Hot from the Oven
There is a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. The good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.
—Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) Apocalypse Now Redux
The most critically acclaimed movie of the year was made 22 years ago. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) stands on many critics' lists of all-time favorites. Some call it the most important war film ever made. Basically an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, which sets the story in the Congo rather than Vietnam, Apocalypse Now is about Americans lost in a war they do not understand. Conrad's novel gave Coppola the perfect vehicle for a cinematic odyssey into the heart of the Vietnam conflict.
Martin Sheen stars as Captain Willard, an American soldier sent upriver through Vietnam into Cambodia to find and assassinate another American, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz has gone insane, Willard's superiors tell him; he has disappeared into the wilderness to start some kind of cult. At first, Willard cannot comprehend how this "perfect soldier" could use such "unsound methods." But the farther he travels into the hellish battlegrounds of the jungle, the more he realizes the madness, audacity, and, yes, "unsound methods" of America's participation in the struggle. As young and bewildered soldiers die meaningless deaths around him, he feels his own soul, and sanity, suffocating. In the end, Willard has some inkling that he perhaps he is as lost as the man he has been sent to kill.
In the new Apocalypse Now Redux, Coppola integrates 49 minutes of additional footage. After suffering a long and forgettable year at the movies, most critics are rejoicing, hoping future filmmakers will learn some lessons about great moviemaking.
The Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks of calls Apocalypse Now "absolutely required viewing, especially if you've never seen it on the big screen before. It is a masterpiece in every sense of the word and a thought-provoking and deeply unsettling portrait of what lies at the heart of all of us." He praises the performances: "Martin Sheen perfectly captures a man coming to grips with himself but losing his grip on reality. His slow descent into darkness is compelling. The famously incorrigible Brando gives a haunting performance as Kurtz. And as Anthony Lane wrote in last week's New Yorker, has there ever been a better cameo than Robert Duvall's?" Parks has minor reservations about the new scenes: "Each of these additions provides a greater context for the film … [but] they also have the result of dragging out what is already a long movie." The Christian Science Monitor's David Sterritt writes, "The expanded Redux is even more resonant—partly because of its added material, and partly because the passage of time has increased the film's value as a key cultural document of the Vietnam War era and its aftermath. It's a movie not to be missed."
Apocalypse Now—and its Redux as well—remains one of the most rewarding moviegoing experiences of my life. I agree with Parks; the new material isn't entirely necessary, and some may find it excessive. But this version's virtues far outweigh its flaws. See it on a big screen; to see it on video is to settle for a concert on the radio rather than going to hear a symphony. (CAUTION: The onscreen violence and nudity make it inappropriate for younger viewers and grownups for whom such images might be stumbling blocks. But if you remain focused on what is happening, and the attitudes of these brutish soldiers, you will see clearly that this behavior is not condoned by the storyteller.) Coppola's greatness is that he binds all of these searing images and sounds into a meaningful purpose. When humankind decides there is no god beyond itself, it slowly spirals downward into self-destruction—no film portrays this truth better. There are painful moments when these broken men seem ready to cry out for God, but instead they reach for the wrong things. When prostitutes arrive and "comfort" the men, new scenes show the men ignoring the needs and the sadness of these ladies; in the end, the women are trampled and abused just like Vietnam itself at the hands of ugly Americans. When the men look for dignity in their duty, violence begets violence, spiraling out of control into chaos. Every man that Willard encounters along his dark path is at another stage of madness born of despair. The film was obviously not intended to act as a testament to the power of Jesus Christ, nor is it trying to be uplifting. Instead it inadvertently echoes Ecclesiastes—human effort is futile without the humbling, guiding influence of God's grace and love. It is a giant DO NOT ENTER sign posted at the edge of the human heart's sinful abyss.
Some Christian critics don't see the film as valuable. One Christian review Web site—Movieguide—dismisses Apocalypse Now as "abhorrent," calling it a "strange, confused, pagan take on Vietnam." Coppola, the review says, has "weird sensibilities," and screenwriter John Milius is also accused of having a "pagan philosophy." Preview's John Barber protests, "There is an underlying anti-war sentiment in the film, yet the stunning cinematography makes war aesthetically pleasing. Moviegoers who prefer morally sound, uplifting entertainment should look elsewhere." Indeed, if you're looking for "uplifting entertainment," go elsewhere: Apocalypse Now is a work of art. The stunning cinematography does not make war look appealing, unless you have an appetite for chaos and gore. Certainly there is something aesthetically pleasing about a fleet of helicopters, pillars of fire, the impenetrable jungle. The beauty of these things only makes the wickedness of mankind's evil in the midst of it all the more disturbing.
Across the country, the mainstream press is celebrating. Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert wrote a detailed and personal rave: "More than ever it is clear … Apocalypse Now is one of the great films of all time. It shames modern Hollywood's timidity. To watch it is to feel yourself lifted up to the heights where the cinema can take you, but so rarely does. The film is a mirror reflecting our feelings about the war in Vietnam, in all their complexity and sadness. To those who wrote me defending the banality of Pearl Harbor, I wrote back: 'See Apocalypse Now and reflect on the difference.'" He calls the movie "epic filmmaking on a scale within the reach of only a few directors—Tarkovsky, Lean, Eisenstein, Kurosawa."
Many argued about the value of the added footage. Mr. Showbiz's Michael Atkinson writes, "[The new material] deepens it, feverishly ups the psychedelic war-opera quotient." He explains that it "offers a rather concise statement about the war: It didn't happen to us, we did it to ourselves. The United States would have itself believe it all started with the Vietcong, and we intervened to save the poor South Vietnamese, but Coppola had the [courage], in 1979, to give us a clearer picture. It's a shame that the film's more salient political tangents were cut until now." Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman sounds one of the few sour notes: "I don't think Redux is superior to the 1979 version. Quite the contrary, it's draggier and more portentous, more inflated with its own importance."
David Halberstam, Vietnam reporter and author of The Best and the Brightest, was interviewed about the film at Salon.com. When asked why Vietnam casts such a long, dark shadow over America still, he replies, "It was the second Civil War, us against us, and the Vietnamese were bystanders. I think that if you had that belated epiphany, and then you see Apocalypse Now, I think that theme runs through it, the idea that it's us against us and this is what we've done to ourselves and to these other people."
Whichever version moviegoers prefer in the long run, Apocalypse Now will last as a sermon, a story of the brimstone that burns up those who set themselves up as God. I can think of no more fitting portrayal of hell in the history of movies than the moment when Colonel Kurtz comes a culminating moment of self-realization and gasps, "The horror, the horror." Apocalypse Now is great art, powerfully exposing (rather than condoning or merely sensationalizing) evil. Once the disease is exposed, perhaps we can live in better health. Perhaps faced with darkness like this, people will be more likely to turn toward light. It may be a redemptive experience after all.
In Apocalypse Now, one of Kurtz's half-crazed admirers looks about at the bloodied victims of the Colonel's brutality and says, "Sometimes he goes to far … but he'd be the first to admit it." In this summer's most foul-mouthed comedy, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, director Kevin Smith goes too far—and he is, indeed, the first to admit it. In fact, the movie's official Web site attacks the film and mocks its box office numbers. But the question is Does an awareness of your mediocrity and indulgence thus make it permissible?
Jay and Silent Bob is the last installment in what Smith calls his "New Jersey" series. It features many of the same characters from his previous comedies—Mallrats, Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Dogma. These pot-smoking, lustful, potty-mouthed characters are based on the kids Smith grew up with. In spite of their weaknesses—which he clearly portrays as weaknesses—he still cares enough about them to portray them as heroes. This, of course, doesn't mean moviegoers will find these punks to be pleasant company. If you haven't seen Smith's previous films, you probably won't understand a lot of the gags in this film, and even if you have, you may not be prepared for the tidal wave of profanity-laced dialogue and foul sexual humor in this movie.
Movieguide turns in a review of outrage and contempt: "One thing's for sure … many parents, teachers, pastors, and taxpayers will have to deal with the horrible effects that this and other ill-conceived pagan garbage will have on the world's children and their descendents." The U.S. Catholic Conference calls it "just one nasty joke after another tacked onto a very slim premise." Movie Parables' Michael Elliott agrees that the humor is "regressive, juvenile, unashamedly crude, and totally pervasive." But he finds something of value in the midst of it: "The old saying 'Tis better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt' becomes clearly understood when watching the characters of Jay and Silent Bob do their thing. Jay leaves no doubt as to his foolishness. Silent Bob, who chooses to hold his tongue throughout most of the film, comes across as infinitely more intelligent than Jay, although this cannot really be considered as a particularly difficult feat."
Some mainstream critics defend the film, saying the movie loudly ridicules its own gratuitous behavior. Roger Ebert notes Kevin Smith's admittance that he "made jokes at the expense of two characters who neither [Smith] nor the audience have ever held up to be paragons of intellect. They're idiots." Premiere's Glenn Kenny laughed until he hurt. "Smith assures us: He's conceived Jay and Silent Bob as a kind of purgative, a way to get these guys out of his system. A kind of stoner version of a Hope-Crosby road picture, [the movie] throws just about everything 'mature' filmmakers aspire to—narrative coherence, character empathy, that sort of thing—out the window in favor of jokes, jokes, jokes. Bodily function jokes, gay jokes, inside jokes—all as over the top as you can imagine." Mike Clark of USA Today writes, "Most uneven movies vary from scene to scene; in Smith's, great and dreadful dialogue appear in the same exchanges."
MaryAnn Johanson, The Flick Filosopher, sees some method in the madness. She calls the movie "self-indulgent," but adds, "Smith's alter egos here … do not pretend to be anything other than what they are: losers. There's a good dollop of soul-searching self-awareness at work. It's a romp through Smith's psyche. Any objection anyone could possibly raise about the film Smith has dealt with within the film itself, taking pointed barbs at himself, his friends, his characters, his studio, his films, and his fans. The only thing that's worth taking seriously here is Smith's good-natured exuberance. His Jay and Bob are idiots, true, but sweet ones, underneath their stoner exteriors."
Smith is certainly exuberant, and he does indeed make fun of his own frivolous comedy right in the midst of it. But I cannot recommend the movie. It's too bad, because there are some hilarious scenes: I especially howled at the spoof of Good Will Hunting enacted by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and there's a funny little tribute to Planet of the Apes as well. But the central character's profane speech and hormone-propelled sexual perversity are too relentless, interrupting, stalling, even distracting us from the storytelling—it goes from character development to merely gratuitous jabber. (I've posted some questions for Kevin Smith on my own site, Looking Closer.) Even if Smith plans for this to be his last trashy comedy (he says so), that does not excuse this "last blast" of unnecessary debauchery. It's as irresponsible and immature as having a pornographic bachelor party the night before one's wedding.
Speaking of people who sometimes go too far … Woody Allen is back, with a new comedy in the guise of a '30s or '40s detective comedy—The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Audience response to this one is mixed, even among Allen enthusiasts. Allen plays an insurance investigator named C.W. Briggs who can't get along with an efficiency expert named Betty Ann (Helen Hunt). When a hypnotist charms Briggs into performing a jewel heist for him, the hypnosis has transforming effects on his relationship with Betty Ann as well.
Movieguide's critic finds Scorpion to be "one of Allen's funnier, more clever diversions, although it doesn't have quite the artistry of Bullets Over Broadway, which has a similar setting. The new movie does, however, have a bit of a modern sexual sensibility, despite its old-fashioned qualities. Even so, Allen handles this in a muted way, using it as sort of a nostalgic homage to old detective movies starring Humphrey Bogart." Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser, on the other hand, feels stung: "This film has visual flair and a few funny bits. Unfortunately, the bickering between Allen and Hunt gets tiresome and, as is the case with so many Woody Allen movies … Jade Scorpion stumbles because too much of its witty repartee aims below the belt." The U.S. Catholic Conference posts, "Allen's often funny film capitalizes on the era's fascination with hypnotism, though it runs into trouble wrapping up its otherwise entertaining narrative."
Mainstream critics were similarly split. MaryAnn Johanson is repulsed by Allen's persistent performances as old men by women young enough to be his granddaughters. "Allen seems fed up with adulthood and appears to want to revert to adolescence," she writes. "Male screenwriters do this all the time, of course … create film heroes who are their alter egos, who get the girl and solve the case and walk off into the sunset to live happily ever after. Jade Scorpion seems to be little more than him trying to work out whether all those women would still find him attractive without fame, money, talent, or indeed any discernible appealing factor whatsoever. And he concludes that, Yeah, he's a stud no matter how you cut it."
Bubble Boy is getting universally bad reviews and denunciations. The movie presents itself as a satire about how religion builds walls between its adherents and reality. The story follows a sick boy encased in a plastic bubble by his Christian fundamentalist mother. He escapes his mother's tyranny in order to find his true love, and falls into many misadventures along the way.
Movieguide actually calls the film "demonic" as well as "anti-Christian, politically-correct" and "hedonistic." "Like South Park," the critic writes, "this movie is purposefully offensive, but it is not an equal opportunity offender. Even with some anti-Semitism and anti-Hinduism, it is clear that the target is Christianity. The acting, dialogue and story points are stupid, but, because of the mocking satire in the movie, this could be intentional. This movie is a heavy-handed, sophomoric attempt to spread cancer throughout the fabric of our culture, to make the good seem bad and the bad seem good, to laugh at all things righteous and to extol all things perverse."
"All things perverse?" responds an incredulous Peter T. Chattaway (B.C. Christian News, Books and Culture, Christianity Today) at the onFilm eGroups discussion list. He also asks, "Just how 'politically correct' can a movie be if it's causing this sort of outrage? Where I come from, 'politically correct' means you go out of your way to avoid offending people." He adds, "I wholeheartedly disagree with the claim that comedies about disease are inherently wrong. If you can make Oscar-winning comedies about the Holocaust [Life is Beautiful], then you can make comedies about pretty much anything … it's just a matter of how." (Chattaway, who hasn't yet reviewed the film, is not saying he recommends it—just that the Movieguide review may go a bit too far.)
At Christian Spotlight on the Movies, Douglas Downs attempts a different approach: "Can I say anything positive about this movie? Jake Gyllenhall (October Sky) is very convincing as the naïve boy trapped in a bubble. He does make the most of what he has been given to work with. My grade for his skill in this very unfortunate role is an A+. The character of Chloe does give a strong message of abstinence. This may seem like a contradiction to the gross moral condition of this film. These two positive notes are eclipsed by one of the worst movies I have seen this year."
Focus on the Family's Lindy Beam doesn't see the film as specifically targeting Christian spirituality: "Everyone's beliefs are as 'comically' stereotypical as possible. Depictions of religions other than Christianity can't possibly be seen as proselytizing, since they're all done in a mocking tone. And at the end, almost everyone abandons his own traditions, making the point … that none of this religious mumbo-jumbo (including Christianity) really matters anyhow." She quotes a fellow believer: "'If you start messing with Jesus, I'm going to be on your case. But if you satirize Christians, I'm probably going to agree with you.' I thought this an astute observation, because satire often contains elements of truth. Christians ought to strive to be winsome. When the world pegs us as legalistic, superstitious and fearful, we should be honest enough to evaluate our lives and weed out any lurking legalism, superstition and fear."
Indeed, artists sometimes misrepresent Christianity, and when they do we should indeed respond appropriately. But when the things that they lampoon are indeed weaknesses, such as legalism, hypocrisy, judgmentalism, or self-righteousness, we had better take note. Popular entertainment is a sorely distorted mirror of the truth, but it is still a mirror. We should pay close attention to see what—or who—we are reflecting.
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Earlier Film Forum postings include these other movies in the box-office top ten: