Apocalypse Now (1979)

I Didn’t Choose The Jungle, The Jungle Chose Me

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Apocalypse Now is one of the most, if not the hypnotic film I’ve ever seen, providing an eerie and otherworldly glimpse into hell itself. It’s a film I will think about when I’m in a daze of boredom such as being stuck in a classroom or a call centre while I’m slowly losing my mind as The End by The Doors goes through my head, all while I try to audibly recreate those helicopter sound effects from the film’s opening moments (once you hear Walter Murch’s sound effects you never forget them). Even the film’s synthesized score courtesy of Francis Ford Coppola’s own father Carmine Coppola, brings a real sense of unease and wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror movie. From the opening shot in which a serene green landscape is infiltrated by yellow fumes and bursts into flames, the war epic is a sensory experience like no other, making you feel the humidity of the jungle with its rich orange palette that bounces of the reflections of the river thanks to the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro. Yet Apocalypse Now looks shockingly contemporary, absent of any indicators that it was filmed in the 1970’s.

Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) is a man, whom to say the least, has been driven mad by his time in Vietnam. With Sheen’s everyman persona, Willard is a vehicle for the audience to view this world through, with a face which is able to express so much without dialogue (often with an unamused expression by the antics of the less experienced members of his crew) and perhaps most importantly, some of the best voice over work ever recorded with sheen’s unforgettable, grisly narration. While I am fortunate enough never to have experienced war, I can see the argument being made that Apocalypse Now is not only an inaccurate depiction of war, it is an absolutely ridiculous depiction of war. It’s said that war is boredom punctuated by moments of terror, yet Apocalypse Now presents a decade’s worth of crazy and surreal events condensed into a single mission. The attack on the Vietnamese village for example is one of the finest battle sequences committed to film and a masterpiece of mayhem captured on screen, and that’s only one of many escapades encountered by Willard and the crew of his boat. Likewise as is the case with other films from the 1970’s such as Black Sunday, it’s surprising from a modern perspective how companies would allow their IP’s to be used in films with dark subject matter, such as the case of Apocalypse Now with the use of the Playboy brand.

The mission briefing scene at the beginning of the film is a master class in the delivery of exposition. Alongside the striking nature of the dialogue itself such as General Corman’s (G.D. Spradlin) monologue about “good & evil” to the extensive use of props and food (that tape recorder sound effect is another unforgettable Murch sound effect), this 9-minute scene is never anything less than dramatically intense. I do love me some good military jargon (“This mission doesn’t exist, nor will it ever exist”) plus there is even some subtle humour slipped in such as Willard’s delayed, deadpan response to being informed that his assassination target Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has gone insane. However, what really makes the sequence ever so slightly nerve-racking is the presence of the CIA civilian Jerry (no name is mentioned in the scene yet the name is attributed to him). He shows no emotion with his penetrating stare and feels like the scene implies he holds the real power in the room and speaks only a single line, the chilling phrase “terminate with extreme prejudice”. The other notable addition to this scene is a very nerdy looking Harrison Ford as Colonel Gary Lucas (a reference to George Lucas). Ford delivers expository dialogue in an underplayed but striking manner and like his small role in Coppola’s The Conversation, he leaves an impression and leaves you wishing he was in the film more (Ford’s part was shot after the filming of Star Wars but prior it’s release). Ford was reportedly nervous about filming a scene that contained so much dialogue and Coppola incorporated this into his performance (I do wish however the deleted moment in which Lucas makes reference to John Wayne’s The Green Beret wasn’t left on the cutting room floor). Talk about a film with so many great lines to quote in your daily life as non-cinephiles look on at you in puzzlement. 

So which version of Apocalypse Now is superior? While the original on its own is a masterpiece and one I can turn towards for a more streamlined experience, I find the Redux version adds more layers of richness and complexity to an already stellar film, even turning it into something of an adventure film with all these extra detours. I’ve read criticisms of the pace regarding the Redux cut but I can tell you this viewer has no such pacing issues with this 3 hour and 16-minute version of the film. For starters, I do enjoy the addition of the sequence with the playmates at the rain-drenched camp. While it doesn’t add anything to the overall story, it provides some fascinating insight with the portrayal of harsh living conditions for the soldiers and what these men in the wilderness with their pent up rage fighting each other do when they finally get some female companionship. 

However, the greatest asset to Redux is the portion of the film at the French Plantation. This 23-minute long sequence taking place in a Shangri-La amidst a war zone offers closure to the character of Miller (Laurence Fishburne) with his burial but more significantly examines the often overlooked French colonial history of Vietnam. This is the only part of the film which directly delves right into politics as the cheese-eating surrender monkeys engage in some fascinating and increasingly intense political conversations. The French characters remain stoic as they declare their refusal to leave the plantation despite the war being in full swing due to France’s history of losing various conflicts as well as a monologue of how the United States apparently invented the Viet Cong. The heightened conversion even becomes humorous at one point as two of the Frenchmen started arguing in un-subtitled dialogue as they shout “communiste” and “socialiste” back at each other. The entire plantation sequence plays out like a dream with the use of mist, twilight lighting and later a purple sky. Throughout the aforementioned conversations, one of the woman, Madame Sarrault (Aurore Clémen) stares at Willard throughout the dinner with an attractive glaze. After the dinner, the two converse alone as the sky turns purple and she tells him of losing her husband to war before the two proceed to make love in a breathtaking and foreboding piece of romance, with the music during this moment being my favourite from the film’s score – equal parts haunting, equal parts beautiful.

As a counterbalance to all the death and destruction, there’s quite a bit of humour in Apocalypse Now from the movie being chocked full of mad lads. Late in the film, we are treated to a perfectly cast Dennis Hooper as burned out gonzo journalist who’s losing his mind in the jungle and spouting full-on hippie, pseudo-intellectual nonsense man! However, the king of Apocalypse Now’s eccentric characters has to be Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel William “Bill” Kilgore and his magnificent Calvary hat. For Kilgore war is not only just another day for him (he is completely unphased at one point when a bomb goes off close to him as those around him flinch) he disturbingly feeds off it and has fun along the way. He blasts Richard Wagner from loud speakers and casually drinks coffee while invading a Vietnamese village and once the crux of the invasion is complete, he wants to go surfing with his own branded surfboards. Even more Kilgore madness is present in Redux in which he is given a much more dramatic introduction as his helicopter complete with his calvary hat symbol and the phrase “Death From Above” imprinted on the front as it carries his royal chadness. Yet despite all this, Redux also includes an additional moment in which Kilgore is shown with a more human side as he guides a Vietnamese woman and her baby to safety. 

Come the final act of Apocalypse Now, we finally reach the human MacGuffin that is Marlon Brando as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. I have never been a huge fan of Marlon Brando, with his mumbling persona I often find it hard to take him seriously as an actor, but Apocalypse Now is one film in which I find him to be a compelling presence. Much has been said about Brando arriving to the film’s set overweight and unprepared for the role, yet Kurtz’ many ramblings are strangely compelling even though I have to ask myself when listening to them, “what the hell is this guy going on about?”.  It could easily have come off as Grandpa Simpson telling stories that don’t go anywhere but the immaculately light god-like figure doesn’t come off as such. What makes Kurtz final demise so fascinating is that he is a rare example of an adversary who willingly allows himself to be taken out – a man who has accepted his fate. There’s something beautiful to watching Willard pummel Kurtz as he falls to the ground along with the intercut shots of a water buffalo being mutilated as it too falls to the ground – it’s elegant and graceful despite its graphic nature. Despite the iconic typography of the film’s title, Apocalypse Now has neither a title screen nor any opening and closing credits, making it feel like a film that could be edited into an endless loop, going around in circles for hellish infinity. 

The Electric Horseman (1979)

Fondathon 4 Text

Now I’ll Choose Your Outfit. Robert Redford in Electric Horseman

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Electric Horseman is a very old fashioned movie for the 1970s; Its a return to the type of movie made during Hollywood’s more innocent days and could have easily been a vehicle for an actor like Gary Cooper. There’s something about the movie that’s just very wholesome to it from the absence of sex, bad language and the innocent nature from the “that would never happen in real life” plot which hits all the emotional beats. A movie in which you’re rooting for a horse is going to have something inherently innocent about it. Even the opening shot of a running horse is very similar to the opening shot of Sydney Pollack’s earlier film They Shoot Horses Don’t They but they are, tonally, completely different.

The opening montage catalogues the story of rodeo star Sonny Steele (Robert Redford); a rise and fall story which echoes Walter Matthau’s final words in A Face in the Crowd. Sonny, a once legitimate figure is now nothing more than a mascot for a product he doesn’t even use. He is trapped in a world of corporate superficiality; no surprise then that the movie is set in Las Vegas of all places. Even the villains of The Electric Horseman are two dimensional, slimy businessmen who don’t have an ounce of empathy. They are about as cliché as it gets but in an enjoyable love-to-hate way.

Sonny’s horse Rising Star is a metaphor for Sonny himself; the horse’s story is essentially Sonny’s. When he talks about what the horse has been through and its desire to be free, he is talking about himself – A former champion who is leading a pampered life and has become no more than a corporate icon. It’s clear that Sonny has no sex or family, as evident from his recent divorcee just like how Rising Star has been sedated by drugs. Sonny is left with no choice but to try and break free from this existence and set Rising Star (and metaphorically himself) free because anything’s better than the living hell he is currently experiencing.

Jane Fonda’s role as Hallie is a throwback to the fast-talking, Hildy Johnson like news reporter. I also have to question if Fonda’s hairstyle and glasses had any inspiration on the look of the titular character in Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie three years later. The scenes between Redford and Fonda alone in the wilderness are reminiscent of classic screwball comedy in the age-old classic “they hate each other but love in love” scenario. Likewise one of my favourite scenes in the film involves Sonny giving passionate monologue to Hallie about the horses’ mistreatment unaware he’s being recorded. Once he thinks the recording has started he has nothing interesting to say (“He’s one of the great animals…in the history…of animals”). A lesson to filmmakers of any stripe really.

I also imagine the inclusion of Dave Grusin’s Disco Magic probably didn’t help the move when it came out in December 1979; six months after the Disco Demolition Night. However, The Electric Horseman is part of Hollywood’s urban cowboy phase the late ’70s and early ’80s. This oxymoronic combination does give the film one of the most unique action sequences I’ve ever seen as Sonny rides his horse against an onslaught of police cars and motorcycles through a small town (I’d like to see this in Grand Theft Auto).

The ending in which Sonny releases Rising Star into the wild is ridiculous. How long would a champion racehorse survive in the wilderness? It would probably die of starvation and loneliness and certainly not be immediately accepted by a wild herd. But at the end of the day, it still strikes an emotional heartbeat.

The Frisco Kid (1979)

Hanukkah Solo

Its movies like The Frisco Kid which are right up my alley – a totally bizarre, odd ball comedy. A movie which feels like a classic Hollywood western but about a man who is in a totally alien world. The odd pairing of actors Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford works like a charm. Just like how you wouldn’t expect these actors to team up, you wouldn’t expect a rabbi and a Wild West cowboy to be a duo. There’s such pleasure watching the two interact and develop their odd, endearing bromance; Tommy (Ford) has no reason to stay with Avram (Wilder) other than he’s formed a liking to him. Harrison Ford goes from space cowboy in Star Wars to actual cowboy in The Frisco Kid, showing he really had a knack for playing ruffians. However, his character is not just a Han Solo redux. Unlike Solo, he’s not just out for himself but wants to give a helping hand to underdogs.

The Frisco Kid showcases the absurdity of faith but also celebrates it at the same time. Rabbi Avram Belinski follows his faith to a tee (despite being ranked almost last among his peers strangely enough). He would put his life and the lives of others on the line for the Torah or in order to obey the Sabbath. Yet Tommy defends and even lauds Avram’s actions as a man dedicated to his faith, even if he put his life in danger for religious reasons.

Likewise the Native Americans they encounter along their travels have a failure to understand the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In one dialogue exchange, the Indian chief is perplexed that this God can make rain yet he doesn’t because as Avram puts it, “that’s not his department”. Yet the chief asks if he wanted to he could, and Avram replies yes. Yet Avram contradicts this statement later in their discussion when he proclaims God can do anything; the chief responds with “then why can’t he make rain?” and Avram loudly states “because he doesn’t make rain!”. However, on top of this Avram tells the chief that there is only one God and that he’s your God too. Take that as a bit of falsifying another’s faith.

However, The Frisco Kid is a movie which showcases peace and unity between cultures. Along his travels, Avram encounters whites, blacks, Native Americans, Christian monks and the Amish. When he first encounters the Amish he mistakes them for rabbis due to their similar attire, perhaps symbolising that we’re not all so different. Here Gene Wilder shows he is an actor who is not afraid to celebrate their religion and culture on screen; even if he is playing a neurotic Jew but not in an annoying way. The Frisco Kid is a movie which could possibly appeal to the both the religious minded and the atheist alike.

Rocky II (1979)

Rocky II: Electric Boogaloo

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Rocky II picks right off where the first movie ended and with the characters are already established, we can get right into the story. Stallone writes and directs this time, and who knows his own creation better than him?

Rocky II has a much higher budget than the first film and thus doesn’t have the guerrilla filmmaking tactics of the first so while it loses something in that regard it’s still no less a beauty of a film. They can even afford to have a huge crowd of kids following him during the training montage and possibly the cheesiest moment in any Rocky movie. We now get two montages instead of one and the series obsession with them would grow from here. The final fight benefits the most from the higher budget. We actually get to see a large crowd of spectators instead of relying on stock footage and camera angels disguising the lack of extras; while the use of slow-motion captures the pain and barbaric nature of fighting in glorious detail. When Rocky and Apollo both fall to the ground at the end of the fight, the suspense is crazy! The final shot of Rocky’s beat up face as he slurs in classic Stallone fashion is so barbaric; a perfect shot to end the movie on.

In Rocky II we get to see what Rocky does now that he has lots of money for the first time in his life and you really get a sense of the character’s new found happiness. However, he becomes blinded by this happiness and it goes to his head such as when he buys a house without even checking the upstairs. Rocky struggles with his new found fame and can’t even film a simple commercial. Just like how the public turn their back on Rocky, the public turned their back on Stallone after his two follow up films to Rocky bombed; Paradise Alley and F.I.S.T. Like how Stallone had to do a sequel to Rocky in order to get by, Rocky has to fight Apollo again to get by and prove that he is not a fluke or a one hit wonder. Apollo’s trainer Duke also has a bigger role here and would continue to be more prevalent in Rocky III and IV; I love this guy and his intense words of inspiration.

Rocky II is easily the funniest movie in the series, from his poor driving skills to his mispronunciation of words when trying to film a commercial (“Smeel mainly”) but my favourite moment is when he tries to a catch a chicken as part of his training (“I feel like a Kentucky Fired Idiot”). I also find it funny the scene in which Apollo is being consumed by hate mail telling him to kill himself; it’s a good thing for him the web doesn’t yet exist. In terms of more twisted humour, Rocky takes Adrian to the zoo and even proposes to her there, because you know, retards like the zoo.

Rocky II was the first film in the series to use synthesizers in its score and the music feels very late 70’s and at times disco inspired (listen to the vocal version of All of My Life, it’s beautiful). Bill Conti’s ‘Redemption’ is by far the best piece of original music in the movie; it makes me want to climb a mountain.
Just a side note: In regards to the Rocky DVDs, only the first movie gets the special edition treatment and the rest are just bare bones releases. I know the first is considered the best but that doesn’t mean there’s no merit to the sequels that they’re just tossed aside on the home video releases.

Rocky II offers everything I could ask for in a sequel, a movie which stays true to the original but offers new elements along the way. It advances the story and adds an extra layer of depth to already complex characters. In 1979 the New Hollywood movement was coming to an end and the age of the blockbuster had begun. In 1976 Rocky lost the final fight but keeping with the newfound optimism in Hollywood movies, in 1979 Rocky wins the fight (although timeline wise its late 1976).

Cactus Jack (1979)

Meep Meep!

Kirk Douglas and Arnold Schwarzenegger did a movie together? Yeah, I couldn’t believe it at first either. But that’s only the tip the iceberg of bizarreness that is Cactus Jack. It’s also a live-action Road Runner cartoon! So let’s sum this up: “One of the all-time Hollywood greats and the granddaddy of cheesy action movies team up for a live-action road runner cartoon.” How did this movie bypass me for so long?

Douglas (in remarkable shape for 61) wasn’t as a big a star as he once was by the 1970s, so did he take this role due to lack of superior film offerings or was he not ashamed to show that he had a sense of humour about himself as the inept, out of his league outlaw Cactus Jack Slade. It’s also worth noting the relationship he has with his horse named Whiskey parallels to that he shared with a horse of the same name in a previous Kirk Douglas film Lonely are the Brave from 1962 – with the one difference being that the Whiskey in Cactus Jack acts in a cartoonish, anthropomorphic manner.

I’m also not sure if much of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s line delivery is supposed to be intentionally or unintentionally funny in the role of the male bimbo Handsome Stranger as he is oblivious to the sexual advances of Ann Margret’s Charming Jones. The scene in which Handsome narrates a flashback about when he tried to stop a bunch of runaway horses from injuring women, children and old men while trying his hardest to emote cracks me up.

The main problem with Cactus Jack is that the jokes are very hit and miss, from well-timed gems to moments of head-scratching awkwardness. At 85 minutes it’s already a short movie but even then it could have trimmed down to meet the requirements of its high concept premise. The roadrunner inspired gags are undoubtedly the highlight as Jack pulls props and elaborate setups out of thin air. By far my favourite gag is the classic painting a tunnel onto the side of a rock; having this gag in a cartoon is funny itself, however, I find having it played out in live-action is even funnier in the sense that I couldn’t believe they were doing a live-action rendition of this joke, having me pondering if that the carriage would really go through that painted tunnel.

On the other hand, other slapstick gags in the film don’t make a whole heap of sense even within the film’s cartoon world nor appear to have a clear method as to what Cactus Jack is trying to do in order to take down Handsome Stranger and Charming. Likewise, Cactus Jack is not a film that is particularly well-directed although a sleeker project would have less charm. This is the type of film I can watch more than once based purely on its novelty value and I’m happy it exists, even in its very flawed state.