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Movies Reviews Revisited

Revisited #2: The Apocalypse is Here

Apocalypse Now: Final Cut (2019)
Runtime: 3 hours 3 minutes
Rating: R
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Laurence Fishburne, and Marlon Brando


This August saw a momentary theatrical-IMAX re-release of Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus Apocalypse Now, this time with a new cut from the legendary director aptly subtitled the Final Cut. Coming in at 183 minutes (roughly 10 minutes shorter than Redux and 30 minutes longer than the original edit), the Final Cut offers an renewed opportunity to delve back into the Heart of Darkness with Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) as he tracks down the rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in wartime Vietnam. The cultural context of the Vietnam War as represented in the film, itself a translation of the Belgian-colonial context of Joseph Conrad’s source novella, has always been emblematic of an inherent irrationality of war and ideological terror. The state of the world has not improved since 1979; the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report expects global food shortages and mass poverty by 2030, necessitating a complete and total diversion from current social, political, and economic function. Neoliberalism, and its various past incarnations, has effectively dropped us in a dialectic hell from which there is no comfortable escape – a tantamount hell to the one Captain Willard finds himself over the course of his surreal mission.

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The plot goes, Captain Benjamin L. Willard is tasked by ranked U.S. Army officials with tracking down and assassinating the brilliant Colonel William E. Kurtz, a decorated Special Forces operative driven to insanity by the horrors witnessed in war, who’s since formed his own rogue outfit out of Cambodia. The idea of someone as tactically intelligent and capable as Kurtz operating out in the field, outside of America’s interests  deeply disturbs the U.S. Army, the precise reason why being as obvious as it is illusive. Robert Duvall’s iconic Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (“Charlie don’t surf!”) is a clear indicator the U.S. government has zero qualms with sadistic warfare from its personnel, as long as agents extend the symbolic olive branch postmortem. Kurtz’s offense cuts deeper than cruelty, it violates the number one rule of the reality construction project that is the bureaucratic institution: confronting the Lie at its heart.

APOCALYPSE NOW

If Apocalypse Now is about anything, it’s the moral contradiction serving as the basis, the pretense for countless acts of cruelty inflicted in the contrived arena of war. Willard and company stop a Vietnamese supply boat to search for contraband presumed to aid “Charlie.” He advises they dismiss the small boat, letting it pass without incident, but the crew insists. As expected, the routine procedure goes horribly awry when Mr. “Clean” (Laurence Fishburne), with the itchy trigger finger, unloads the boat-mounted machine gun into the unarmed transport. Post-slaughter, they find a smuggled puppy hidden away in a basket – clearly not worth killing anyone over. One of the wounded, a Vietnamese woman who was trying to protect said puppy, doesn’t die right off. The boat captain, Chief Phillips (Albert Hall) demands they bring her abroad to take her back to base for medical assistance. Willard’s seen enough; he walks over to the two soldiers attempting to carry her aboard and mercy shoots her point blank, to everyone else’s shock. Martin Sheen’s brooding voice over monologues his growing resentment for such  “lies.” Later on when we finally meet Colonel Kurtz, he recalls a similar realization precipitating his own existential unraveling: the two really aren’t so different.

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We’ve learned nothing from the great mistake that was the Vietnam War – America can hardly even acknowledge it lost the war. The cultural legacy of the war, Reaganomics of the 80s onward, along with entrenched nationalistic antagonism with the Soviet Union up till the 90s, has only amplified the moral insanity of our modern world. Just as Willard “sees no method at all” to Kurtz’s nightmarish haven of death, there’s nothing rational about the way Western-capitalist idealism has rendered us impotent in preventing our own destruction by our own hand, but that’s expected in any toy democracy where the real power is safeguarded by a paywall rather than its people. What’s left is fertile ground for “horror and moral terror.” The epidemic of white supremacist terrorism, openly encouraged by our own government officials, conveniently disavowed after the fact is nothing if not horror and moral terror explicitly defining our dour epoch.

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In the film’s final sequence, Captain Willard **spoilers** strikes down Kurtz in dramatic fashion, yet he faces on final challenge after he completes his mission. Kurtz’s followers express no hard feelings for their leader’s execution. They bow to Willard as he descends the haunted temple lair, a clear gesture of willing servitude and a chance for Willard to succeed Kurtz as agent of “horror and moral terror.” The fact that anyone can rationally come to the existential conclusions Kurtz does from a dialectic logic of domination and cruelty, is a clear sign of cultural ruin. To see this manufactured reality for what it is, brutal workings and all, and no reasonable power to change it, is true doom. The apocalypse is here, not in the wake of raining fire, but an accepted propensity for blind insanity masquerading as righteous participation.

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Movies Reviews

The Tragic Beauty of Black Love Transcends the Reality of Faceted Imprisonment

If Beale Street Could Talk
Rated: R
Runtime: 1 hour 59 minutes
Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, and Teyonah Parris


2018 was truly a year for Black cinema. Between Black Panther, Sorry to Bother YouBlindspottingBlacKkKlansmanWidows, and to lesser but still noteworthy (and questionable) extent, Green Book, you would be hard-pressed to claim the year didn’t offer arguably the best class of mainstream works from ethnic filmmakers in recent memory – and that’s without mentioning other exquisite films like Roma and Crazy Rich Asians. Although, clearly missing from this list of yesteryear’s finest is Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Best Picture winner Moonlight (2016), but not out of spit. Distribution minutiae standing, If Beale Street Can Talk was technically released in 2018, but didn’t receive a proper wide release until the other side of the new year. So when I declared my best films of 2018, I had no choice but to omit it. Let this late review of Beale Street be an inherent indication of just how highly I think of this deceivingly monumental film.

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If Beale Street Could Talk adapts James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, telling the story of Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) and their love in the face of a reality that actively seeks to deprive them of a dignified existence. Namely, Fonny is wrongfully accused of rape and is arbitrarily jailed with little to no recourse. The film goes to length to spell out the logistical unlikelihood of his guilt, but it doesn’t really matter. Fonny is Black man in America, the implications of which help shape the narrative beats in the film. The same is true for Tish as a Black woman in America. Just as Fonny is indefinitely sent to jail, Tish learns she’s with his child and reaches out to both their families for support for what will undoubtedly be a futile slog towards an unjust conclusion, but inspired by Tish and Sonny’s pure and innocent love, they soldier on. And so, the central tragedy in Beale Street doesn’t stem from infidelity or death or our lovers’ falling out, but from the scarier truth of the African American condition, as vast a definition as that is.

Barry Jenkins again demonstrates a mastery over emotional verisimilitude throughout the film’s series of connected vignettes and flashbacks that I felt was even more accessibly resonant than in his Oscar winning film. Every facet of the production from the delectable cinematography to the gorgeous aesthetic and composer Nicholas Britell’s beautifully harmonic score aggregate a well-crafted capsule poignant in it’s ability to capture the essence of what it means to be human with no real control of your life’s potential within the arbitrary social state; the best instance of which occurs in one of my favorite sequences in the film involving Brian Tyree Henry (AtlantaWidows) and his unsettlingly neurotic monologue to Fonny and Tish about his experience in prison.

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Tish and Fonny are the heart and center of Beale Street, so it’s imperative KiKi Layne and Stephan James contrive a palpable chemistry that can double as the thematic vehicle for the film, which they accomplish incredibly well – I fully expect we’ll be seeing more of them on the big screen in coming years. It’s what gives their tragedy emotional stake, as well as the film’s final, optimistic outlook; that is the consolatory triumph of love, a triumph that despite the helpless subjugation via shamelessly racist institutional handicaps (whether that’s labor or housing prospects, or safety) and random criminalization, manages to cut through the suffering.

By the end of 2018, I declared The Favourite best film of the year. I’m not sure if I prefer Beale Street over Lanthimos’ film, but I can say that they’re at least tied for the distinction in my mind, which brings me to the issue of the 2019 Academy Awards. Ever since I discovered my passion for movies as a kid, I always felt I could respect the Academy and its judgement of at least which films be nominated for the big awards, namely Best Picture. Sure, every year there’s one or two films I would have liked to see recognized, but generally I can live with the roster they put out. The same can not be said this year. It’s inexcusable that a film like Beale Street is absent from the Best Picture nominees the same year a objectively lesser film like Bohemian Rhapsody is not only nominated but somehow a contender to win. As subjective as film is, you can’t deny the discrepancy in artistic caliber between the two. It’s almost fitting that a film about the brutal truths of systemic prejudice is shunned by a legacy institution clearly ignorant of the true nature of the representation issues raised against it. Let If Beale Street Could Talk be a reminder that art and the necessity of expression cannot be determined by any central authority, whether that authority is an institution or an autonomous collective.

10/10