I have spent all day experimenting with titles and dissolves and I thought it might be a good idea to focus them on star entrances, that delightful trope where stars are given a moment in film, like a little bow, a bit of sparkle to delight the audience who has paid money to see them. Star entrances usually fulfil a double function: the delight of recognition as spectacle but also the moment of introducing the star as the character they will play in the film. This type of entrance was a staple of the classic period and became a trope of 1970s all-star films such as The Cassandra Crossing or Murder on The Orient Express or The Towering Inferno or the like.
I’ve put up the initial credit sequence above so you can see a kind of homology between the actors who are top-billed, in this case Richard Harris and Sophia Loren, but whose entrance gets delayed to the end of the sequence, and how the film in fact presents the star entrances. There are those who receive special billing at the end that nonetheless underlines their significance — in this instance Burt Lancaster — but who makes the first star entrance and is given a similar amount of time to Sophia, who is top billed, is given more time than anybody but is presented last.
The ordering of these I’m sure have been as carefully weighed as a vaudeville program of yesteryear. Ava Gardner is magnificently displayed on her own; Ingrid Thulin is rendered significant by the close-ups and the authority of the character she plays but appears into a group. Of the others, John Phillip Law, Martin Sheen merely appear and are barely noticed; others still are given more space than their names and careers would normally have warranted (Ray Lovelock, Anne Turkel), whilst the significance of others still (Lee Strasberg, O.J. Simpson) will be well known to those who grew up in the seventies but might bewilder younger viewers. I hope that seeing the credit sequence above in relation to the star entrances below — presented in order of appearance — will be delightful and instructive, ie maybe have fun and get some idea.
Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1979 war epic, once renovated already in 2001’s Redux, now sees a second altered version, restored in 4K from the original negative, 40 years since it first came out – Apocalypse Now: Final Cut. And what an extraordinary film it remains. José has endless praise for the genius work of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro – this film defines painting with light – and in the cinema it visually dazzles, iconic, bold imagery in every frame. The scale of Coppola’s production still amazes, particularly in those early scenes with Robert Duvall’s manaical Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore orchestrating helicopters, napalm, infantry, smoke, music and surfers to insane, theatrical effect. And in its long fades between images, superimposing almost abstract compositions over one another, José feels the influence of the avant garde and marvels at what was possible in that era.
Marlon Brando’s famous role as Kurtz at the end is shorter than José recalls, in part because the French plantation segment, not present in the theatrical cut, shortens it proportionally; in part because the film focuses on him as the target of Willard’s mission from the start, giving him ample time to settle in our minds; but mostly because Kurtz is so iconic, Brando investing him with such gravity and Coppola shooting and editing him with such care and confidence, that he defines our lasting impression of the film. Even when we finally reach him, far along the Nùng river, he still takes as long as he wishes to emerge from the shadows.
Mike finds issue with the film’s depiction of Vietnam, suggesting that in the film’s determination to adhere to Heart of Darkness, the 1899 Joseph Conrad novella on which it is based, it presents an inaccurate and problematic view of Vietnam as uncivilised, its people savages – but is quick to accept that such inaccuracies are far from unique to Apocalypse Now, and José argues that the USA found it impossible to deal with its loss in Vietnam. Mike also queries Willard’s motivations, asking what drives him and what his aim is, suggesting that alongside the psychological damage it wreaks, the film depicts an attractive aspect to war, a desire for it.
There’s no question that Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece of cinema. On the small screen one can appreciate its beauty and madness – on the cinema screen, one feels it. If and when it comes around, you cannot miss it.
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See below for about a billion screenshots Mike took this morning in his own manic episode. Some relate to things we discuss in the podcast, others are chosen for.. any other reason you’d care to mention. They’re just incredible images.
Now You See Me: The Second Act (John M. Chu, 2016)
I rather liked Now You See Me; and I love caper films, magic, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Morgan Freeman. But all of that together didn’t add up to liking Now You See Me: The Second Act. Daniel Radcliffe is a very unsatisfactory villain; that he’s often paired with Michael Caine in the frame invites comparison and only highlights his shortcomings: one can see that Radcliffe is giving a performance that’s been thought through but Caine still squeezes more out of one tired look or the way he says ‘bastard’ than Radcliffe does from his whole frantic performance. Moreover, the camera woozes about all over the place. And the cons have to be painstakingly explained as an addendum at the finale. It wasn’t painful to watch. And there was a moment where one of the wonderful card-trick set-pieces was revealed, where the guy behind me said ‘Ooohh that’s so sexy’. But it could have been so much better. The inclusion of Chinese elements (language, location, casting) as a way of catering specifically for that market I have mixed feelings about: it could be enrichingly multicultural or it could seem a cheap commercial gimmick. Here it feels the latter. Too bad.
The Legend of Tarzan (David Yates, 2016)
Will anyone care that The Legend of Tarzan is terrible?: Christoph Waltz is the villain and Alexander Skarsgard swings half-naked from trees on IMAX. The filmmakers have tried really hard to resolve issues of racial representation. It’s everywhere evident. But they’ve failed, again; and it might just be that they are insurmountable if one takes Edgar Rice Burrough’s world as a given. This is all a fight against the King of the Belgians enslaving the peoples of the Congo; so its got a historical basis which neatly creates a villain whilst leaving a history, not to mention an analysis, of British colonialism untouched and neatly off the hook: the racial politics are, at best, contorted. Margot Robbie is acceptable but doesn’t shine. Samuel L. Jackson is Samuel L. Jackson. Waltz is Waltz. Djimon Hounsou looks and acts better than both. But Hounsou’s performance and Alexander Skasgård swinging half-naked from a tree do not compensate: the film is terrible.
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (Mandie Fletcher, 2016)
I loved Ab Fab the movie. It’s trashy, inconsequential, uneven but with great jokes and many real laugh-out-loud moments. Like the show, but with everyone looking 20 years older and the film making that it’s central issue. When discussing the film with friends, I was surprised that so many of them took issue with Jennifer Saunders. She’s shy and stiff and awkward and not a natural performer. But she makes that funny to me. This is the type of film where Joan Collins appears in multiple cameos as herself, all trying to look 25. If you can’t see the humour in that, or in the film actively responding to internet rumours that Patsy might really be Patrick, stay home. If you think Kate Moss drowning in the Thames might make front pages internationally and care about Jean-Paul Gaultier, this film is definitely for you.
Badlands (Terence Malick, 1973)
A real treat to be able to see Badlands again in a gorgeous print at The Electric Cinema in Birmingham: the landscapes, the tone, Sissy Spacek: all were better than I remembered; and Martin Sheen wasn’t as bad. I first saw it when I was a teen and then found it dull and unexciting. I have seen it since, but on a small screen, and the effect of the landscape also passed me by. It’s simply gorgeous in this print and on a big screen; it affects you viscerally in a way that it hadn’t me when seen on a TV monitor. I learned to appreciate it as I got older but didn’t really love it until now. It is definitely a serial killer road movie. Spacek not only looks the part so terrifically but she does tiny gestures, lovely, that flesh out a performance ever so beautifully and that are communicated clearly and powerfully on a big screen. I’m still uncertain about Sheen. Personally, I don’t find Spacek falling for him so quickly is credible: his tightly worked-out but pinched and slightly contorted body, his lack of height, which no careful staging can conceal; his age. Why he falls for her is clear; the reverse isn’t quite. I took it as a conceit of the film; something one simply decides to accept. Sheen is interesting because everything he does is good but I can imagine other people being more effective in that part (for some reason Jan-Michael Vincent, then a hot up-and-coming star but not nearly as good an actor, is the first to come to mind as better casting; someone with a real sexual threat that doesn’t need unexpectedly shooting people to convey it); a fascinating oral history of the film in GQmentions that Don Johnson and Robert De Niro were also mooted for the part. All then had the sexual threat and the charisma that Sheen lacks here. On the other hand, this is all speculative. Sheen is a wonderful actor and is better than good here. And really, it’s all quibbling. Badlands is a work of poetry and a truly great movie.