Classic Films: Apocalypse Now

Next up in the list of ‘Classic films everyone’s bugging me to see’ is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now. It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning 2.

The action centres around Captain Benjamin Willard, a US Army officer sent on a special mission to track down and kill rogue Special Forces Colonel Walter Kurtz. It has one of the most celebrated casts of any movie in history, including Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and a young Laurence Fishburne.

Also Harrison Ford as you've never seen him before.

Let me just say now, that as with Blade Runner, I did not watch the original theatrical release version. What I put into my DVD player was ‘Apocalypse Now Redux’, which allows for a further 49 minutes of footage cut in by Coppola himself. In total, that took the running time up to a whopping 3 hours 15 minutes.

Though, from the initial half an hour, that doesn’t seem too bad at all. After all, the very first scene in the movie is this…

Sit through it, ladies. Like we did when you wanted to watch The Notebook.

Then you have a minute or so of Martin Sheen (as Willard) method acting a breakdown, going to collect his mission, and then… oh yeah, helicopters and Wagner combine to create more explosions.

I mean, I know you girls like romance, but that was just unnecessarily soppy.

At this point in time, despite the explosions and general massacre, the mood is unnervingly upbeat. The Americans, led by Lt. Kilgore (Duvall), are fairly jovial, chatting about surfing and that most delectable smell of napalm in the morning. Then we split off with Willard and his crew on the long journey to find Kurtz (Brando). By this time in the Redux version, we get to see some extra bits added back in by Coppola. And I have to say, it almost ruins the entire film. A couple of scenes (particularly those involving Playboy Playmates and French colonialists), while vaguely interesting from a psychological point of view, kill the pace of the film dead. And its not often you can say that about Playmates.

You’ll also notice that Brando hasn’t appeared as of yet. Nor does he (having pocketed a then whopping $3.5 million fee), for the first 2 hours of this movie. But eventually Willard and Co. make it upstream to meet Kurtz. And we get the epic confrontation we’ve been waiting for since the beginning of the film. And it is fantastic… at least I think so. Because throughout the last hour, Coppola likes to obscure the principal characters in darkness. And I mean every scene.

The way I see it, I'm missing out on 50% of Brando's facial acting ability.

I won’t tell you how it goes, but yeah. That takes you up to the end of Apocalypse Now. So, how do I rate it?

Well, the visuals are staggering. From beaches to jungles, the scenery is always compelling. You can even feel the muggy Vietnamese climate on the sweat-drenched faces of the cast. A cast, I might add, that excels. Duvall won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and Brando does a superb job as ever. However, for most of the film, Sheen is left to carry scenes on his own merit, which he does expertly.

Again, note the absence of light in the scene.

The narration features his unmistakably husky voice, and helps showcase the film’s strongest point: the script. Aside from the famous napalm line, there are many unheralded gems throughout the script, as well there should be, with the numerous rewrites during filming that Coppola insisted on.

However, as I said earlier, the Redux version has a few flaws. Many of the restored scenes sap the film of its rhythm and direction. And being over 3 hours long, I can only describe it simply as too much of a good thing. So by all means watch it, but get the original. And tell me how it is.

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Classic Films: Blade Runner

So, the results are in for the classic movie poll! And as you can clearly see, you suck.

Seriously, 6 votes? Spread thinner than chocolate sauce on Keira Knightley’s midriff (try not to judge me for that thought). So it seems no-one has seen the classic movies so lauded by cinematic hot-heads everywhere. In the lead, with 15.8% of the vote (see how stupid that sounds?), is Apocalypse Now. Four movies (Casablanca, The Godfather, The Good The Bad and The Ugly and Blade Runner) came second with 13.16%. Out of those, I picked The Godfather and Blade Runner to critique. So over the next month, you should receive reviews of all three.

Starting with Blade Runner, mainly as it is the one out of the above my dad has been bugging me to see. And for good reason, having been named as the best ever sci-fi movie by IGN and The Guardian, and 20th in Empire’s Top 500 Films of All Time. So last night, we all sat in anticipation of one of the best science fiction films ever made. Yet, I am under obligation to tell purists just which version I saw. Because it is a movie that has been endlessly tinkered with, to the tune of 7 seperate versions. The one we settled down to was the ‘Final Cut’, also known as The One Version Ridley Scott Was In Control Of. I don’t know how much it differs from the others, and I don’t feel I need to. If it’s the version the director wants, it should be the best version, period.

Anyway, the plot is as follows… The year is 2019. Bio-engineered clones of human life were once commonplace as slave labour on Earth colonies. Yet after sentience-inspired uprisings they have been declared illegal, and to be destroyed upon sight. In light of this, the newest batch of ‘replicants’, Nexus 6, were engineered with a life span of four years, so as to not have time to develop any particular emotional substance. Four of the said newest batch have commandeered a vessel back to Earth in order to meet their maker and gain an extended lifespan. Harrison Ford is the titular ‘Blade Runner’ assigned to track these replicants down and ‘retire’ them. Following so far? I hope so.

Rutger Hauer

To be fair, films usually make it quite easy to work out who the baddie is. Hint: This guy.

First off, the premise doesn’t need much more going into than that. The plot is fairly simple, a cat and mouse game of hunting down the ‘bad guys’. On a deeper level, if you wish to explore them, belongs a discussion on what it is to be human and, more importantly, what it is to live. And the acting all around is superb. Harrison Ford is rarely sub par in any movie, Darryl Hannah juxtaposes humanoid vibrancy and mechanic efficiency to great effect, and Sean Young is possibly the most human character, as a replicant whose implanted memory feels too real for her to come to terms with the realisation that she is an android. However for me, the show is stolen by head replicant Rutger Hauer. He is an exhilarating source of power and suspense throughout, dominating every scene he occupies. It’s a wonder I haven’t seen him in more films.

Rutger Hauer

If you want to catch him this summer in a film release, this is where to go. Seriously.

And yet, if I was to pick anything that was particularly scene stealing, it would be the scenery itself. In this film, Ridley Scott creates a spectacular visual landscape for Earth in 2019. In films I see now, the CGI has made cityscapes look very good. I mean it; very clean, accurate and crisp. But I wouldn’t consider them breathtaking, even in the way that a film from 1982 could do with the creativity of a futuristic landscape.

Wooooah.

It’s not about being vast, or accurate, or even pretty. It’s about having a sense of place, something defining and awe inspiring. That is the kind of thing Blade Runner possesses.

If I were to find a fault with this film, it might be that the lack of a particularly complex plot left certain acts dragging on longer than they needed to, and gave the film a sense of plodding along at a pace of its own. But that is only a criticism because you made me think of one, you bloodthirsty hounds.

Ultimately, the question with all these films, ones that are deemed ‘classics’, is this: Do I need to watch this film, before I expire from an untimely, Kentuck Fried Chicken related death? In the case of Blade Runner, no. You don’t need to see it. But you really, really should.

Classic Films

This is just a thought for future blogs. How often have you had someone scream, ‘How can you NOT have seen that film? It’s a classic!’, at you? For me, it appears that for being an aspiring critic, I haven’t seen that many classic movies. So the idea I had was to find the least watched ‘classic’, see it for myself, and blog about it. Well, it seems more favourable to me than going to see ‘Horrible Bosses’ or ‘Bad Teacher’. Though of course if they end up being future classics, I’ll be kicking myself. So vote on the movies below that you haven’t seen, but are interested in, and I’ll get right on it.

The New Noir(e)

Oh dear. Well… this is awkward.

It’s been 5 long, lonely months in the wilderness for us. I’ve got a degree now. You’ve probably, I don’t know, got a job in a Cafe Nero somewhere? I’m sure taking some time apart has been good for us, and now we can come back stronger than before.

Now, what prompts my return? I do believe that I promised in my last blog that, after critiquing Rockstar’s western success Red Dead Redemption, I would review their new title, L.A. Noire.

L.A. Noire follows the renowned tradition of Rockstar games in years past. Take a uniquely visual setting (in this case 1940’s Los Angeles), recreate it with immaculate attention to detail and sandbox the hell out of it. In L.A Noire you play as Cole Phelps, a decorated WW2 hero that arrives back home to carve out a career in the police force. You work your way through various police departments, solving crimes and hunting down the bad guys. Throw in a mixture of good guys and shady characters, and you’ve got yourself a game, fellas.

Except this game has  evolved beyond its prior counterparts. This time Rockstar have created a title that could have a big effect on future gaming. For starters it relatively dismisses the shoot first, ask questions later philosophy of Grand Theft Auto and the Red Dead Series. L.A Noire requires a certain amount of patience and concentration if you want to complete it fairly successfully and with minimal frustration. I often found that, had I discovered that business card in the victims pocket, I could have solved the case fractionally earlier. Not that you can ever not solve a case. You always seem to get to an endpoint sooner or later, and while disappointing, it does give the incentive of trying that case again at a later date to see what you missed out on.

Damn you, Tomoko Okamoto!

However, much more exciting is the new technology that Rockstar invested in especially for this new title. The MotionScan equipment films the actors using a wide variety of cameras from multiple angles, to create without doubt the most accurate facial movements ever seen in a game. And what a cast it uses, with actors from Mad Men, Dexter and Lord of the Rings.

Also, this guy.

While star voice turns in video games aren’t unheard of (Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Martin Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Christopher Walken, Mickey Rourke and Sean Bean have all done it), their faces haven’t often followed. This brings us a step closer to proper acting in video games. Though that may still be a few years off, as we can see from L.A. Noire.

The reason for all this super realism in character movements is due to the super sleuth nature of L.A. Noire. A big proportion of the game is asking questions and interrogating witnesses. The ability to pick up on subtle facial hints to determine if potential suspects are being truthful is an exciting new concept. However, it doesn’t tend to be that subtle.

If they’re telling the truth, they sit fixed akin to a taxidermy exhibit. However, any attempts at lying and the suspects are as animated as Stevie Wonder in full flow.

Don't get me wrong. I love this guy.

The story is supreme, with interweaving plot lines and flashbacks that run through the whole story, slowly uncovering the big case and the men behind it. Rockstar seem to go the extra mile with details in their games, and the cars, suits and general racism/misogyny all run through this excellent tribute to the idyllic 1940’s (I kid, I kid).

God-damn broads. Can't keep their pretty little faces out of a man's business.

My point being: It’ll take a few years, but with constantly improving graphics, motion capture, scripting, cast talent and a generally increasing gamer base, we should anticipate games becoming  properly mainstream.  And this game will be cited as the turning point.

The Western Revival

So, its been almost a month since my last blog, and I can guess what some of you are thinking: “Do you not have the heart to write a regular blog? Can’t you spare any empathy for us freeloading opinion spongers?” Well, calm yourselves down. For while every other reviewer has been jumping on the Big Fat Gypsy Weddings bandwagon (which is fully understandable considering its pure gawp appeal), I decided to do try something different. I wanted to study a genre, one that until recently has been personally untapped. Of course, I’m making this seem like a big announcement, but you’ve read the title so…yeah, let’s just get on with it, eh?

Of course, by now I am expected to have decided what I like and don’t like. But there are always things that I associate too freely with certain genres. For example, I see most romantic comedies as turgid, unoriginal drivel. And modern R&B always strikes me as… turgid, unoriginal drivel. So you can guess what my initial feelings were about westerns. Its all about a couple of goodies against a few more baddies, in small town in the middle of the desert. Yawn.

But I recently remembered the words of a certain Mr. Fry who I met last September (yes, if I have a name I’m damn well going to drop it). He believed that university is the perfect place to try new things, and to become more cultured whatever your background. And apart from my housemate introducing me to such vapid feces of ‘art’ as Owl City and All Time Low (it’s always worth testing to see if he reads this),  I don’t believe I have.

So I watched my first ever western, not counting Blazing Saddles, as I have no idea what it was parodying. Directed and starring Clint Eastwood (who I was also unfamiliar with), Unforgiven has a stellar cast of Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman and Richard Harris. It follows the story of two retired gunslingers (Eastwood and Freeman) who pick up their weapons one last time to collect a bounty set by a group of disgruntled prostitutes. Standing in their way is a ruthless Sheriff (played superbly by Hackman) who, in a must-see scene of cinema, disassembles the classic western duel. I really shouldn’t give anything away, but if you are as new to westerns as I was, its a pretty damn good place to start.

Not pictured: A dead man walking.

However, what I really want to talk about is what may be the single biggest factor in bringing the Old West back into style: Red Dead Redemption. It has been acclaimed as one of the games of the year, and I hail it as one of the games of my lifetime. From Rockstar, creators of the Grand Theft Auto series, it follows ex-outlaw John Marston on the hunt for his old gang members in a bid to free his wife and son from government capture.

He's like a western version of Omar from The Wire.

It possesses most of the things that made GTA such a success; miles of space free to roam, colourful characters to interact with, and a campaign of missions that should take at least 20 hours of your time to complete. Not until recently were scripting and story development considered in any way important to a game. Yet somehow RDD can fill over 20 hours of gameplay with non stop action, character arcs, decent dialogue and intuitive gameplay. The slow-mo Dead Eye mode is a fantastic addition to live out the dream of dispatching multiple enemies at a time. There are so many different ways to go about your way in the west, which I can only start to list. Such as clearing out gang hideouts, hunting and skinning animals, picking wild herbs, duelling, transporting dynamite whilst shooting bandits, playing Blackjack or Poker, hunting for treasure… well, you get the picture.

Yes, the game may have come out almost a year ago now, but with new Rockstar creation L.A. Noire out in the Spring (which I will also be taking a look at soon enough) Red Dead Redemption might just be starting to come down to a bargain price. For the amount of entertainment you will get out of it, I would recommend a look round the shops in a couple of months time, for those who have that Smith and Wesson sized hole in their heart. And with the money you save, you may want to splurge on the expansion pack, Undead Nightmare, in which you fight off a horde of frontier zombies. Amongst other things.

Oh come on, thats hardly fair.