film

Old School Review: Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” (1974)

Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, “The Conversation” is a paranoia-thriller surrounding a man within the surveillance industry, released fittingly during the height of the Watergate Crisis. The private surveillant in question is Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), and we first encounter him in the field, covertly recording audio of a conversation between a young couple (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) out for a walk. The two seem innocuous enough as they circle through the crowded plaza, we only get bits and pieces of their conversation as Harry and his small team use a variety of methods to capture their exchange. This film has a simple, but taught, premise and while it may be a slow burn as far as the pacing of the story unfolding- it is one wrought with tension, analysis, and questioning. It’s also a small miracle that this film is as good as it is because it was made and released inbetween Coppola’s first two “Godfather” films!

After Harry begins to analyze the audio back in his lab alongside his partner in the business, Stan (John Cazale), he uncovers a possible motive for his client wanting this information- with deadly implications. As a private, small time, surveillant Harry rarely knows intimate knowledge of who he’s tracking or why somebody wants them to be followed. He only knows the target and any knowledge relevant to getting information out of them through stealth and carefully applied technologies. As things escalate Harry finds himself between two sides of some high level corporate espionage, driven to prevent the murder of the young couple he was hired to tail. Harry Caul is an interesting character, especially for Gene Hackman after winning the Best Actor Oscar in “The French Connection” just two years prior. Here Hackman turns in Detective “Popeye” Doyle’s bombastic grit for a more measured and inward determination within Harry Caul. Harry’s a quieter detective, one whose problems are more internalized than Doyle’s.

Which leads me to the only real crux of an issue that I have with the film. After visiting a surveillance convention and meeting up with several acquaintances, Harry brings them back to his lab for a social drink. Up until this point in the film Harry has exhibited a very careful and fairly paranoid persona, he doesn’t let people into his life and he hides his secrets well. He’s even known by the others at the convention to be a shrewd businessman by making his own tech and never sharing his blueprints or prototypes to anyone. So, why has he invited a group of people to his working lab where his audio reels and secretive methods are hidden? After some deliberation, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a couple beats and one earlier scene that showcase how conflicted Harry Caul really is when it comes to social interactions and the nature of his relationship with intimacy. He seems to be a character that craves camaraderie and attention, but he also seems incapable of cultivating it in his own life. This character flaw is the only reason that I can fathom as to why he would loosen his standards so far as to let an unknown woman close to him and his secrets- which she takes full advantage of. Other than this scene, the movie feels flawless in Coppola’s hands- and most of it is as far as I can tell.

“The Conversation” is an excellently poised film within Coppola’s 1970’s filmography. Squeezed inbetween his first two “Godfather” films and followed up by “Apocalypse Now” in 1979, this was an excellent decade for the director. Rarely do I recommend a film based on it’s technical aspects- but even if the plot or performances didn’t catch your eye then maybe the audio and editing skill on display will, they’re absolutely fantastic for the film’s time. As a plus, a pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford makes an appearance as a villainous corporate underling! What’s not to love about that?

Final Score: 1 Mime

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Review: The Lighthouse

Written by Max and Robert Eggers, and directed by Robert Eggers, “The Lighthouse” is the second film directed by Eggers after his horror period-piece debut “The Witch” in 2015. Similarly to his first feature, “The Lighthouse” is also a period piece, though it’s more of an abstract thriller than a straight horror film. Don’t fret if you were hoping for a fright fest, as there’s much to be feared here. Between the eerie imagery, the dialogue that perfectly fits the time period (The 1890’s for this unsettling yarn), and the use of sound throughout- “The Lighthouse” is a totally unique film, but especially among the majority of other offerings currently at the box office. This is a film that is unconcerned with popular trends or any proven box office metrics, and it’s all the better for it.

Not only is the film shot in black and white, on 35mm film no less, but it’s also framed in an aspect ratio of 1.19:1, visually connecting it to cinema’s silent era. Early on the film feels evocative of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” at times, but with more straightforward storytelling. The first twenty minutes or so have little dialogue, with the constant bellow of the foghorn amidst rummaging machinery that becomes rhythmic as the two “Wickies” settle in, and it isn’t long before you can sense that the air is full of potential for inducing madness. The two men in question are Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). Wake’s a seasoned veteran of the job, and a near cruel overseer of his new younger apprentice in Winslow. Winslow’s a man of few words, but unfortunately for him Wake loves a good conversation over dinner and this is one of the many grinding conflicts between the two men. As time goes on the film becomes more and more abstract, the imagery evolving towards something more mystical than a simple tale of two men on a jagged rock, beset by torrential rain and crashing waves. This film does what few can even hope to accomplish, it transcends the form and plays with your expectations, it becomes cinema as Myth.

The film is essentially a power struggle between the two Wickies. Wake covers the night shifts- and he rules the light with an iron fist. No matter the standards and rules of their superiors, Winslow is not permitted to tend the bulb. Of course, all of the worst, most back-breaking, work is relegated to the younger Wickie. Slowly, through madness or some other dark art, Winslow’s grasp on reality becomes slippery, and his trust evaporated. I really don’t want to get mired in over-explaining the machinations at work here, but trust me, this is a film you should definitely see in theaters, we need more weird art like this one!

“The Lighthouse” turns in two excellent performances from both actors here. Willem Dafoe swings big in this one; he playfully dawdles with turn of the century English so delightfully that you may be transfixed enough to have forgotten that you’re watching a movie. While Robert Pattinson plays his slow burn descent into insanity with aplomb and a finality that suggests, perhaps, that he’s finally given a performance so engaging and new that no one even will ever again associate his name with those terribly awful Vampire movies- which in itself is a Christmas gift come early. Go see this one, you don’t want to miss it!

Final Score: 2 Keepers of the Light, 1 Seagull

film

Review Catch-Up: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a somber American tale following the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) set within 1961’s New York City folk scene. The Coen brothers, obviously, are masters of cinema with an unmistakable creative voice and skill. Here again, as in “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?”, the duo return to an American landscape of music synonymous with a certain time and place. This time around, the odyssey belongs to Llewyn Davis, a down-on-his-luck folk singer in Greenwich Village who survives the cold winter months mostly due to the hospitality of friends and neighbors in the upper west side. We first find Llewyn at the Gaslight cafe giving an evocative performance of melancholy mood and airy atmosphere.

After a stirring rendition of an age old folk tale “Hang me, Oh Hang me”, the beleaguered Llewyn is told by the bartender that a friend is waiting for him outside. Que the snarky and sarcastic singer getting beatdown by a shadowy figure for reasons that are initially unknown. Llewyn awakens the next morning on the couch of some wealthy academic friends, the Gorfeins, and heads out after recouping momentarily- but not before accidentally letting their cat escape! Having locked the door on his way out, he grabs the Gorfeins’ cat and heads to the apartment of his friends’ Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan)- though their relationship to Llewyn is strenuous at best. Hoping to stay a night on their couch, with cat in tow, Llewyn is met with polite simmering rage by Jean who has two pieces of bad news for him. First, that the couch had already been offered to a soldier in town for a few musical gigs before heading back to the service, but more importantly, Jean’s pregnant and it could be Llewyn’s unborn child. Jean can’t discern whether the father is truly Llewyn, or Jim to which she is engaged. Llewyn’s allowed to stay, on the floor, after hashing it out with Jean and swearing to pay for her abortion- with money he doesn’t have. Cue another morning of mounting anxieties and you’ll begin to understand the crushing existence that Llewyn lives, right as he watches the Gorfeins’ Cat leap out Jean’s open window and scampering off into wild bluster of the city.

This propels the wandering Llewyn to chase down the cat and it seems as though each step brings him closer to failure or the ultimate sin for artists, giving in to financial pressure. We get a lot of background information about Llewyn through his interactions with those aware of his past and of him encountering those from his past, notably his family and those who knew that he was part of a musical folk duo- that is, until his partner Mike jumped off a bridge. Through Llewyn’s sister and father, there’s a sense of practicality over expression, and a lot of Llewyn’s stubbornness to continue struggling for his art stems from the anxiety and dread he experiences when visiting his father late in the film- which was the push he needed to follow through with a life he wanted versus a life of regret. It’s not necessarily explicitly said in this scene, but you can sense the nature of it. What I really found inspiring in this film is exactly that, Llewyn’s innate nature to get back up after being knocked down, no matter the severity of blows that life throws at him. I’m skipping a bit here to my personal consensus about the film overall, but that’s because the journey that this film, and Llewyn himself, are going on is a great one and I don’t intend to spoil the whole damn thing for any of you out there. There’s a lot of small aspects of the movie that have endeared me to it. The world that Llewyn resides in has a desaturated color palette of cold blues and greens that give it a texture akin to a furled and beaten paperback novel. This analog world of the early 1960’s is lit with soft and full lighting when focused on any of the musical performances throughout the film, while a crisp and harsher eye is applied to scenes shot outside, within small and cramped New York City apartments, the dark and grimy alleyways, or the humorously narrow hallways like the one Llewyn and Adam Driver’s Al Cody squeeze past each other at one point. Which brings me to the performances. As with every and all Coen Brothers films, the deadpan, sarcastic, heartening, and unique nature of the characters involved ties the film together with a bow only Ethan and Joel Coen could craft so neatly. Justin Timberlake’s Jim holds no resemblance to the world famous singer, if only through vocal talent- Carey Mulligan is poise perfect with a grumpy under-pinning that makes her “Jean” feel like a real person with dreams and purpose. There’s also, yes, a John Goodman cameo as an aging Jazz man critically destroyed by a Heroin addiction and a nasty case of spite and bitterness. Goodman’s paired with a similar yet opposite side of failure with musicians in Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), a quiet poet who’s controlled by an older cynic in the industry, from failure breeds further failure. Llewyn stumbles across these two when deciding to hitch-hike to Chicago to see how the record he’d put out after Mike’s death was any good and to see if he could audition for the studio owner. It’s this audition that drives Llewyn back home to New York City, and ultimately back to the Gaslight Cafe.

While some may find this film a bit too Melancholy for their taste, I’d recommend watching (or maybe re-watching) and focusing on how Llewyn navigates his troubles and how nothing seems to stop him. Even though his failures do have an affect on him, he doesn’t let those failures define him, he picks himself back up and goes forward. There’s a wistful nature about the film that suggests that part of the joy of the struggle is the unknown element and pure expression of it all. There are deep undercurrents of the authenticity versus commercialism debate that everyone who’s ever wanted to, or tried to, live off of their art knows full well. Maybe that’s why I was so struck by the beauty of this film’s circular storytelling. At the end of the film Llewyn is back where he started, singing at the Gaslight Cafe and getting beaten up in the alley. Every artist, failed, successful, or otherwise- knows this cycle all too well and it’s a welcome nod to those who keep going for it. Oscar Issac came on the scene in a big way with this film and if you’ve only ever seen him in the recent Star Wars movies, then I suggest giving this one a watch.

Final Score: 2 Cats, 1 Roadtrip

*Check out this video essay on the film! Caution, there are spoilers for the film within the video: