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The Best Directors: A Series—Francis Ford Coppola

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On my best of 1970–74 list numbers 2, and 3, and 6 are The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II and The Conversation. How good can Coppola be if none of those even made my #1 spot in a period of 5 years. To that I would offer Apocalypse Now. That was the best film of at least the last 5 years of the 1970’s. What makes those films so great varies from film to film. Even The Godfather films, while both distinctly his, differ greatly from each other in message, organization and style.

In between those two acknowledged classics came The Conversation starring Gene Hackman. He plays a professional eavesdropper. He is not even a private investigator, but merely someone who records things professionally. He is the best, but he has reservations about one recording and gains a conscience. Duvall, Ford, Cazale, Garr…and he gets the best out of them. Just like he did in The Godfather.

In Apocalypse Now he got Martin Sheen drunk, Robert Duvall crazy, and Marlon Brando under control. Combining those strengths and following that boat down the river into Cambodia, he shows the Vietnam War better than any other movie—and some great directors have tried, including Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick.

Those four films outshine the careers of all but a few directors. He directed them in a row. While filming The Conversation in between the Godfather films was impressive, to follow up those three with Apocalypse Now is unheard of. To put that into comparison, Sergio Leone directed A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, AND Once Upon A Time in The West in a row, but those were all Westerns. Leone opened the door to spaghetti westerns and then eulogized it beautifully. Coppola created/legitimized mob movies, before creating an almost perfect cerebral thriller, and revolutionizing the war genre.

If he had died then, he might be considered the greatest director of all-time. He still can be, but he did make some stinkers before returning for the coda that everyone thought they wanted—The Godfather: Part III. Clearly, it does not hold up when compared to parts I & II. Yet, neither does The Prestige, Hot Fuzz, Scarface, Platoon, or any number of very good movies. As best as I can recall, Part III deserved its Oscar Best Picture & Direction nominations. How could it when up against Costner and his Dances With Wolves??

Coppola’s next motion picture was Dracula, aka “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Coppola’s greatest success in this was that he successfully made a genre picture, without losing his personal stamp. Kevin Smith has Cop Out, and that has his stamp, but was not a very good movie. Brett Ratner has Rush Hours 1 & 2, X-Men 3, and Red Dragon, but has no stamp to put on his films. Coppola is a true auteur, who also succeeded within the Hollywood system.

Catch Me If You Can

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****½

In the past six months he’s gone to Harvard and Berkeley, I think he can get a passport.

You, Carl Hanratty, catch me, Frank W. Abagnale, Jr., if you can. So who is Carl Hanratty? He is an FBI agent assigned to capture Frank W. Abagnale, Jr (Tom Hanks). And Frank W. Abagnale, Jr (Leonardo DiCaprio)…who is he?

He’s the junior to Christopher Walken’s Senior. He’s a student. He’s a substitute French teacher. He’s a co-pilot. He’s a chief of medicine. He’s an assistant prosecutor. He’s a globetrotter. Oh yeah, and he’s a con artist.

Good supporting roles in this film: Ellen Pompeo as a flight attendant named Marci, so cute; Elizabeth Banks as a bank teller, so cute; Jennifer Garner as a model, so beautiful; Amy Adams as a nurse, so unique; Martin Sheen as a prosecutor, so Southern; Robert Peters & Frank John Hughes as FBI agents, so Federal; and James Brolin as a businessman, so sleazy. Together they add up to a wonderful group for Steven Spielberg to direct.

It surprised me to note that I have made no comment on Tam Hanks’ performance. Without “Gumping it up,” or relying on him romantic comedy charm, his character manages to obtain your support, without losing sympathy for Abagnale. Rarely does an actor steal the show, without stealing the scenes he is in. Well done, Mr. Spielberg, well done.

The Best Directors: A Series—Christopher Nolan

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Instead of ranking the best directors—since that backfired miserably—I will simply provide an argument for why my favorite directors, should be on a list of the best directors.

Starting with Christopher Nolan should not surprise anyone: Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises. I have not seen Insomnia yet, and no-one has seen The Dark Knight Rises because it does not exist yet, but those two movies will be great, because Christopher Nolan only makes movies that 29 year-olds like me think are great. Nolan creates realities for his characters and provides them with interesting things to say. While he may not have the greatest dialogue skills, he casts his movies so well and sets the tone for film, that over the top lines do not seem so over the top.

I loved Memento when I saw it in my friend Phil’s dorm room in the Summer of 2001. We got it from Netflix—we were ahead of the curve, don’t hate. The film blew me away. It opened my eyes to the power of hiding things from the audience. Less skilled directors lie with their camera lenses, but Memento captured Guy Pierce’s condition and put the viewer into his shoes. Of course, we can form memories, so it took some clever editing to achieve those ends.

Batman Begins could have been a joke. Even the original Tim Burton Batman fails to hold up, despite very strong performances by Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Nolan succeeded in making this a very good movie by updating Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One story. His use of montage and dual levels of villainy created both an accessible film  as well as a mentally stimulating one. He also managed to pull this off with a new cast. Yes, Bale, Caine, Murphy, Neesom, Holmes, Oldman, Watanabe, and Wilkinson are all excellent actors—well, not Katie Holmes, but she is famous—but Nolan had never worked with them before. To wrangle all of those egos into something as successful as this deserves recognition.

Unlike Batman Begins, which I wish would at least not suck, I rooted against The Prestige because it seemed destined to outdraw The Illusionist. What this comes down to is defining a sad, dark reality and then somehow pulling out a surprisingly disturbing ending. Nolan teamed up with Bale and Caine again, but gave first billing to Hugh Jackman.

Most people love The Dark Knight. It made approximately one billion dollars for a reason. I have read and listened to a lot of criticism, some of which is valid, but what this boils down to is that this film had some amazing performances and got people thinking and talking. And then it got them back into the theater to see it again. And then they bought it on DVD/Blu Ray or semi-illegally downloaded it. He somehow managed to let Heath Ledger steal the show, without losing the audience’s support for Batman. Bale even got his share of great lines and scenes. Thus, while Nolan the writer may have wasted Two-Face, Nolan the writer/director still sends chills through me every time Batman runs away from those dogs while Commissioner Gordon says, “Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.” Fuck yeah.

Everything that I wrote about The Dark Knight can be said for Inception. I am glad that he used Caine, Watanabe, and Murphy again. He balances the old with the new, incorporating new actors and styles into his very old job of telling an interesting story that leaves you thinking. That is why I know that The Dark Knight Rises will be great as well.

Best Ten Directors…OF ALL-TIME

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The title of this post is WRONG. The following list is a testament to trial and error.

1. Christopher Nolan
2. Francis Ford Coppola
3. Sergio Leone
4. Milos Forman
5. Bryan Singer
6. Peter Jackson
7. Stanley Kubrick
8. Paul Greengrass
9. Guy Ritchie
10. Jay Chandrasekhar

I have already put up my first director and once I get through these ten I will take this down. Oy.

Wonderland

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***½

You said that anyone who sells their body for money is a whore.

Val Kilmer plays John Holmes, so that is rather depressing. To make things less depressing he, and most characters in 1970s California seem to do a lot of drugs. One lesson the movie shows early on is, if you want people to forgive you, give them coke. But the tone moves somewhere brighter when a series of murders take place.

To fill out the story there is a great supporting cast, including pure 70s looking mofos like Eric Bogosian and Ted Levine. Oddly enough, Dermot Mulroney–playing David Lind–tells most of the story. Except when the drugs tell the story, man! Eventually we get Val Kilmer as Mr. Rashomon, to tell it and even one little scene with a young Paris Hilton—hot!

In the end, this is like a gory Hollywoodland. I love Hollywoodland, but I do not think that I loved this movie, but it is not because of the goriness. Films that strive for realism have a duty to show violence in a negative light. The impressive aspect of this is how it predates A History of Violence. I can see why no-one has seen this movie, but it’s still a good one.

A Few Good Men

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****

They beat up on a weakling; that’s all they did. The rest is just smokefilled coffee-house crap. They tortured and tormented a weaker kid. They didn’t like him. So, they killed him. And why? Because he couldn’t run very fast. 

I am not a big fan of Aaron Sorkin. Since this movie is his adaption of his play, the actors had to deliver his dialogue. Fortunately, Demi Moore, Tom Cruise, Kevin Pollack, Keifer Sutherland, Jack Nicholson, and J. T. Walsh—everyone except for Kevin Bacon— each can bring the craziness that his characters require. Since all of the characters have a crazy side, there is no Atticus Finch in this legal movie.

Since none of the characters are flawless, when the protagonists succeed, their victories are not complete, nor do those victories make them great. Moreover, the characters whom we may root against are not wholly bad—except Keifer Sutherland, but then again, has he ever played a likable guy? So the bad guys, whether weak or wrongheaded, still do positive things. Lastly, this movie did not offend me as a lawyer, which is impressive.

Another Year

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***½

I’m bursting for a pee.

Should you feel guilty for leading a happy life with someone whom you love? The film opens with Spring and is called Another Year, so it was clear that there would be four chapters. While the film presented good acting and some very awkward moments, there was also the obligatory death during Winter. Because that is what happens in movies divided into seasons. I did appreciate how Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) actually tilled a little soil and grew some vegetables, as if to prove that the seasons truly passed in their lives.

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