Gardens of Stone

February 13, 2013

gardensofstoneFrancis Coppola has looked at the Vietnam War before. A decade ago, hot off the success of the Godfather films, he poured everything he had into Apocalypse Now, a broad, out-of-control movie that played up the insanity of Vietnam through a plot borrowed from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

It was all darkness: The war was a rudderless ship, and the military people in charge were psychopaths. (Remember “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”?)

Now Coppola has made another Vietnam movie, based on a novel by Nicholas Profitt, and the contrast is fascinating. Gardens of Stone, produced with the enthusiastic cooperation of the U.S. military, shows the home front in 1968, among some soldiers and friends at Arlington National Cemetery. This time the conflict isn’t the simple war-is-madness of Apocalypse Now. This is a much more mature, and much more ambivalent movie.

The central figure is Clell Hazard (James Caan, in a terrific comeback performance), a combat veteran who’s been put out to pasture as a member of the Old Guard. His main responsibility at Arlington is teaching soldiers how to bury other soldiers, but he burns to be doing something more useful.

A young gung-ho soldier (D.B. Sweeney) becomes Hazard’s surrogate son at Arlington. He wants to be an officer and go where the fighting is. Hazard’s response is basically the film’s standpoint: This war is different, probably a mistake; but a soldier must serve, and should be where he can do the most good. The movie tracks the year of the boy’s tutelage under Hazard and another Old Guard sergeant (James Earl Jones, in a scene-stealing role), until the kid is shipped off.

Some of the ambivalence of the time is reflected in Hazard’s relationship with a Washington Post reporter (Anjelica Huston) who thinks the war is “genocide” but who falls in love with the Army man anyway.

I’m not sure Coppola feels completely comfortable with the old-fashioned straightforwardness of this story, especially toward the end, but he bravely faces it head on. It’s a very entertaining film, with lots of inside military stuff. There’s an emphasis on the military as a family, and Hazard refers to the war as a “family business”—which reverberates intriguingly with the family business of Coppola’s Godfather.

And it’s a good-looking film, both in terms of the people onscreen and the physical production. Jordan Cronenweth’s photography is excellent as usual, and production designer Dean Tavoularis, who has worked with Coppola many times, gets a late-’60s look that is discreet but evocative. Hazard’s slightly dumpy apartment, for example, is an uncannily authentic space.

These details are memorable, and that’s proper. The big issues of the war won’t get settled here, and the film is at its best when it stays away from them (one of the only cheap-shot moments comes at the expense of a caricature peacenik, played by counterculture promoter Bill Graham). The movie succeeds because of its attention to the frailties of people, caught in a terrible situation.

First published in the Herald, May 1987

History has not remembered this movie, and to be honest, neither really have I. But it did, at least, feel rooted in something. Coppola’s son had died just before filming, and the film has a gravity that distinguishes it in the director’s work.


The Cotton Club

July 27, 2012

A few years ago, Robert Evans, the producer of films such as The Godfather and Chinatown, needed a script rewrite for a project about new York’s famous Cotton Club, a place where white audiences paid top dollar to see black entertainment during the height of the Jazz Age.

Evans had worked with larger-than-life director Francis Coppola on The Godfather, and he called Coppola to get some suggestions for a good script doctor. Coppola, ever alert (and coming off a string of commercial disasters), quickly suggested himself. Thus commenced a series of events that probably made Evans wish he’d never heard of Coppola or the Cotton Club.

Before long, Coppola had thrown out the original screenplay (the film’s “story” credit goes to Mario Puzo) and written a completely new script with Pulitzer Prize-winner William Kennedy. Then Coppola assumed the mantle of director, and the production of the film itself was beset by rising costs and constant script rewrites.

And somewhere in the midst of this Robert Evans went bye-bye. The lawsuits are now flying, but it’s hard to imagine they will have any effect on what is already an incredibly expensive movie (something between $40 and $50 million, at last count).

Coppola seems to be attracted by this kind of guerrilla moviemaking, but whether or not it agrees with him is another matter. The films he produced while he played at being the mogul of his own hectic studio were almost wholly uninvolving.

With The Cotton Club, he’s gotten himself interesting again. This film, which whips up a blend of gangsterism and musical comedy, clips along at a confident pace and has enough flavorful characters to fill a speakeasy.

Richard Gere plays a cornet player (and Gere plays his own horn solos, by golly) whose trajectory through the Jazz Age—in the film, from the late ’20s through the early ’30s—places him in close contact with such figures as gangster Dutch Schultz (rivetingly played by unctuous James Remar), the Dutchman’s moll (Diane Lane), and the men who run the Cotton Club (Bob The Long Goodbye Hoskins and Fred “The Munsters” Gwynne, who make a great comedy team).

Gere’s brother (Nicolas Cage, Coppola’s cousin) is a hothead swept into the violent world around the Cotton Club, with bloody results. This story of the brothers is paralleled by a pair of dancing brothers (Gregory and Maurice Hines) who work their way up through the Cotton Club to different levels of stardom.

The film is obviously chock-full; unfortunately, as enjoyable as much of this is, Coppola has a tendency to rush past the building blocks of characterization. He has atmosphere (kudos to designer Richard Sylbert) and rat-a-tat action down pat, but once the smoke clears, I was left with the nagging feeling that the sound and fury didn’t amount to too much.

The scope of the film calls for the three-hour Godfather sprawl, and Cotton Club clocks in at barely over two. Characters meet, split, and kiss and make up with not much validation for their behavior. Coppola asks you to take a lot for granted.

I wish the extra hour might have had more song-and-dance in it, too; although the film is full of terrific music, few numbers are presented in their entirety (Coppola enjoys cutting routines in pieces rather than letting them develop on their own). Still, Lonette McKee’s “Ill Wind” is a stand-out, and the brothers Hines tread the boards with grace.

Coppola likes to describe himself as a ringmaster/magician of chaos. He may not quite prove that the hand is quicker than the eye in The Cotton Club, but at least he keeps all three rings of the circus busy at once.

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1984

As anybody who’s ever seen this movie knows, you can forget about Gere and Lane: Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne are where the action is.


New York Stories

February 8, 2012

New York Stories is a wonderful idea for a film, and it’s two-thirds of a wonderful film. For this omnibus, three of America’s leading directors have each created a mini-movie, with no constraints except that each segment be set in Manhattan.

The three directors are Woody Allen, whose entire movie-making career has been New York stories; Martin Scorsese, who probably relished the thought of making a relatively minor film after The Last Temptation of Christ; and the godfather himself, Francis Coppola. Each has made a 40-minute film.

Coppola’s segment, “Life without Zoe,” is the middle piece. It concerns the world of a pampered 12-year-old girl who lives in the Sherry Netherland Hotel, because her parents are always gone. It is an utterly slight diversion, and not up to the standards of the other two entries.

Scorsese’s segment, “Life Lessons,” written by his Color of Money collaborator, Richard Price, leads off. It’s about a famous painter (Nick Nolte) who wants to keep his hold on his desirable assistant (Rosanna Arquette), an aspiring artist. They’ve recently broken up, and he tries every plea and manipulation he can think of, from the avuncular (“Baby, I’m your ally against horse dung and fraud”) to the direct (“I just had the sudden desire to kiss your foot. It’s nothing personal”).

Scorsese’s camera dances around this tale in the same way Nolte’s brush glides over the abstract canvases. This dynamism suggests the raging vanity and ego of the painter, who is given superb life by Nolte; in capturing this shambling, self-obsessed man, Nolte gives a performance unlike anything he’s done before.

The artist creates his paintings while he blasts music in his loft. There’s an incredible sequence as Nolte attacks the canvas while listening to a live version of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” and Arquette watches in awe. Scorsese is having a field day with this, and it’s exhilarating.

The closer is Woody Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks,” which is basically like one of Allen’s short pieces for the New Yorker magazine done on film. Woody plays a successful attorney who is tormented by his mother (played by Mae Questel, the original voice of Betty Boop); she constantly upbraids him about his clothes, his eating habits, his incipient baldness. And she doesn’t care much for his girlfriend (Mia Farrow).

Then one day he takes her to a magic show, where she is plucked from the audience, placed in a Chinese box, and made to disappear. And she does disappear. Altogether. Even the magician is puzzled, but helpfully offers a pair of free tickets to a future show if she doesn’t turn up.

Actually, she does turn up, in a way that grabs the attention of the entire city, and embarrasses Woody to the bone. It’s a hilarious development, and Allen, as actor and director, keeps up just the right tone of mortification. And he even finds an excuse for the cameo without which New York Stories would not be complete: an appearance by mayor Ed Koch.

First published in the Herald, March 9, 1989

I’d have to see it again to work out the argument, but I have this feeling that something changed for both Scorsese and Nick Nolte after “Life Lessons,” a piece rarely mentioned in either man’s work. They both seemed freer, somehow, especially Nolte, who went into a mighty phase after this.


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