Apocalypse Now

Monos

30/10/19

In a remote mountain hideout, somewhere in Colombia, eight teenage guerrillas are killing time. They belong to some unspecified rebel organisation, and their main purpose is to watch over an American captive, referred to simply as Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). The youths all have the anonmity of nicknames and they pass the long hours playing bizarre sports, exercising, arguing, having sex and recklessly discharging semi-automatic weapons, in some cases with catastrophic results.

From time to time, The Messenger (Wilson Salazar) rides over the hill and puts these feral youngsters through the wringer, instructing them to work their bodies to the limits of their endurance, encouraging them to inform on each other in order to further exert his malign influence over them. We learn nothing about the organisation they work for – or even why Doctora is being held hostage in the first place – but strangely, this all serves to make writer/director Alejandro Landes’ story ever more mesmerising as it unfolds.

There’s so much to relish here: the stunning location cinematography, the raw performances from the young actors (particularly from Sofia Buenaventura as the conflicted ‘Rambo’) and the oppressive feel of the isolation the eight-strong team are forced to endure. Watching this is an ordeal, but in the best sense of the word.

In the second half, after a violent skirmish with Doctora’s would-be rescuers, the team take their captive into deep jungle, where she attempts to engineer an escape – and the film veers into action/adventure territory. There are breathless chases and dangerous plunges down wild river rapids, all of which keep me perched on the edge of my seat right up to the final shattering frame.

There are evident references to other stories here, most noteably to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – indeed, one scene is a direct homage to it. There are other images that wouldn’t look out of place in Apocalypse Now or Aguirre: Wrath of God. But such comparisons can sometimes serve to diminish a film’s worth, and Monos is very much its own creature, a brilliant and intelligent meditation on the nature of indoctrination.

If you can see this on the big screen, so much the better. It’s a stunner.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut

04/09/19

Some film directors have an unfortunate habit of revisiting their earlier successes and producing new versions of them. But is it always the wisest move?

Apocalypse Now is a good case in point. It’s rightfully acclaimed as one of the greatest war (and anti-war) movies ever made, but Francis Ford Coppola will keep returning to the well and tinkering with his masterpiece. Now here we are on the 40th anniversary of its release and he’s gone and done it again, assembling a version that weighs in at a hefty three hours and two minutes.

I first saw the original in 1979, when it was a mere at two hours and twenty-seven minutes. It had been a weird kind of day. Cycling through Manchester, I was kicked off my bike by a football supporter through the open window of a passing car. Understandably shaken, I found a young policeman, helpfully hiding in a shop doorway, who told me that a visiting football team was running riot in the city centre. He advised me to ‘lie low’ for a while.

A bit further along Deansgate, the ABC Cinema was showing Apocalypse Now, and a war movie felt somehow appropriate. So in I duly trooped and was promptly blown away by what I saw. Coppola’s transposition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the jungles of war-torn Vietnam felt masterful. Indeed, I watched it again only a few weeks later at the infamous Aaben cinema, where it was given added mystique by the fact that pretty much everybody at the screening was smoking dope. Er… far out.

But then in 2001 along came Redux and, with it, an extra forty-nine minutes of footage that had been excised from the theatrical release, including the French Plantation Sequence – three words that still strike horror into my heart. This seemingly interminable section where Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) eats a meal and is given a long lecture on Vietnam’s troubled history by the plantation owner has the unfortunate effect of stopping the film dead in its tracks. Was I the only movie fan who, on seeing the words ‘The Final Cut,’ fervently hoped that Coppola had actually shortened the running time by taking a large pair of scissors to this bit?

No such luck. There’s even more of it now. And it fatally wounds the film.

The problem is, it’s followed by the (already glacially slow) final set piece and any goodwill that the previous two thirds has earned itself evaporates all too quickly, as we watch Marlon Brando sitting in the darkness and mumbling incoherently.  Also, it must be said, that the ending – based on Conrad’s colonial-era novel with its white saviour storyline – looks a little dodgy when examined in the cold light of the present day.

A pity then, because – as ever – the film looks absolutely gorgeous, especially on the huge Imax screen. Many of the scenes have passed into movie legend, together with quotes from John Milius’s script (‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’ – ‘Charlie don’t surf!’ – ‘Terminate with extreme prejudice,’ to name but three). The helicopter battle scenes are unparalleled and the film expertly portrays the complete insanity of war, depicting Willard’s upriver journey as a dark descent into his own battle-damaged psyche. Oh, and there’s also fun to be had watching out for early performances by Harrison Ford and Laurence Fishburne in supporting roles.

The original Apocalypse Now is undoubtedly a brilliant and unforgettable piece of cinema. This version (and it almost hurts me to say it) squanders its own strengths by giving its director free reign to put back things that were, for very sound reasons, removed in the first place. Those with weak bladders take note: time your toilet break to coincide with Willard’s arrival at the French plantation.

And take your time. Trust me, you won’t miss anything.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Kong: Skull Island

11/03/17

I’ve long had a soft spot for King Kong. I saw the original movie – on TV – when I was very young and instantly fell for Willis O Brian’s famous stop-motion creation; and I’m one of those people who adored Peter Jackson’s affectionate and brilliantly crafted reboot of the story. So the news that Kong: Skull Island was on the cinematic horizon, as a taster to his grudge match with Godzilla, some time next year,  was greeted with a certain amount of cautious anticipation.

This standalone creature feature is a bit of an oddity, a curious mash-up of classic Kong and, of all things, Apocalypse Now. Set in 1973, just after America’s hasty departure from the Vietnam War, we learn of a proposed expedition to an uncharted island in the South Pacific, led by Bill Randa (John Goodman). Randa claims he’s looking for rare minerals but it’s clear from the outset that he has a hidden agenda. He enlists the help of Vietnam veteran Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and his helicopter platoon to ferry the necessary equipment through the perpetual electrical storm that cloaks the island and, he also ropes in survival expert, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston as the poshest mercenary in history) plus photo journalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to record everything that happens on the trip. The helicopters go in, not to the strains of Wagner, but to the 70s rock soundtrack of Creedence Clearwater Revival and they drop a series of explosive charges on the island in order to scare up anything that might be hiding in the undergrowth. Whereupon, the titular 100 ft tall ape appears out of the smoke and gives the platoon a right royal kicking.

Kong, as imagined by Industrial Light & magic, is a truly magnificent specimen; and as the survivors of the initial assault soon discover, he’s only one of the gigantic creatures that inhabit Skull Island. Worst of all are the Skull Crawlers, hideous two legged lizards that occasionally emerge from underground intent on eating anything they can find. (They ate Kong’s parents so naturally, he bears the a lot of ill will).

OK, so this isn’t exactly a perfect film. The large human cast are inevitably dwarfed by the gigantic creatures pursuing them and any attempts at characterisation can only be sketched in with the broadest of brush strokes. (It’s interesting to note that Jackson’s film spent the best part of an hour with the human characters before they even reached Skull Island, but then he had three hours to play with). And really there are a lot of humans to consider here , though best of the bunch is undoubtedly John C Riley as Hank Marlow, a World War 2 pilot who has been marooned on the island for twenty eight years and who has gone slightly loopy waiting for rescue. (Marlow bears more than a passing resemblance to Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now, and this cannot be a coincidence – nor the fact that Hiddleston’s character is called Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness on which Apocalypse Now is based).

At any rate, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts does a decent job of stitching it all together. There’s enough references to the original to keep fan boys like me happy and enough major characters being offed to keep me on the edge of my seat. I also loved the audacious twist on the ‘soldier sacrificing himself in a blaze of glory’ trope towards the film’s conclusion, which seemed to spell out how futile such gestures are.

This won’t please everyone, but I have to say I was entertained enough and occasionally thrilled by a concept which dared to throw so many new ideas at a classic storyline, that some of them had to stick. Skull Island is a fun place to visit and Kong is still my favourite movie monster.

4 stars

Philip Caveney