Apocalypse Now is like the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde of feature films in that it’s equally ambitious and inspiring as terrifying and controversial. On one hand the Academy Award winning chronicle of the Vietnam War is a gargantuan Golden Age worthy production complete with the sweeping visuals epic action and scope of a David Lean or Cecil B. DeMille picture. On the other it is a deeply personal haunting introspective study of the nature (and specifically the corruption) of man the ways of the world and our place in it. The duality of the material is well represented in today’s “Full Disclosure” Blu-ray release which is as much an acknowledgment of the problematic project and its long-term legacy as a celebration of the film itself.
For fans of the movie the novel from which it is based (Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”) cinema students and historians this package is the quintessential collectors edition of Francis Ford Coppola’s massive masterpiece. The high definition transfer forged from the original negative materials is bold beautiful and bursting at the seams with vibrant color and picture quality so pristine you feel like you’re watching it in its awe-inspiring 70mm form. The sound is warmer and fuller than ever and you’ll notice that as much in the quieter character driven scenes as in the explosive money shots. More immersive than ever before Blu-ray is the best way to go deeper into the jungle than you’ve ever been.
I could go on and on about the significance and quality of the AV upgrades supervised by Coppola himself but the technical enhancements are not the reason that I consider this to be the best Blu-ray release of the year. As with most home entertainment releases the special features discs’ make or break the title and the “Full Disclosure” edition of Apocalypse Now which contains the most comprehensive collection of content related to the making of the movie and its place in film history is a winner. Let’s start with the 800 lb. gorilla in the package: Hearts of Darkness a feature length documentary co-directed by Eleanor Coppola and boasting behind-the-scenes footage so rare that Francis didn’t even know it existed.
This detailed account of the 238-day shoot is an epic in itself as it sheds light on all of the problems that plagued the production in the Philippines between March 1976 and May 1977. I’ve seen many making-of features over the years but none comes close to accomplishing what Hearts of Darkness does. You feel the sacrifices that the crew made and the pressures they faced as they filmed in hazardous conditions in a war-torn country. It’s a treasure-chest of insight into the creative and commercial aspects of filmmaking that is provocative and engrossing and will be cherished by future generations that will re-discover the film long after those involved with it are gone.
But that’s just disc three. Disc two features most of the fun stuff including candid interviews with screenwriter John Milius star Martin Sheen and Coppola (the interview with the auteur takes place at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival and is particularly nostalgic considering that Apocalypse Now took home the Palme d’Or 22 years earlier). There are a handful of deleted scenes so good my biggest complaint is that they weren’t infused into the feature for this definitive collection. An especially memorable piece is the alternate credits sequence which shows Kurtz’ compound being destroyed while dozens of camera’s capture the chaos. Real buffs will marvel over Orson Welles’ take on “Heart of Darkness” which he read over the radio in 1938 (Welles attempted to craft a cinematic adaptation back then but couldn’t get it going; he made Citizen Kane instead.)
Every element of the production is covered via featurettes on sound color music and editing making this “Full Disclosure” release the final word on the challenging film but like Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde there’s more than one side to the story that the special features tell. Whether your want to delve deeper into the history surrounding the subject matter or the cultural effect of the film there’s something for everybody in this amazing release. The cherry on top? A 48-page collectible booklet with production photos copies of documents timelines and more bringing you another step closer to the anarchy of Apocalypse Now.
Even if you’re one of the 19 other people in a competitive internship at Dean Witter with Chris Gardner (Will Smith) you gotta root for the guy. Life’s beaten him up but not got him down. He lugs his computer-monitor-sized bone density scanner all over San Francisco hoping to sell just one to make ends meet for his family—but nobody’s buying. As his wife’s (Thandie Newton) discontentment nears a boiling point Chris accepts an internship at financial institution Dean Witter—six months without pay and only one of the 20 applicants will ultimately get a job out of it. This sends her packing. She leaves Chris and their son Christopher (Jaden Smith) to fend for themselves at which point they get evicted. It’s the tip of the iceberg because over the course of Chris’ penniless pursuit of the Dean Witter job (and “happyness”) he and Christopher will get by sleeping in homeless shelter--and even in train-station bathrooms. Chris had always vowed to never leave his son and he keeps his promise but there’s no guarantee that his perseverance will pay off. Except for the fact that Happyness is “INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY”! Will Smith is getting all the awards buzz but it’s his real-life son Jaden who transcends all expectations in Happyness. Jaden’s never acted in a movie before and it’s safe to assume that because of his father's long-running movie stardom he could not have grown up in a more different environment than that of his character. Which makes it all the more amazing for this 8-year-old Hollywood tyke to grasp even if coincidentally the plight of a nomadic urban child. The best part about little Jaden is that his performance doesn’t seem robotic like so many child actors who are already too "seasoned" for their own good. Aside from the expected cutesy laughs there’s genuine spontaneity in Jaden’s performance obviously thanks to the fact that he’s acting opposite his dad. Papa Smith gives what’s probably his best performance to date although he's had a career of primarily action roles that weren't exactly conducive to a skills showcase. He delivers the goods here—as seen in the tear-rific trailer—as a man whose whole life is his child but frankly the tears evoked might be too few for Oscar’s liking. Newton (Crash) in a small role is terribly miscast but Mr. and Mr. Smith dominate the screen anyway. Even with the studio flaunting the movie’s "Inspired by a true story..." tagline like a badge of honor—as studios tend to do—and this being the holiday season and all Italian director Gabriele Muccino expends way too much effort into the crowd-pleasing/feel-good aspects of Happyness. The happy ending everyone already knows about should be saccharine enough. Granted this is why a studio loves true stories—one that begins on a low note ends on a really high note and fluctuates all over the radar in between—and it may make the film more pleasing to its targeted mainstream audiences but Muccino and writer Steve Conrad (The Weather Man) really take the gloss factor much too far. In this case they essentially try to tell us a mostly sad story but will not let us feel sad. For instance during what could be very dark reflective scenes potentially connecting with viewers who have struggled through similar problems music befitting a children’s tale overtakes the would-be drama so we don’t ever feel too badly for Chris. It’s nice that the director cares so much for us but oftentimes the best directors are the ones who show an audience tough love.
As clever as it can be at times Flushed Away’s plot is still formulaically step by step. Step one: Introduce hero one Roderick St. James (Hugh Jackman) aka Roddy a pampered but lonely pet mouse who lives in a posh Kensington flat in London. Step two: Propel Roddy into the utterly foreign world of the city’s sewers by flushing him down the toilet. Step three: Hook him up with a cute renegade mouse named Rita (Kate Winslet) with a nifty boat who makes a pact with Roddy to take him back to his home in exchange for some riches she can use to help her extended family (32 brothers and sisters to be exact). Step four: Have the two of them then outwit the villainous Toad (Ian McKellen) mob kingpin of the sewer city Ratropolis after discovering his dastardly plan to rid the sewers of the rats. Step five: Happy ending. Not too complicated. We’ve got a mostly British A-list this time around and everyone sounds enthused to be indulging in the make-up free come-in-your-sweats fun of vocal work. Jackman infuses Roddy with the appropriate upper crustiness but who soon warms to his surroundings—and his new friend especially since he’s never really had any friends before. Winslet’s Rita is all pluck and spunk with a keen fashion sense and big mouse ears while McKellen’s malevolent frog is a big blowhard with a goiter. But as is the case with these animated films the side characters provide the laughs. There’s Toad’s main hench-rats—Whitey (a very deep-voiced Bill Nighy) an ex-laboratory rat who’s experimental shampooings have left him bald and an albino and Sid (Andy Serkis) a wiry weasel who is not nearly as tough as he purports to be. Toad’s French cousin Le Frog (Jean Reno) a cross between Jackie Chan and Inspector Clouseau is also hilarious. The best part however are the sewer slugs who don’t say much but rather add any musical accompaniment deemed necessary. Aardman Productions and DreamWorks the same folks who gave us Wallace and Gromit movies seem to have perfected the clay animation techniques and incorporated a lot more CGI. Flushed Away is definitely more polished than the W&G’s but the big teeth and general sardonic British sensibilities are all still there. The sewer life is visually bustling using everyday items to create their world such as the bad guys riding hand mixers as wave runners to chase after Rita’s boat. Plus the film is loaded with enough funny pop culture references to keep the adults laughing (thank YOU Shrek!) For example when Roddy is zooming his way down the water pipes he sees a yellow striped fish who asks “Have you seen my dad?” Nope there really isn’t anything inherently wrong with Flushed Away save for an overdone plot. Kids and parents alike should enjoy themselves.
Once respected NYPD detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is now pretty much on his last legs literally and figuratively. He drinks is relegated to a desk job and walks with a limp. One morning after a long shift he’s corralled into transporting a petty criminal Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) to the courthouse 16 blocks away so he can testify by 10:00 a.m. What Jack doesn’t know is that Eddie is one of the key witnesses in a case against crooked cops--that is until the two start getting shot at. Then it becomes crystal clear. The main bad guy Jack’s former partner Frank (David Morse) basically lets Jack know Eddie will never testify to just go ahead and hand him over but Frank underestimates Jack’s desire to finally do something good. So Jack and Eddie fight their way to the courthouse block by gut-wrenching block. Oh no there’s nothing formulaic about 16 Blocks not at all. In a film as predictable as this the only thing that’ll make it stand out is the performances. 16 Blocks nearly succeeds--but not quite. It would seem Willis is playing a character he’s played a hundred times before--the misunderstood and slightly unorthodox cop with a heart of gold. But as Jack the actor does a nice job trying out some new things namely playing fat bald and grizzled. You can almost smell how bad Jack’s breath has to be. Rapper/actor Mos Def who usually brightens any film he’s in also tries his hand at something different but his choices aren’t as smart. As the talkative and affable Eddie Mos comes up with one of the more annoying nasally accents ever recorded. After about five minutes of screen time you desperately want him to stop and say “Just kidding! I don’t really talk like this.” But he doesn’t. It’s too bad something like an accent can ruin an otherwise decent performance. Old-school director Richard Donner best known for his Lethal Weapons is a consummate professional when it comes to making these kind of movies. In other words he pretty much paints by numbers. We watch Jack and Eddie get out of one tight situation after another as the gaggle of bad cops try to gun them down. I mean 16 blocks doesn’t seem that far to go so they better throw in as many highly implausible obstacles as they can. Chinese laundries alleyways rooftops subways. And yes even a city bus which the pair--who have by now bonded big time--has to hijack. Donner also employs a popular but nonetheless annoying technique of zooming in when the action heats up so you can’t really see what’s going on. Even if you’re addicted to action movies--a Bruce Willis action movie no less--16 Blocks just doesn’t deliver the goods.