter irrevocably. It’s a powerful piece of writing done justice by the equally impressive acting and directing.
Whether or not The Godfather Part II is better than the original will always be a matter of debate and perhaps more so, preference. What can be said, is that together they easily rank as one of the greatest two-part stories ever told on film. Alone, they are something just as special and equally timeless.
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“It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.” Francis Ford Coppola’s epic tale of the Corleone crime family’s battle to maintain their position at top of the mob underworld gives us two of the finest acting performances in history and is the peak of cinematic story-telling. The story opens with a lavish wedding which in addition to setting a contrasting tone to the latter half of the film outlines the dynamic of the Corleone family as well as the various political allegiances both of which will define the tensions to follow. This scene also counts as one of the most awesomely written, staged, edited, and shot openings in cinema history and has become a revered masterclass in film-making
With the main players and their relationships established, writers Mario Puzo and Coppola allow both to develop throughout the rest of the film in resonating style resulting in a tragedy of moral corruption as profoundly perceptive as anything we have seen before or since on film. Within the broader battles and strategies of the Corleone organisation’s fight to remain dominant lie the more interesting and richly drawn personal battles as hopes and ambitions are turned on their heads and Michael Corleone is drawn into the world from which his father fought to save him. There are no caricatures here as father and son, brother and brother, husband and wife, and enemy and enemy are turned and twisted against each other which intermittently boil over into one sublime and daring set piece after another. As Vito Corleone Marlon Brando is at his improvisational best and commands every bit of our attention when the camera is on him. It’s one of those rare performances that is so rich and intuitive that every aspect to the character’s personality and demeanor feels real and substantial. On the other hand, Al Pacino gives us the most complete and contemplative performance imaginable. He is nothing short of mesmerising as he transforms before our eyes from the young and innocent war hero to the cold and calculating puppet-master.
Rather than embracing the counter-culture of many of his contemporaries, Coppola tells the story in the classic style of old Hollywood and the result is a Shakespearian masterpiece of pacing and intrigue informed by Nino Rota’s seminal and mesmerising score. Philip Smith’s set decoration, Dean Tavoularis’ overall production design, and Gordon Willis’ cinematography are sumptuous to behold but seductive and engaging enough to comfortably contain a story as broad as the one told here. Coppola’s use of the visual feasts they serve up is truly inspired as he frames the slow and blisteringly fast drama and action with precision and controls their momentum with his trademark ultra-disciplined innovation. And in the scene where Michael meets Sollozzo and McClusky, he gives us perhaps the best example of tension building the medium has ever offered. Sublime indeed.