Few filmmakers have endured a career arc as varied as Francis Ford Coppola’s. He started small, making flicks for Roger Corman with next to no money. His transition into the ‘70s was a legendary one, releasing four consecutive masterpieces and helping establish the ‘70s as the best decade of American film. From there, he churned out a handful of smaller films – some obscure, others noteworthy, none truly great – before retiring for 10 years all together. He’s returned with a trio of independent films that, while puzzling in their own unique ways, fully embrace what modern technology can bring to film.
Coppola’s career evolution is a fascinating one. Since becoming a legend, he’s actively fought to make the films he wants to make, the way he wants to make them. I don’t always like the results, but I respect the hell out of his methods.
After being involved with two lame skin flicks (The Bellboy and the Playgirls and Tonight for Sure, both released in 1962), Coppola released his first real feature, the schlocky horror flick, Dementia 13.
In the early ‘60s, veteran producer Roger Corman gave Coppola $22,000 to make a horror film, with the instruction that it should live in the wake of Psycho’s recent success. Dementia 13 was the result of Coppola’s efforts. Like many of Corman’s flicks, Dementia 13 is mildly interesting (at best) and cheaply produced. The film is about a young woman who covers up her husband’s freak heart attack in an attempt to get back into his will. She travels to Ireland to meet her late husband’s family, and soon, an anonymous person starts axing them off one by one. The two takeaways from this film are Luana Anders’ convincing performance (as the mischievous widow), and the overall confident cinematography. Oh, and the movie ended up grossing double what it cost. So, all’s well that ends well. C-
A counterculture flick of the ‘60s, You’re A Big Boy Now is an absurdist comedy in which a young guy attempts to step out and discover the real world on his own. The film has traces of The Graduate (which was released the following year), though to a far more unpolished degree. For the most part, You’re a Big Boy Now is a miss, but credit should be given to Coppola for making an honest film about the hardships a young adult faces when being thrown out into the world. I know those movies are a dime a dozen today, but in 1966, they were pretty rare.
It’s also worth mentioning that Rip Torn and Geraldine Page have a blast as the young man’s parents, with Torn hamming it up as the tyrannical father, and Page (in an Oscar nominated performance) playing the humorously protective mother. In short, the film is a noble effort, but not a very exciting one. C-
The musical numbers in Finian’s Rainbow are grand, frequent, and damn near never ending. This is a well-made film – full of impressive production value, skillful cinematography and wonderful sets – but one that simply isn’t for me. (It’s the type of movie where a character blankly says, “Money doesn’t grow on trees, ya know.” And then money immediately starts to… grow on trees.) Still, it’s important to take Finian’s Rainbow into context. Had Coppola not made this film and proved he could effectively direct a large cast and grand set pieces, then he never would’ve been considered for The Godfather. For that, we are all indebted to Finian’s Rainbow. C
The Rain People is Francis Ford Coppola’s first truly great movie. I hadn’t heard of the film before researching this post, but I’m so happy I was given a reason to track it down. After Natalie (Shirley Knight) leaves her husband, she hits the road and quickly picks up a college student named Killer (James Caan) to keep her company. There’s far more plot to dive into, but it’s best left discovered for yourself. The Rain People, while small in scope, expertly displays Coppola’s genius. For example, early in the film we watch as Natalie calls her husband from a pay phone to explain why she left him. The scene is captured in a single six minute long shot, and remains one of the finest things Coppola has ever put on film.
Knight is excellent in the lead role (side note: I had no idea Helen Hunt’s mom from As Good as It Gets was such a babe back in the day), but James Caan is sensational as Killer. Watching Caan abandon his tough guy persona to play a sensitive young man was enough to make this film worth it. Fortunately, Caan is just one of many reasons to seek The Rain People out. A-
If there’s one thing I want to say about The Godfather (because really, what hasn’t been said about The Godfather), it is to remind everyone how much trouble Coppola went through to get the film made. Paramount hated Coppola’s most every major decision on the film. They hated the idea of casting Marlon Brando (who was, at that time, “box office poison”), they hated Gordon Willis’ dark photography, they hated Al Pacino – they hated everything, and considered firing Coppola multiple times.
Point is, if you have a passion – a driving need to create something – then create it. Don’t listen to detractors. Push forward and make the fuckin’ thing. Coppola was 32 years old when he shot The Godfather. What if he gave up while making it? What would cinema be then? A+
It’s quite unbelievable that between his two most popular films (which are both huge in scope), Coppola snuck off and shot a tiny character study about one man’s obsession with his own privacy. Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert who, at the start of the picture, records an obscure conversation between two people that may give evidence to a future crime. Harry becomes fixated on decoding the meaning of the cryptic chat, all while going to great lengths to preserve his own confidentiality.
The Conversation excels for many reasons – it’s smart, engaging, and contains what could very well be the finest work Hackman has ever done. It’s a maddeningly precise examination of obsession and paranoia, and a staple of ‘70s cinema. Genuinely, this is as fine a film as Coppola has made. A+
We see it all the time: based on the unexpected success of a film, the director is given more money and power to flesh out a sequel. The sequel is released to much excitement, and flops miserably in its own excess. The Godfather Part II is, of course, the legendary exception to that rule, but my point is that on paper, there’s really no way this movie should’ve worked. Coppola himself was extremely hesitant to make another Godfather, but thank God he did. He opened up the story, letting it soar through generations of complex family dynamics, thereby creating a worthy rival to its predecessor. I’m not sure I’ll ever decide which Godfather I prefer. But I suppose it ultimately doesn’t matter. A great film is a great film, and The Godfather Part II is certainly that, and then some. A+
Apocalypse Now endured one of the most notoriously hellish productions in film history. It went months and millions over schedule, main actors were fired weeks into shooting, Martin Sheen had a near fatal heart attack, Marlon Brando refused to cooperate, typhoons destroyed sets, and on and on. For all intents and purposes, the film was Murphy’s Law in motion. No one would’ve faulted Coppola for giving up and moving on, and, in fact, I’m sure many people expected him to. There’s a great moment in Hearts of Darkness, the feature length documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, in which Coppola is asked if he’s tempted to quit the production. “How can I quit myself?” Coppola blankly replies. “It’s my money, so if I quit, I’m quitting on myself.”
Whatever motivated Coppola to finish the film (I’m sure having the bulk of his assets tied into the budget certainly helped), I’m so thankful that he pushed through and completed the picture. Apocalypse Now is a definitive film of American cinema; an iconic masterpiece that will be studied and revered forever. A+
One from the Heart is a lavish throwback to the big sound stage musicals of yesteryear. But, despite boasting impressive production design (the film intends to look like it was shot on a large studio backlot), this movie is dead from the start. Nearly 15 minutes in, the two main characters get into one of the most unintentionally hilarious movie arguments I’ve ever seen. It reminded me of stage rehearsals of young actors prepping A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s the first day of rehearsal, everyone is feeling each other out, purposefully holding back, waiting for the big opening night. The difference, of course, is that One from the Heart is a big budget feature film made by a guy who preceded it with four masterpieces. But perhaps that’s not fair. No one could continue the run Coppola had in the ‘70s. His moment had to fall at some point, I suppose. I just wish it hadn’t fallen so hard. D
The Outsiders has never worked for me. While I appreciate that it jump started the careers of Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Diane Lane, and more, the flick is too slight to fully invest in. Based on a book by S.E. Hinton, the film is about a rivalry between the Greasers (the poor kids Coppola wants us to identify with) and the Socs (the rich kid bullies). But instead of standing on its own, The Outsiders plays like a cheap mash-up between West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause. The cinematography is laughably hyperbolic, and the acting is often amateurish at best. Coppola’s intentions with the film (both visually and through story) are made very clear, so I give him credit for executing the film the way he meant to. But this film is nowhere near as accomplished as his subsequent S.E. Hinton adaptation. D+
Rumble Fish gets right everything that The Outsiders gets wrong. Both films are set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, adapted from works by S.E. Hinton, and were made using nearly the same cast and crews. The main difference, beyond Rumble Fish’s gorgeous, high-contrast black and white photography, is that Rumble Fish is infinitely smarter and more compelling. The film tells the story of Motorcycle Boy (a great, young Mickey Rourke), a feared and respected former gang leader who is idolized by his younger brother, Rusty James (Matt Dillon). Despite Motorcycle Boy’s strong opposition, Rusty intends to embrace a life of crime, ignoring those who care for him in the process.
Rumble Fish is an avant-garde head trip that Coppola clearly loved making. It plays like an accomplished film school movie – raw and unfiltered, yet born from innate talent and unmatched skill. It’s arguably the best film on the B-side of Coppola’s filmography; grossly underseen, but damn impressive all the same. A-
This ‘30s-era jazz romp/race relations/gangster drama contains its fair share of spirited moments, but it’s also wildly uneven. There’s a scene, for example, when Richard Gere is wooing Diane Lane at a club. Up until this point in the film, Gere’s character, Dixie, has been portrayed as nice if not slightly arrogant. In the club, Dixie turns into a complete asshole for no reason, slapping Diane Lane’s Vera all over the dance floor. When they get back to his place and have sex for the first time, Dixie is back to the nice guy he was before. The Cotton Club is full of sequences like this. Tonally, the film is all over the place, and at 128 minutes, it runs entirely too long.
But credit deserves to be given where it’s due. Bob Hoskins is great as a local mob boss, and Gregory Hines has a blast as a professional dancer. Gere, however, plays Dixie as a caricature, as if he’s basing him on better performances of this kind from 40 years earlier. Which is a fair way to describe the film itself – its inspirations are clear, but its execution feels false and scattered. C+
In 1985, Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) attends her high school reunion and faints shortly after running into her husband, Charlie (Nicolas Cage), who she recently separated from. When Peggy comes to, she’s magically back in 1960, right in the middle of her senior year of high school. Peggy goes through the motions of questioning her predicament, but, thankfully, accepts her fate rather quickly. In movies of this kind, figuring out how the character traveled back (or, in some cases, forward), often becomes the movie. Peggy Sue Got Married is different. It’s only somewhat interested in finding a way for Peggy Sue to get back to ‘85. For the most part, Coppola and Co. have fun with their surroundings, throwing Turner into the world and simply letting her play. It’s so clear why Turner was nominated for an Oscar for this film; her comic timing is perfect, and she plays it so straight, you often forget that Peggy is in on her own joke.
I hadn’t seen this film in well over 15 years, and I was so pleased to find how much it had grown on me. As I’ve gotten older, the film has gotten smarter. Funny how that works. B+
The most interesting thing about Gardens of Stone is that it presents an emotional role reversal for its star, James Caan. On the surface, Caan’s character, Clell Hazard, is the type of hardass guy we’ve come to expect from Caan. But there’s a humility to him that I found extremely captivating. As an Army sergeant, it is Hazard’s job to oversee the group who provides military honors at soldiers’ funerals. Hazard hates his job, mostly because he hates having to bury so many young men coming home from Vietnam, a war he openly detests. Hazard isn’t anti-war, nor is he anti-Army; he just loathes how and why the Vietnam War is being fought.
There’s far more to Gardens of Stone beyond Hazard’s war protests, but Caan is the standout here. Everything else runs a distant second. B-
Tucker is the kind of well-intentioned, middle-brow film we’ve seen often from Coppola. It’s an earnest movie about Preston Tucker, an engineer who sought to make the car of the future following World War II. The film has excellent production design and is equipped with a stellar cast, including Jeff Bridges, who seamlessly meets the demands of the title role, Joan Allen, Elias Koteas, Martin Landau and Bridges’ own father, Lloyd (as a senator aimed at bringing Tucker down). Problem is, the film doesn’t amount to anything memorable. I saw Tucker once, a year ago, and am having trouble recalling anything about it, save Jeff Bridges’ remarkable courtroom argument that closes the film. That scene nearly makes the entire film worth it, and singlehandedly reminds us how marvelous of an actor Bridges really is. C+
New York Stories is a trio of uneven short films directed by notable New York filmmakers. Martin Scorsese’s Life Lessons is the only standout of the bunch; Woody Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks gets dumber by the minute; and Francis Ford Coppola’s Life Without Zoë, while cute, has nothing interesting to say. The plot of the film involves the young title character, her energetic butler, a princess, an expensive piece of jewelry, and Zoë’s somewhat absent parents. Most audiences and critics dismissed Life Without Zoë as boring and inconsequential, while others famously hailed it as the worst thing Coppola had done up until that point. I’d normally tell you to watch it and judge for yourself, but truthfully, it’s not even worth it. D+
The Godfather Part III is a conundrum. Does it need to exist? No, it does not. But does it work if viewed as its own separate film? Yes, it does. But can it be viewed as its own separate film, given that it’s the third in a series? No, of course not. So, I suppose my stance on Part III is that while I don’t find it particularly necessary, I also don’t hate that it exists. Pacino is strong with the material he’s given, and it’s great to see a young Andy Garcia steal every scene he’s in. Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire and Bridget Fonda all deliver fine work, though it would’ve been great for Coppola to meet Robert Duvall’s salary demands, so the audience could see how Tom Hagen is holding up.
Part III is nowhere near as accomplished as the first two films, but I respect Coppola for daring to step into the arena once again. Hey, at least he didn’t push for Part IV, as was once planned. B+
At its best, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a feast for the eyes. Coppola refused to use any computer generated effects in the film, which means that Dracula’s many astounding shots were achieved in camera. (The DVD has a remarkable special feature detailing how these shots were achieved.) Similarly, Coppola spared no expense for the film’s make-up and costumes (both won Oscars), giving the film an inherently authentic vibe. Gary Oldman is also fantastic in the title role, but, unfortunately, that’s where my praise ends. Any fan of cinema knows that fancy tricks and nice costumes only get you so far. Behind the glitz and glamor, a great film must contain a great story. Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” is indeed a fascinating tale, but ultimately, Coppola’s Dracula is all style, very little substance. C
There is no other actor who could’ve pulled off this title role as well as Robin Williams. Sure, Tom Hanks brilliantly played a child stuck in an adult body in Big, but that was a fantasy situation. Hanks had to pretend to actually be grown up. Most everyone in Jack knows and understands that, although Jack looks 40, he is indeed 10 years old. There’s no requirement for Williams to pretend, only to be. The problem, of course, is that Jack doesn’t live up to the talent Williams brings to it. In turn, Jack feels like the least Francis Ford Coppola film Coppola ever made. I’ve always enjoyed Williams’ work in it, but, sadly, he isn’t enough to make Jack stand out. C
I quite enjoy The Rainmaker. The performances are universally splendid (a reliable Danny DeVito; an entitled Jon Voight; a monstrous Roy Scheider; a melancholic Mary Kay Place; a hilarious Mickey Rourke), with Matt Damon dutifully fleshing out his first lead role. The film also, for what it’s worth, ranks with A Time to Kill as the best adaptation of a John Grisham novel. The Rainmaker’s biggest fault, however, is the amount of time it dedicates to the romance between Rudy (Damon) and an abused woman (Claire Danes). There’s nothing wrong with Danes’ performance, but their love story is completed unneeded. We get that Rudy is a good guy, willing to fight a giant insurance company by any means necessary. We don’t also have to see him protecting a battered housewife in his spare time. A worthy film, but at 135 minutes, the movie could easily cut the romance and clock in at well under two hours. B
After a 10 year absence from making movies, Coppola returned with the trippy psychological art film, Youth Without Youth. The plot is insanely complex, but, essentially, a 70-year-old professor named Dominic (Tim Roth) is struck by lighting and heals into a much younger man. Once healed, Dominic has trouble differentiating fantasy and reality. He engages in affairs with people he isn’t sure are even real, he realizes he can speak most every language, and another, subconscious version of himself follows him around and narrates his most every move. And that’s only the beginning of the film’s seemingly limitless oddities. I can’t say I understood everything that happened in Youth Without Youth, but I’m not sure I was supposed to either. The film is completely unlike anything Coppola has made, and at the age of 68, I suppose he’s allowed to make whatever film he damn well pleases. B-
Coppola has described Tetro as the most autobiographical film of his career. “Nothing in it happened, but all of it is true,” he said. The film is about a young man named Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) reconnecting with his older brother, Tetro (Vincent Gallo, possibly his best performance), who has been living in Buenos Aires for many years. When Bennie arrives, Tetro treats him with utter disdain. But his hostility fades over time, thanks much in part to Tetro’s girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdú, excellent as usual), whose aggressive independence makes her a perfect match for Tetro’s unpredictability. The film is presented in stark black and white, with brief sequences of vibrant color mixed in to great effect (a nod to Rumble Fish). And although it runs a tad longer than it needs to, Tetro’s flawless composition and strong acting help make it Coppola’s best film in years. B+
A once-successful writer named Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer) hosts a book signing in a small town and quickly becomes entranced with the mystery of the community. He meets a quirky sheriff (Bruce Dern) and hears tales of serial killers and shocking murders. At night, he dreams of haunted hotels, vampire-like girls, and the friendly ghost of Edgar Allen Poe. Hall finds inspiration in his fever dreams, and hopes to create a new series of books based on his trippy ideas. Basically, Twixt is so bizarre that if you don’t find fun in its schlock mentality, you’re going to absolutely loathe it. I actually had a lot of fun with the film. It’s self-aware in all the right ways, and wisely relies on Kilmer (in all his amusing eccentricities) to carry the film. Meet Twixt halfway, and you’re liable to enjoy it. If there’s one thing this film has going for it, it’s that I can’t possibly wait to see what Coppola will do next. B-
The Godfather Part II
The Rain People
The Godfather Part III
Peggy Sue Got Married
Gardens of Stone
Tucker: The Man and His Dream
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Youth Without Youth
You’re a Big Boy Now
The Cotton Club
Just Plain Bad
One from the Heart
Life Without Zoë