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Retrospective: The Films Of Francis Ford Coppola

Retrospective: The Films Of Francis Ford Coppola

Without a doubt, one of the most important American filmmakers in the history of the medium is Francis Ford Coppola. A third-generation Italian-American, Coppola studied at UCLA and was one of many directors of the era that came up under B-movie maestro Roger Corman before being embraced by the cinematic establishment after winning an Oscar for co-writing “Patton” and directing megahit “The Godfather,” often named as one of the greatest films ever.

With that achievement, Coppola became the first among the movie brats, which included pals like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, to go onto great success for the rest of the 1970s, with two Best Picture Oscars (plus another nomination), and two Palme D’or trophies at Cannes. The 1980s were more mixed, and the 1990s even moreso, before Coppola took an extended break from filmmaking (though still stood as the scion of a filmmaking family that includes children Sofia and Roman, nephews Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman, and granddaughter Gia), before returning in the late 2000s with some bold experimental work.

Few directors have had such varied, tumultuous and fascinating careers, and with Coppola turning 75 this year and one of his finest achievements, “The Godfather Part II,” turning 40 next month, it seemed like the perfect time to do something we’ve wanted to do forever: namely, to look back over his work in detail. Below you’ll find our gift to you for the Thanksgiving weekend: our retrospective of the films of Francis Ford Coppola. Let us know your favorites in the comments section.

Tonight For Sure” (1962)

Every filmmaker needs to start somewhere, and some starts are more ignominious than others: for every “Reservoir Dogs,” there’s a “Piranha 2.” Coppola’s first official directing credit, 1962’s “Tonight For Sure” (made when he was only 22) is firmly in the later category, a creaky hour-long cheapo sexploitation picture that doesn’t even vaguely hint at the filmmaking chops to come. Co-written, produced and directed by Coppola (with his father Carmen scoring and future Tarantino favorite Jack Hill, helmer of “Switchblade Sisters,” serving as DP), it’s an excuse to show as many breasts as possible, framed around a cowboy and a society higher-up who team up to shut down a burlesque club, who tell stories of vice and sin as they sit in the club and wait for the bomb to blow. The framing of a softcore picture around two Moral Majority-type heroes is a reasonably amusing one, but this is definitely a director at the beginning of his career: shots and scenes go on way longer than they should, the photography’s pretty dim, and the budget is minimal at best. Fair play to Coppola for taking advantage of an opportunity and getting something made, but this barely even has any value as a curio for the hardcore Coppola fans. [F]

Dementia 13” (1963) 

Hammy, poorly written and apparently thrown together on a wet Tuesday when there was nothing on TV, even by the slipshod standards of the Roger Corman factory/sweatshop/breeding ground for 1970s auteurs, “Dementia 13” is a distinctly middling effort. Aside from its splashy title sequence, which is pretty great but has nothing whatever to do with the film, even schlocky pleasures are thin on the ground here, and it would take more determined auteurists than we are to be able to find too many foreshadowing traces of Coppola’s incipient style, except perhaps a few neat atmospheric flourishes. Co-written by future exploitation director Jack Hill (“Foxy Brown,” “Coffy” —have you read our feature on kick-ass movie heroines?), this film certainly feels more of a piece with that level of cheapie than with “The Godfather,” though it does have a few moments in between the clangy, repetitive dialogue and redundant characters (there’s a second blonde whose narrative function is literally impossible to discern) and the plot does allow for a couple of halfway decent scares. Detailing a rapacious woman’s plan to ingratiate herself with her deceased husband’s wealthy family in Ireland and her attempts to use the spooky circumstances of the death of a beloved child as a means to that end before discovering that a killer is still at large, we suppose you can admire “Dementia 13” for having the balls to kill off its apparent protagonist “Psycho”-style halfway through, and for the novel way it manages to work in a little semi-nudity. Otherwise, it’s pretty creaky stuff and largely one for Coppola completists, Corman devotees or those interested in gimmicky marketing techniques only (patrons were asked to sit the D-13 “test” and if they failed would be asked to leave the theater!!), though at 75 minutes it can hardly outstay its welcome. [C-]

“You’re A Big Boy Now” (1966)

Appropriately titled for a movie that marked the director’s entry into the mainstream, “You’re A Big Boy Now” has a winning confidence that marks it as something different from the work that came before, even if much better was still to come. Based on the novel by British author David Benedictus and originally made as his UCLA thesis before being picked up for distribution by Warner Bros, the film’s a sort of coming-of-age sex comedy about Bernard  (Peter Kastner), a repressed young man stymied by his over-protective parents (Rip Torn and an Oscar-nominated Geraldine Page), and torn between a beautiful actress (Elizabeth Hartman) and a nice girl (Karen Black). Infused with a counter-cultural spirit that predated but was overshadowed by films like “The Graduate,” particularly thanks to a smattering of songs from The Lovin’ Spoonful, it’s an interesting mix of old-school screwball comedy and British/French New Wave-influenced style: even if Coppola hadn’t found his own directorial voice yet, there’s a swagger to the movie, not least in a cracking opening shot that introduces Hartman in a bright yellow dress. The performances are the biggest takeaway: Kastner (a double for the MAD Magazine mascot Alfred E. Neumann) makes an appealing lead, Page is neurotically memorable, and Julie Harris is excellent as Bernard’s landlord. Far from a classic, but certainly the beginning of the Coppola we came to know and love. [C+]

“Finian’s Rainbow” (1968)

Good notices and buzz around “You’re A Big Boy Now” saw Warner Bros. hire Coppola to direct their adaptation of 1947 stage hit “Finian’s Rainbow,” a movie that proved to be one of the last of the post-“Sound Of Music” wave of expensive, overlong roadshow musicals. It was an odd fit (principally because they thought that Coppola would be cheap), and the result is predictably strange and hardly a success, especially not financially, but you can certainly mine some pleasures from it. The convoluted plot, involving an Irish immigrant father-daughter combo (Fred Astaire, returning to movie musicals for the first time in eleven years, and Petula Clark), a leprechaun called Og (Tommy Steele) pursuing a magical pot of gold, and a racist Senator (Keenan Wynn) turned into a black man to cure him of his racism, is both winningly progressive and unfortunately dated. But there’s a similar uneasy dichotomy to the film as a whole: Coppola wanted to meld his new-fangled sensibilities with an homage to Minnelli and Demy, Warners just wanted him to get on and shoot the thing, and the result is wildly uneven, at least thirty minutes too long, and sometimes deathly dull —particularly as it’s lacking in decent songs. It’s decidedly grating in places, particularly when the eminently smackable Steele is on screen. But every so often —with Clark’s luminous performance, with the chance to see a 69-year-old Astaire still shining, a newfound vulnerability in his once superheroic moves thanks to his age, with Coppola’s deeply felt take on immigration to the U.S, with an ingenious train shot that’s one of this writer’s favorite ever— the film brushes against greatness. The director is pretty down on the movie, at least according to his DVD commentary, but he’s being a touch hard on himself. [C+]

“The Rain People” (1969)

A good starting point for those who want to trace Coppola’s emerging storytelling strengths, “The Rain People” is visible as the work of same Coppola who would only a few years later start crushing all those who stood before him in the American film industry with an onslaught of masterpieces… the very same Coppola we desperately wish was still around today. The behind-the-scenes stories behind this picture have almost become larger than the picture itself, most notably one about how George Lucas was hanging around on set and filming a making-of documentary called “Filmmaker” (currently, sadly, unavailable) which Coppola would later call better than his own movie, so it’s easy to forget how tall “The Rain People” actually stands on its own two feet. One of Coppola’s only original screenplays, the movie is an insightful depiction of a commitment-phobic housewife who undergoes something of an identity crisis as she’s on the verge of becoming a mother. Shirley Knight plays the protagonist in question, Natalie, who on her path through self-discovery picks up James Caan’s brain-damaged hitchhiker and gets in turn picked up by just plain damaged road cop Robert Duvall. No doubt it’s rough around the edges and the abrupt ending concludes Natalie’s arc rather flippantly, but with a hungry cast of such caliber and a pretty original theme for its time, we’d give “The Rain People” two assured thumbs up. If for nothing else, watch it as an example of the only way flashbacks should be used in movies, and an exercise in building an intimate atmosphere. [B]

The Godfather” (1972) 

Were Hollywood to construct some sort of quasi Mount Rushmore of unimpeachable studio classics, surely “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca” and this massively successful epic gangster melodrama would take up three of the four slots. Riding high after winning his first Oscar for co-writing 1970’s “Patton,” Coppola had enough cachet to be considered by Paramount —though he wasn’t the studio’s first choice— for its big-budget take on Mario Puzo’s bestseller. Though an early hurdle was the filmmaker’s own slight reluctance: Coppola himself wasn’t dying to make the picture, but when he found a personal thematic entry point, he took it on anyway. And thus he delivered the epic saga of the Corleones, who will no doubt sit forever at the head of the table of cinema’s legendary criminal families. And for good reason. Though some smart critics have argued valiantly for a revisionist, much-less effusive take on “The Godfather,” its legacy will endure for many reasons, chief among them Marlon Brando‘s endlessly imitated, late-career-defining presence, but also because it’s a such a rarity in studio filmmaking: made for adults but accessible to all, artfully constructed on every single level of production, epic and yet deeply personal, both of its time (the time it was made, and the time it is set) and utterly timeless. It’s a shame that by the end of the auteur-driven 70s Hollywood had started to focus more intensely on finding the new “Star Wars” instead of creating the conditions that would bring about the next ‘Godfather’, but blockbuster success though “The Godfather” was, little could compare to Lucas’ space western in terms of box office take, and thus goes film history. No matter what, we’ll always have this masterpiece, carved into the Mount Rushmore of film history. [A+]

The Conversation” (1974)

Intelligent, electric and deeply, deeply unsettling, “The Conversation,” though it’s rarely the first title anyone mentions in connection with Coppola, is surely on a par with the first two “The Godfather” movies, making it therefore one of the greatest American films of the 1970s. Which in turn makes it one of the greatest American films of all time. It’s not only an extraordinary performance piece, featuring a central turn by Gene Hackman as the (increasingly justifiably) paranoid protagonist that ranks among the actor’s finest moments, but a crackling high-tension conspiracy film given added resonance by the then-recent Watergate scandal, finding that elusive connection between magnetic tape, personal morality and political power-playing. It’s so many other things as well, not least a homage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up” (which would later similarly inspire one of Brian De Palma’s best films “Blow Out” which also took a sonic slant on the visual puzzle of the original). But what’s amazing and utterly timeless about “The Conversation,” is how it is all these things, containing layers and intricacies and uncanny, creepy nooks and crannies. Yet it is such a sparse, elegant film, in everything from its look, to its reduced cast, to its pared-back, utilitarian dialogue, that it amounts to the opposite of the sprawling, textured, multi-generational mafia epic with which Coppola had just made his name. Yet because it’s so different from “The Godfather” and its sequel and even from the enormous ambition and operatic scale of “Apocalypse Now” it’s “The Conversation” that really underpins Coppola’s claim to greatness: only a real visionary could possibly have turned in such utter classics in such wildly disparate registers. Featuring terrific support from John Cazale, Harrison Ford and Robert Duvall, and stellar sound and picture editing from master editor Walter Murch, “The Conversation” won the Palme d’Or, yet lost the Best Picture Oscar to “The Godfather II.” But as a meditation on the fraught relationship between technology and truth, and a superbly crafted slowburn masterpiece of controlled, furious filmmaking, it is unsurpassed in Coppola’s canon, and in pretty much everybody else’s. [A+]

The Godfather Part II” (1974)

The anxiety of following up a huge success (and we should remember ths is long before the time when sequel-izing a hit film became standard practice) seemed only to fuel the creative juices in Coppola, and so after already knocking the first film out of the park, he ambitiously doubled down on the scope and storylines for his second and completely definitive look at the Corleones. As unassailable a masterpiece as “The Godfather” was, Coppola crafted an even-better sequel, and scooped an armful of Oscars for his trouble. In many ways, ‘Part 2’ was the precursor to the kind of prequel approach that has become a lot more prevalent since, yet Coppola was smart enough to realize that simply giving the audience an origin story is not enough. And so it goes with this, still the reigning king of sequels, that Vito Corleone’s (here portrayed by a young, brilliant Robert De Niro) backstory plays out concurrently with that of his son and heir, Michael (still one of Al Pacino’s greatest performances), tracking in parallel and occasionally in counterpoint Michael’s descent into darkness and masterfully evoking the inescapability of personal destiny, family and legacy. There’s a beautiful novelistic quality to this chapter in the eventual trilogy, arguably even more so than in Puzo’s original book, which is more of a pulpy summer read than an immersive saga. A lot of that comes from the structure, which allowed Coppola and his three editors to move seamlessly between different eras in a single edit, each sequence commenting on the past and foreshadowing the future. This is serious, bold and arty cinema on a huge scale, unafraid to deal with actual consequences and fearlessly concluding on an extremely dark note. It’s been forty years since the film hit cinemas, but in those four decades nothing, not from Coppola nor from anyone else, has come close. [A+]

Apocalypse Now” (1979) 

After his one-two punch in 1974, very probably the greatest single year for a single director in movie history, Coppola went deep into his own heart of darkness and just so happened to create the definitive Vietnam War film. Yet it came at a great cost. “Apocalypse Now,” for all its cinematic wizardry, massive scope and ambition, and hallucinatory, batshit lunacy, seemed to take something out of the at-this-point already-legendary filmmaker. It’s another masterpiece, a more unwieldy one than his previous three films, but as tremendous a union of on-and-offscreen themes, of filmmaker conflating with subject and of adversity forcing both compromise and creative expansion as Hollywood filmmaking has perhaps ever given us. With time passed since Martin Sheen‘s endless, soul-sucking voyage down that interminable, sluggish, evil river, we can say now that it marked the end of the great Coppola period, but oh boy did he end with a bang. At this stage, Coppola was making and breaking his own rules and discovering that out there, so far ahead and apart from everyone else, madness lay. The sacrificial killing of Marlon Brando’s Kurtz at the film’s climax is even more haunting today; a fitting metaphor for what Coppola gave to complete the film. And if you think we’re being overly melodramatic, well, sure we are, but as the also-great making-of documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” shows, the film did become this almost living entity, a mammoth adversary that almost bested the director. His subsequent filmography shows that, while there’s some good, occasionally even impressive, work to be found, he never again approached the dizzying heights of the ’70s again. “Apocalypse Now” is the last truly great film Coppola has made to date. [A]

One from the Heart” (1982) 

This was the film that proved to be such a costly boondoggle that Coppola claimed to work much of the two decades that followed the film’s release just trying to repay the debts he incurred during the film’s production. As far as boondoggles go, though, this one is fairly interesting —a stylistically bold, richly imagined riff on the classic musicals of yore (Coppola even shot the film in the boxy Academy format of 1.37:1). It’s the story of a pair of tumultuous lovers (played by Teri Garr and Frederic Forrest) who split up and find new lovers (played by Raul Julia and Nastassja Kinski), only to come back together once again. That’s literally the entire narrative. Some of the cast, particularly Garr, who is sexy and adorable (sample line of dialogue: “I want to go out with a lot of guys; I want erotic things to happen!”), give their performances the arched oomph that Coppola’s deliberately artificial aesthetic requires, while others, principally Forrest, grate against that same aesthetic in all sorts of uncomfortable ways. And while there was a lot of lip service given to the fact that the movie was an honest-to-god musical, none of the performers actually sing all that much, and nobody even dances until almost an hour into the movie (the grumpy songs by Tom Waits aren’t exactly memorable either). While the movie is one of the more gorgeous Coppola productions, thanks largely to the dizzying sets (it was filmed entirely on the American Zoetrope soundstages in San Francisco) and velvety cinematography by Vittorio Storaro, which captures the action in a series of long, unbroken takes, it doesn’t add up to much, and oftentimes the overt stylization further distances the viewer from the emotional center of the movie. When the movie was released, it was an absolute disaster, making less than half a million dollars on a budget of more than $26 million. While there have been some half-hearted reappraisals throughout the years, the movie, oscillating between frantic and funereal, remains a gorgeously gilded lame duck. As Forrest says, towards the end of the movie, “If I could sing, I would sing.” This is a problem shared by the movie as a whole. [C+]

The Outsiders” (1983) 

The cult status it has earned since its release and its astonishing cast of future superstars now combine to somewhat cloud the assessment of “The Outsiders,” something not helped by its reissue in 2005 in a substantially reworked version that added 22 extra minutes of footage and replaced whole segments of Carmine Coppola’s original score with pop songs from the 1950s period in which it’s set. But while it does boast some very sparky performances from its outstanding young cast (C.Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise and especially, on a recent rewatch, the perenially undervalued Patrick Swayze), Coppola’s adaptation of S.E Hinton’s beloved teen classic remains a curiously unengaging affair, and partly this is down to a fundamental disconnect between content and form. Coppola understood the grit of the story, which revolves around a group of kids from the wrong side of the tracks tangling with the local rich kids with tragic results, and apparently demanded such verisimilitude that the church burning scene famously nearly became a real conflagration. But he also gives free rein to almost exactly the opposite impulse. “The Outsiders” is astonishingly gorgeous (stunning Stephen H Burum cinematography) to look at, and whether it’s the exuberant youthful beauty of its cast or the spectacular sunsets and stylized nighttime rumbles, it adds an avoidable gloss of glamor and a filter of nostalgia to what should be a rawer, more affecting and immediate story. Case in point: the poetic scene between Macchio and Howell that’s shot to deliberately refer to the movie version of “Gone with the Wind,” the book they’d just been reading. Similarly, Coppola’s near avant-garde use of music (score in the original; songs with distractingly on-the-nose lyrics in the re-release) means that whole stretches of dialogue are inaudible and action scenes, as desperate and dramatic as they should be, take on a romanced, balletic quality. All this simply serves to drive a wedge of style between the viewer and the characters. You might think after the financial disaster of “One from the Heart” Coppola would be in chastened, subdued form, but “The Outsiders” might be on the surface a less ambitious project, but the filmmaker is all over it, at times even getting in its way. [B-]

Rumble Fish” (1983)

While “Hunger Games” and dystopian sci-fi is all the rage, it’s fun to remember that young adult novels, albeit of a much different stripe, were also in vogue in the 1980s. And so Coppola belted out two S.E. Hinton adaptations in the early half in the decade that were both be released in 1983. While lesser regarded than the star-studded, more commercial “The Outsiders,” “Rumble Fish” is the much more accomplished work. Much more overtly experimental, expressionistic and leaning heavily on the French New Wave, the film is a bold, moody and starkly black and white exploration of teen angst and disenchantment. And so of course it started in earnest the career of ne plus ultra actor of adolescent disillusionment of that time: Matt Dillon who had already starred in “Over The Edge” and “Tex” (the latter also an S.E. Hinton adaptation), as well as “The Outsiders.” Featuring an unorthodox score by Police drummer Stewart Copeland (who as a first-time composer was perhaps not yet fully attuned to the medium), some fairly avant garde, film noir stylization, and striking sound design that capitalized on the hushed and whispery intonation of Mickey Rourke, “Rumble Fish” centers on a disheartened gang leader looking to change his ways (Rourke) and the younger brother who reveres him and wants to emulate him in every way possible (Dillon). Co-starring Coppola muse Diane Lane and Dennis Hopper with appearances by Nicolas Cage, Laurence Fishburne and Tom Waits, Coppola wrote the screenplay with Hinton during their off days shooting “The Outsiders” (how’s that for multitasking?). Style threatened to overwhelm substance in Coppola’s films many times during his career (“One From The Heart” being a prime example), and “Rumble Fish” is a polarizing work in the Coppola canon in this regard. The filmmaker himself saw the film as his deserved artistic treat for delivering the more conventional studio effort of “The Outsiders” (Coppola was a card-carrying member of the “one for them, one for me” club). Stylish and brash, boasting an atmosphere of sweaty oppressiveness and an arrestingly cool visual treatment, “Rumble Fish” is a great marriage of poetry and passion, delivering both in equal, lasting measure. [B+]

The Cotton Club” (1984)

It’s easy to see what “The Cotton Club” was meant to be —a sprawling, colorful, multi-stranded crime drama that would do for the Harlem Jazz scene of the 1930s what “The Godfather” had done for the postwar New York mafia. A passion project of superproducer Robert Evans, who had designed the film as his own directorial debut, no expense had been spared on the lavish preproduction, including hiring Coppola, along with William Kennedy, to rewrite Mario Puzo’s screenplay. So when Evans abruptly asked him to take over just weeks before shooting was due to start, in Coppola’s words, “Evans had set the tone for the level of extravagance long before I got there.” In need of a bona fide hit after two small-scale teen dramas and the bankrupting failure of “One from the Heart,” Coppola was not to find it with this film, which bespeaks that curious kind of disappointment in which individual elements are promising, occasionally even thrilling (especially the sublime tap routines of Gregory and Maurice Hines) but is put together with (ironically) a baffling lack of rhythm. Spending way too much time on the vacant love triangle between three thinly drawn, blank white protagonists (Richard Gere’s trumpet player, Diane Lane’s ambitious moll and James Remar’s vicious mobster Dutch Schultz), and relegating the much more interesting race and class issues to the status of subplot, background noise or “local color,” the film suffers from a lack of internal momentum and feels curiously undramatic. Perhaps that’s because all the drama happened offscreen: “Apocalypse Now” gets the press for its nightmarish production, but “The Cotton Club” (in addition to Evans’ conviction for cocaine trafficking, which happened a couple of years before filming began) also saw massive cost overruns, which Coppola and Evans would blame each other for in the acrimonious legal wrangling that followed the film’s underperformance. And it even had a murder, when one of the film’s backers (not the Arab arms dealer, a different one!) was shot repeatedly in the head and then blown up with dynamite in a contract killing commissioned by a colleague angry at being squeezed out of a producer’s role. All of which is, sadly, a lot more interesting than the film itself, though we could watch Gregory Hines tapdance pretty much forever. [B-]

Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986)

As a unit, we at the Playlist are “Youth Without Youth” apologists, but if anyone’s looking for an infinitely less indulgent, more accessible, frothy, pinkly sugared take on a few of the same topics, Coppola provided one all the way back in the mid-eighties, namely “Peggy Sue Got Married.” Starring Kathleen Turner as Peggy Sue, the film is also notable for being one of the very rare occasions (“The Rain People” probably being the other) when Coppola, usually so attuned to examining masculine ego, hubris and grand folly, tells his story from a female perspective. And it works surprisingly well, as Peggy Sue feels like a real woman and is given a kind of agency that is not just due to her modernity, when she gets mysteriously transported back her 1950s teenagerhood, but that marks her out as a quirky, individual character; a woman of disappointed dreams and untapped potential. Also starring Coppola’s nephew Nicolas Cage in an early defining role (the next year would bring lead roles in “Raising Arizona” and “Moonstruck”) and featuring Joan Allen, Helen Hunt and Jim Carrey in supporting roles, ‘Peggy Sue’ is to be sure not a particularly deep film, but it does have a lot of heart and a kind of sincere optimism beneath its “second chance” premise. It can also be seen as Coppola’s minor course-correction after a string of box office failures ranging from underperformers to catastrophes: the film went on to be Coppola’s first real hit since “Apocalypse Now.” It’s also the first time he really foregrounded the idea of the passage of time, the cruelty it can inflict and the wisdom it can foster, and here Coppola additionally finds the perfect home for his affectionate nostalgia toward his own 1950s coming of age. Perhaps an outlier in Coppola’s canon purely because it’s so undemanding, sweet and so uncomplicatedly fond of all its characters, “Peggy Sue Got Married” hints at how Coppola was becoming less an auteur than a director-for-hire but still had enough flair and personality to assure us that it’s anyone but a journeyman behind the camera. [B]

“Gardens Of Stone” (1987)

Forgotten even by the standards of some of Coppola’s other work of the 1980s and 1990s, “Gardens Of Stone” sees the director return to the war in Vietnam eight years after “Apocalypse Now,” but from a very different viewpoint. It’s a sober and worthy picture with an excellent cast, but the comparison to the earlier military masterpiece certainly does it no favors. Based on the book by Nicholas Proffitt and adapted by Ron Bass, it centers on the surrogate father/son relationship between weary career soldier Lt. Hazard (James Caan, who’s excellent here), and combat-hungry Specialist Willow (D.B. Sweeney, less so), who serve together in the “Old Guard,” providing the ceremonial duties at funerals of fallen soldiers in Arlington Cemetery. Willow is desperate to serve in Vietnam despite just marrying his childhood sweetheart (Mary Stuart Masterson), but Hazard, having served there, believes it’s a terrible war and tries his best to keep the boy alive. It’s a delicate and uncharacteristically somber picture from Coppola, directed without much in the way of flourish and focused mostly on the performances. Which are for the most part very strong: this is probably one of Caan’s finest hours, and reliable supporting performers like Angelica Huston, James Earl Jones, Dean Stockwell, Elias Koteas and ‘Apocalypse’ veterans Sam Bottoms and Laurence Fishburne all do strong work. The film doesn’t quite hang together, somehow, but that’s understandable: the director was in pre-production when his 22-year-old son Gian-Carlo was killed in a speedboat accident (Ryan O’Neal’s son Griffin, originally cast in Sweeney’s part, was responsible for the incident, and was recast as a result). That knowledge gives the film’s portrayal of grief, and of fathers and sons, added pathos, but it also perhaps explains why Coppola’s heart may not have been in it. [B-]

Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988)

One of the more bafflingly overlooked entries in Coppola’s oeuvre, “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” is a bold, boisterous biopic of Preston Tucker (played by a crackling Jeff Bridges), a visionary postwar car designer whose story Coppola turns into a feel-good American myth. Originally envisioned as an experimental musical biography (these elements were, thankfully, scrapped), ‘Tucker’ is instead an earnest exploration of a man who shares more than a few character traits with Coppola himself —a mind towards newfangled technology, an anti-authoritarian streak, a lack of fiscal responsibility (you can’t help but think of Coppola when someone snaps of Tucker, “no matter how much he makes, he manages to spend twice as much”) and a deep belief in the power of family. And while some of the more outré ideas that Coppola originally had in mind for the film were abandoned, “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” still has a number of fairly insane stylistic flourishes —the Capra-esque educational film framework and narration, some nifty transitions (after Preston bemoans that he might have “ringside seats to your own crucifixion,” Coppola immediately cuts to a giant T being hoisted into the sky), and a great use of on-set “split-screen” (with two actors speaking on the phone to each other, from different locations on the same soundstage). This was a story that Coppola had been dying to tell from a young age (his father was one of the first investors in Tucker’s car) but he was only able to get the film financed when George Lucas, while on the set of “Captain EO” (see below), offered to fund the entire production himself. Later Coppola bemoaned that the movie wasn’t what he could have accomplished during his artistic peak, but that doesn’t really matter: “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” is a minor classic, full of outstanding performances (from the likes of Martin Landau, Joan Allen, Elias Koteas, and in the movie’s most haunting sequence, Dean Stockwell as Howard Hughes), jazzy music (courtesy of Joe Jackson) and a singularly irreverent, zippy wackiness that is positively infectious. [B+] 

New York Stories” – segment: “Life Without Zoe” (1989)
The anthology “New York Stories” was a tantalizing prospect when it premiered at Cannes back in 1989, teaming as it did for the first (and last) time three of American cinema’s most venerated figures, with Coppola serving as the filling in a sandwich of shorts between Martin Scorsese’s “Life Lessons” and Woody Allen‘s “Oedipus Wrecks.” Filler may be the more appropriate term for Coppola’s “Life Without Zoe” —the film is easily the weakest of the three mini-movies (indeed, only Scorsese’s is really worth the price of admission), and one of the most disposable things that the director ever made. The film centers on a spoilt young rich girl (Heather McComb) whose feuding parents (Giancarlo Giannini and Talia Shire) are splitting up, and who after her apartment is robbed sets out to return a piece of jewellery to an Arab princess. It’s arguably become more interesting now than it was at the time: in its study of ennui and privilege, it serves as a sort of precursor to the work of the director’s daughter Sofia. As such, fans of “Somewhere” or “The Bling Ring” might find something to like. We find the film pretty empty and dull, particularly badly served by following Scorsese’s entry, with Don Novello the only real spark of life as McComb’s butler. [D]

The Godfather Part III” (1990)

Few films in history have been as hotly anticipated as “The Godfather Part III.” Coming sixteen years after “Part II,” the threequel was bound to disappoint many and has a reputation as a misfire, but nearly a quarter-of-a-century on is more than worthy of reappraisal, even if it doesn’t quite hit the heights of its predecessors. Set as the 1970s turns into the 1980s, against the backdrop of the final days of Pope Paul VI (and the short-lived John Paul I), it sees Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) still wracked with guilt over the death of Fredo and trying to go straight with a huge land deal involving the Vatican. But famously, just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in, and the plotting of enforcer Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) and Don Altobello (Eli Wallach), along with the arrival of Sonny’s bastard son Vincent (Andy Garcia), looks to scupper the plan and lead to tragedy. The film (hastily put together when a semi-reluctant Coppola faced financial difficulties, as well as Paramount needing a holiday blockbuster for 1990) undoubtedly makes missteps: the Pope-assassination plot and some of the action sequences are far-fetched in a way that the previous movies never were, the script never finds a satisfying way to re-integrate Diane Keaton‘s Kay, who feels superfluous, and yes, Sofia Coppola is miscast as daughter Mary. But it’s still a muscular, chewy crime picture, steeped satisfyingly and substantially in Catholic guilt, and with performances (Pacino, Garcia and Mantegna are particularly good) and scenes that can stand against anything in the trilogy. Maybe we’ve softened to the picture thanks to the serialization of movies and the rise of cable drama, which this serves as something of a precursor to. But we’d maintain that “The Godfather Part III” isn’t the bum note that many accuse it of being. [B]

“Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992)

Bordering on kitsch and occasionally tipping over, there are two main things stopping “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” from devolving into the all-out campiness that threatens to engulf the endeavor: Gary Oldman’s wildly over the top yet still somehow terrifically enjoyable performance as the blood-thirsty prince of darkness, and the sumptuous, lustrous, spared-no-expense aesthetics that bring new meaning to the word lavish. It’s 1992 and you’ve just stained the unimpeachable reputation of one of the most respected film franchises of all time, and your own crowning glory, by directing “Godfather III.” What do you do? Meet up with Winona Ryder, apparently (Ryder was famously due to play role in the third ‘Godfather’ installment that then went to Sofia Coppola, whose performance came in for the lion’s share of the disapprobation heaped on the film). It was Ryder who gave him the script, and there was clearly some kind of spark, because Coppola agreed to venture where many had tread before. But Coppola vowed to make a faithful adaptation out of Bram Stoker’s tale, and the result is a highly entertaining, but undeniably uneven, nightmarish amalgamation of sex, fear, love, and control, and a visually hypnotic experience. Notoriously opting to have all the special effects in the film be a combination of forced perspectives, matte paintings, and props built specifically for certain scenes, Coppola ensured that the visual element would be a priority from the get-go. With its bombastic, Academy Award winning costumes and an old-fashioned approach to filming, ‘Dracula’ whatever its narrative failings, remains a timeless visual specimen. The making-of documentary, in which you get to see just how much emphasis Coppola put on the costumes, is recommended as well. But the down side to excelling in the technical departments is that it shows up the film’s less convincing elements, notably poor Keanu Reeves and a script that veers very close to silly. Oldman and a luminous Ryder, however, are more ably supported by Anthony Hopkins and Tom Waits (as Renfield in a stroke of genius casting) and ultimately Coppola delivers a film far short of his real high points, but nonetheless a grander entertainment than a lot of his films of this period could possibly claim to be. [B]

Jack” (1996) 

Coppola is the type of revered filmmaker who will inspire someone, somewhere to launch a vigorous campaign to rehabilitate even his worst missteps, yet try as we might we can muster no defense for “Jack,” doubtless because that might entail watching the damn thing again and life (which is ironically the moral of this very fable) is short. The deafening silence where we might expect a chorus of “deserves a second look” or “more to it than its reputation suggests” is no doubt the result of several factors, but it may be mostly that even amongst the rogues gallery of the director’s less shiny moments, “Jack” takes the wooden spoon —it’s not even an interesting failure the way other Coppola wrong turns almost invariably are. The unbearably mawkish ‘Benjamin Button’-lite story of a boy born with a rare disorder that makes him age physically at four times the rate of a normal child, this is a film that occupies one sole register of would-be plangent schmaltz, and a role that plays to the very worst impulses of the late, great Robin Williams’ manchild persona. Indeed, the literalizing of the manchild concept was presumably what attracted Coppola, giving him the opportunity (along with writers James DeMonaco and Gary Nadeau) to investigate issues of aging and mortality that are obviously recurring concerns for the filmmaker, especially from this period of his career onward. But it’s depressing just how little he does with them, preferring to fall back into a bafflingly anonymous, thuddingly unsubtle family-friendly mode that sits at uncomfortable odds with the story’s darker implications. The ooginess of the sexuality issue is skated over awkwardly, not least by the film skipping forward in time by seven years in just one of its examples of narrative dishonesty, and Coppola seems to actively shy away from anything provocative or insightful (though watching it right now does yield an added frisson of discomfort with Bill Cosby’s presence as Jack’s wise, avuncular, similarly kid-at-heart tutor). If this steaming pile of ersatz sentiment has any redeeming feature for the director, it’s that “Jack” is crafted as though he were in the Witness Protection Program under exceptionally credible cover as a journeyman director —it’s so anonymous that it’s hard to remember Coppola was ever behind it, when you remember the film at all. [D]

“The Rainmaker” (1997)

Re-watching “The Rainmaker” these days, especially for those of us who might not have seen it for a decade or more, may be one of those experiences whereby present predilections collide with bloated memories to make for a disappointing but still nostalgic ride. Based on a novel by courtroom drama maestro John Grisham, who was on an absolute tear in the mid 90s with seven adaptations of his works coming out between ’93 and ’98, this is way more mellow than memory serves, to the point of sluggishness. Artistically speaking, Coppola was apparently already all but spent at this stage in the game, and the evidence is right here; everything about this picture just looks plain, ordinary and again anonymous. Without a trace of the audacious character that we’d last seen breathing at least some splendid visual life into “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (unless you count the film’s titles), this feels more like an assignment than an inspired project. The sense of Coppola treading water trying to maintain his own interest, let alone ours, is inescapable. Matt Damon plays a young zealous lawyer who is determined to bring down a corrupt insurance company while juggling a million other things like studying for the bar exam for half the film, dealing with Danny Devito’s obnoxious ambulance-chasing partner, or falling for Claire Danes’ abused wife. There’s a bit too much melodrama going on, and not enough intense courtroom moments comparable to the likes of other Grisham adaptations like “A Time To Kill.” But then, Grisham himself thinks it’s the best film adaptation out of all the others, so maybe the issue is that Coppola stuck too closely to the source material here, which lacks the kind of meat and potential for cinema fireworks worthy of Coppola’s talents. But hey, it’s never a dull sight to see Jon Voight playing a baddie and Mickey Rourke playing a boss, and it’s nowhere near as bad as what immediately preceded it, though you could drive yourself insane just trying to locate any vestige of golden-era Coppola across its resolutely uninspired 135 minutes. [C+]

Youth Without Youth” (2007) 

There’s no way an event like Francis Ford Coppola’s first film in 10 years could possibly come and go with a shrug of indifference, wthout creating any waves at all, but is it just us, or did most critics seem a tad hyperbolic in their all-out hatred for this strange but at times fascinating sci-fi tale? Garnering some of the snarkiest reviews of his career, maybe because of the urge to tear into a fallen idol who dared to turn in something this unabashedly self-indulgent and opaque, “Youth Without Youth” was Coppola’s attempt to get back to an earlier ideal of making smaller, more personal films, and yet it is weighted down at every point with the heavy, portentous and occasionally downright confusing impulses of an old man, fearing death and leaving an incomplete legacy. It certainly doesn’t work entirely, and it is without doubt almost shamefully self-absorbed, yet it is also occasionally fascinating and in its sorrowful, yearning moments has more real feeling than Coppola had managed for decades. And there’s often an exuberance to the filmmaking and a daring willingness to be as esoteric and weird as the story demands, which in the context of his filmography is certainly a refreshing if divisive move on from the bland look and feel of his last two features. At heart, the film is concerned with the Coppola staples of time, legacy and mortality (which you can see in everything from ‘Peggy Sue’ to “The Godfather Part III” to “Dracula,” to “Jack” and beyond, even up to “Twixt”), but so much is thrown at the wall in ‘Youth’ —a nazi spy subplot, romances, dealing with newly discovered super powers, World War II, and more—that not all of it can possibly stick or even fit together. At times unwieldy though it may be, the central ‘Benjamin Button’-esque story of an old man (Tim Roth) struck by lightning who miraculously regenerates into his younger self is an ambitious and always interesting metaphysical what-if, and though Coppola struggles mashing together disparate genres, it’s fairly obvious to see why he’d be interested in this story, and why he might invest it with so much heart. It’s the tale of a man who’s essentially granted the impossible wish for more time in which to complete his life’s work and address the mistakes and regrets of his past. [B-]

Tetro” (2009)

Two years after his much-disparaged comeback with “Youth Without Youth,” Coppola continued his new era with this mostly self-financed (ah, wine money!) and highly personal story about two estranged brothers and the familial rivalries borne out of different generations. “Tetro” is so far the most well-received of the filmmaker’s late-period works. The high-contrast, black-and-white digital cinematography by Mihai Mălaimare, Jr. (who went on to shoot “The Master” in 70mm) is absolutely gorgeous, and there’s a good reason one of the first promotional clips released for the film was of the stunning opening three minutes, in which we are introduced to the glorious crisp look of the film and its urban Argentinian setting. Not enough can be said though for the brilliant casting of Vincent Gallo in the titular role, the older brother to Alden Ehrenreich’s Bennie (also quite good). Gallo is an acquired taste, but can anyone argue he has on-camera presence to burn? His slithery, motor-mouthed aggression, wiry frame, and atypical good looks are perfectly in sync with Coppola’s intentions here and coupled with the slick and luscious visual treatment, which switches abruptly to color for some flashbacks and the odd surreal Powell and Pressburger-style ballet sequence, helps make “Tetro” Coppola’s best, most complete work in his twilight period. And perhaps we were also by this stage learning a little what to expect from the ageing filmmaker, or at least what not to: with “Tetro,” Coppola makes the persuasive case that he is not creatively exhausted, but if he has another masterpiece in him, it will not look anything like “The Godfather” and we should all stop holding even him to the impossible standard of his younger self. At times, it’s too on the nose and it’s obviously personal, which can be invigorating but also alienating and self-indulgent. Regardless, there aren’t many legendary, 70-year-old filmmakers with multiple Oscars making movies like “Tetro,” and that alone should be commended. [B]

Twixt” (2011)

If it felt like Coppola was climbing his way slowly back into our good graces over the late 00s, he must have missed a foothold because he slipped a far bit back with this turgid, silly, occasionally unwatchable horror movie, which was positioned as Coppola’s late-career comeback but instead playing more as a for-diehards-only curio. Val Kilmer plays Hall Baltimore, a “bargain basement Stephen King” whose imagination is ignited when he stops off at a spooky small town and gets told stories about a series of ritualistic child murders that happened long ago (the bodies are buried, supposedly, underneath the hotel where Kilmer is staying). The main mystery, concerning a serial killer that the local sheriff (played by a scenery-chewing Bruce Dern) dubs “The Vampire Executioner,” is seriously stale —there’s literally a scene where Kilmer, Dern, Dern’s deputy, and a little kid ask a Ouija board for help. And the whole thing is shot so blandly that you can’t tell whether or not Coppola registers how funny the tableau is (the film’s lack of style is odd considering cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. also shot the sumptuous “Tetro”). Things get slightly livelier when Kilmer slips into a dream world, where he converses with Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin) and a shimmery Elle Fanning, who may or may not be one of the town’s murdered children. But even those sequences don’t register as “dreamy” as much as they are “sparsely furnished” (at one point these sequences were supposed to be exhibited in 3D, but that, along with a “live score” by co-composer Dan Deacon, never got much further than a handful of screenings). There are a number of things that make “Twixt” a worthy watch, at least for intrigued Coppola completists —the genuinely batshit performances by Dern and Kilmer (at one point he does impressions of Marlon Brando, Peter O’Toole, and “a black gay basketball player from the ’60s”), some nifty stylistic flourishes, the fact that Kilmer’s on-screen harridan wife is played by his real-life ex-wife Joanne Whalley and the film’s occasional blast of eeriness, particularly when Coppola perversely re-creates the tragic death of his son Gian-Carlo Coppola. But none of this borrowed interest, salacious or otherwise can enliven what is mostly a dull, muddily plotted misfire that even for those entirely disenchanted with late-period Coppola, feels just so far beneath him. [C-]

Shorts, specials and other curiosities

Battle Beyond the Sun” (1959)

A brilliant example of Roger Corman’s genius for taking a sow’s ear and turning it into a slightly more marketable sow’s ear, the impresario acquired a sci-fi cheapie called “Nebo Zovyot” made by Soviet directors Mikhail Karzhukov and Aleksandr Kozyr and put Coppola to work on a dubbing script that would excise the film’s anti-American propaganda message. Coppola went further, shooting additional footage of two space monsters fighting each other (collaborator Jack Hill later claimed that one was supposed to look like a penis and the other a vagina) and adding in other bits of found and shot footage to deliver a film that story-wise scarcely resembles the original, which was a fairly straightforward tale of the race for Mars. This tribute to Corman’s waste not, want not philosophy would have been Coppola’s first directorial credit —except he used a pseudonym, Thomas Colchart for the work.

The Terror” (1963)

Just one of four well-known names who reportedly did uncredited directing work on Corman’s 1963 cobbled-together haunted-castle yarn (future blaxploitation director Jack Hill, Monte Hellman and the film’s star Jack Nicholson being the others), Coppola was sent off to Big Sur to shoot some additional footage. The Boris Karloff film had only been written originally in order to take advantage of pre existing sets that were about to be torn down, and the result is again one of those Corman movies it’s easier to admire in spirit than in actual fact. Now it’s better known as source material that, along with the services of Karloff, another Corman protégé, Peter Bogdanovich would plunder deeply for his terrific 1968 film “Targets.”

The Bellboy and the Playgirls” (1962) – co-directed with Fritz Umgelter
All
our best efforts came to naught when trying to track down this early
entry in the Coppola canon, so we can neither grade it nor tell you much
about it, aside from the fact that it’s a comedy that is called “The
Bellboy and the Playgirls
” and it was originally shot wholly in black
and white and in German. Coppola was hired to shoot a few more saucy
scenes to up its marketability to the dirty mac market in the US, adding in some color footage of women one whom the titular bellboy is spying
literally through the keyholes of their hotel rooms. We can only imagine
this is all as utterly hilarious as it sounds, though to be sure, being
in charge of the additional nude scenes for a German smut flick seems
kind of like a dream job for any 23 year old guy.

Captain EO” (1986)
Early in the fall of 1986, George Lucas, as part of his partnership with the Walt Disney Company, debuted a breakthrough 3D attraction that starred Michael Jackson, the biggest musical performer on the planet. It was a 17-minute-long musical extravaganza called “Captain EO”… directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The film is fairly straightforward, with Jackson playing “the infamous” Captain EO, who leads a “ragtag band” of weirdo aliens and robots on an intergalactic journey. When they respond to a distress signal on a dingily mechanized, Giger-esque planet, EO runs afoul of the spidery Supreme Leader (Anjelica Huston), who, after EO comments on her inner beauty, hisses, “You find meeee beautiful?” EO then proceeds to liberate the downtrodden planet through the power of choreographed dance and 3D sparkles; shadows become light and pillars of clunky junk become neoclassical Roman columns (the best part, especially in retrospect, is when EO turns one of the black-clad robot guards into an eighties-era fop, complete with bopping blonde mullet). Coppola knew how to choreograph dance numbers (“One from the Heart” be damned) and was able to channel Jackson’s overwhelming charisma at the peak of his powers into a wonderful little performance. But when the film returned to several Disney parks following Jackson’s untimely death in 2009 (it had been replaced by the deeply lame “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” in the late nineties), the seams really did show —the nonhuman characters were clunky, the 3D technology iffy even after a new polish, and the storyline virtually nonexistent (also: kind of sexist). But it’s is still Coppola at his most joyously, imaginatively unhinged, a side of traditionally serious, even somber filmmaker that we only rarely see.

Faerie Tale Theater” TV episode “Rip Van Winkle” (1987)
Around the time he was dallying with time-travel shenanigans with the featherweight “Peggy Sue Got Married,” Coppola took a very rare TV gig, and turned in this Harry Dean Stanton-starring hour-long version of the classic fairy tale. It’s by all accounts a pretty anonymous work, seemingly shot in 1984 and not aired until 1987, and it was unobjectionable enough to be shown in school classrooms, along with the rest of the Shelley Duvall-fronted series, thereafter.

So, on that slightly deflating note, that’s our assessment of the career to date of one of the great masters of American cinema. Agree? Disagree? Do you imagine Coppola has another great film in him or is his glory all in the past now? Let us know below. 

— Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton, Erik McClanahan, Drew Taylor, Nikola Grozdanovic & Rodrigo Perez

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