Saturday, September 22, 2007

Troubles don't come at a gallop, like the Huns ...

"Troubles don't come at a gallop, like the Huns, but arrive quietly, stealthily, like epidemics." The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (Sphere Books, 1986)

A chemist by training and trade, Primo Levi, an Italian Jew born in 1919 and only 20 when WWII began, appears, at first glance, an unlikely hero of the Holocaust. Timid by nature, afraid of much around him, cerebral and introverted, he survived Auschwitz to write beautifully written, harrowing memoirs of his experiences there.

In 1987, the man described by friends as the "the most serene person in the world" was dead, an apparent suicide. His friends believed, after the initial shock and horror of that news, that he was still plagued by what he had seen and experienced during the war. This poignant article sums up the response to his death.

Some of that sense of horror is present in these series of essays, each chapter named for one of the 21 elements on the periodic table. Certain essays fascinate more than others and are more effective than the two or three fiction pieces in the book. They are told in a more or less chronological fashion from Levi's pre-war experiences as a student of chemistry in Turin, Italy to his internment at Auschwitz during the latter part of the war to his post-war career as a chemist in Italy.

The ghosts of those swallowed up, or ruined, by the war remain with him: Sandro, his caustic fellow chemistry student and part time shepherd, with whom Levi discovers the Italian countryside in "Iron" is murdered by the Fascists and left to rot by the side of the road; the customer who invents fantastic lies about his role in the Resistance in "Uranium" inspires sympathy rather than disdain in Levi and the reader; the co-workers of a nickel mine in 1942 where "all fifty of the mine's inhabitants had reacted on each other" in a more or less salacious manner in "Nickel", reinforce the belief that despite all traumas and struggles, human desires will not be repressed.

Primo is corralled by the rapacious. amoral Giulia, a lab co-worker in 1942, into riding her on his bicycle to her future in-laws who have summarily dismissed the girl so that she may argue them out of their rejection with her sharp tongue in the essay "Phosphorus". Primo, captivated and obviously afraid of Giulia, quickly complies.

"Gold" details a bittersweet period during the war where seven friends from Turin (his birthplace) live in Milan, write poetry, fall in love, face freezing weather and food rationing, until some are captured and interrogated by inept Fascists.

After the war, Levi works in a lab analyzing various substances for customers. "Arsenic" tells the tale of a cobbler, one of Levi's customers, who suspects that a fellow cobbler is trying to poison him by adding arsenic to his sugar because he fears his competition. The suspicious cobbler is correct, Levi determines.

The most difficult chapter to read is "Vanadium" towards the end of the book which finds Levi after the war, working as a chemist again who encounters, during his business dealings as a chemist, the name of a certain Muller, whom he is corresponding with regarding a shipment of vanadium to his company. Vanadium is a greyish silvery metal, used as an additive to strengthen steels.

Levi recognizes Muller as a senior German bureaucrat, a Nazi, who worked for IG-Farben, an enormous pharmaceutical company that controlled the Buna-Monowitz lab at Auschwitz and under whom Levi worked as a slave-labourer. The man is still employed by IG-Farben at the time.

Levi tries to ascertain if it is the same man. They correspond and Herr Muller confirms his identity, expresses admiration for Levi even saying that he detects a certain "Christian" forgiveness in Levi's memoirs. Let us remember that Levi is a Jew and what he has suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

Mr. Muller also expresses the view that the lab employed the Jews to "protect" them, indeed, that the lab was expressly built to do so. He is eager to meet Levi, now a universally acclaimed writer, and claims to remember "helping" Levi and that he felt a strong attachment to him when he was a prisoner.

Levi has two memories of the man: firstly, one time Muller got him a pair of shoes and, secondly, that he had asked Levi in Auschwitz for no particular reason, "Why are you so perturbed?" to which Levi silently replied, "This man has no clue what is going on." This is the extent of the attachment as far as Levi is concerned.

Levi tells Muller by letter that he is willing to forgive where there is repentance. He senses none, only evasiveness about the culpability of the Germans, rationalizations and regret but not true repentance. In response, the man calls, agitated and speaking quickly in German, which Primo barely understands, and begs for a meeting in a few weeks time.

Levi reluctantly agrees only to be informed by Muller's wife that the man has died 8 days later. In hindsight, one is left with the impression that those who were tortured and imprisoned were not the only ones who carried a burden of unwanted memories.

A partial list of books about the Holocaust by Primo Levi :
If This Is a Man
The Drowned and the Saved

Monday, September 17, 2007

TIFF 2007: Then She Found Me (U.S.)

Then She Found Me (U.S.) directed by Helen Hunt
Saturday, September 15, 2007

This film certainly hits on some topical issues: adoption, discovering one's birth mother and perhaps not being pleased with what you find out; the infertility medical process; the desire to mother a child; the popularity of going to China for an international adoption.

April Epner (Helen Hunt) suffers a series of humiliating and painful personal episodes: her husband Ben (Matthew Broderick) of a short duration leaves her for another woman; her adoptive mother Trudy (Lynn Cohen) dies; her birth mother Bernice (Bette Midler), a minor TV celebrity, seeks her out; April finds out she is pregnant by her ex on the cusp of a new relationship with Frank (Colin Firth) a wonderful if neurotic Brit who is the father of two children who attend the school where April teaches.

At 39, April is desperate to have the child but loses it. She debates returning to her ex-husband. She undergoes fertility treatments which her affluent birth mother pays for as a sort of penance for giving up April and repeatedly lying about the circumstances. Bernice tries, somewhat obnoxiously, to insinuate herself into April's life.

Perhaps oddly, this is all meant to be comedic. But then there might be too much pathos and angst inherent in the circumstances to play it straight.

Helen Hunt, looking haggard and worn out (is this consciously so due to the rigors of April's life or is she just plain worn out from wearing two hats - director and actor?), puts in a shrill performance which impersonates as passion and emotion, perhaps a leftover from her Mad About You sitcom days.

Colin Firth, the object of many a thinking woman's desire as the inimitable Fitzwilliam Darcy, appears in yet another role as a frumpy British twit, perhaps trying to obliterate his iconic performance in Pride and Prejudice (1996) on British television which he is best remembered for.

Although I have mixed feelings about the quality of the film, I have to say that when I wasn't laughing I was crying, and I wasn't alone in this.

Friday, September 14, 2007

TIFF 2007: Deficit (Mexico)

Deficit (Mexico) directed by Gael Garcia Bernal
Friday September 14th, 2007

This is Mexican heart throb Bernal's directorial debut. I first became aware of Bernal in the superb The Motorcycle Diaries, a film which reenacts a trip that the then aspiring young doctor and soon to be revolutionary Che Guevara made across South America. See this link for an anti-Che Guevara take on the film (a view I have not explored before). Bernal has made some interesting choices since then playing the cross dressing Zahara in Almodovar's Bad Education (2004); a convincingly vicious Mexican malcontent in Babel (2006) and a quirky romantic in the The Science of Sleep (2006).

Here he plays a spoiled Mexican yuppie who fails to get into Harvard business school after being pressured by his affluent, overachieving economist (possibly criminal) father into applying. Instead he seems to spend his time in as hedonistic and selfish fashion as possible and as the film opens is preparing for a party with some friends at his parents' home.

You know it will end in tears ... someone OD's on Ecstasy, his girlfriend finds him with another girl; he jealously attacks the young gardener who has been eyeing his latest conquest; his friends are shown to be racist, selfish, stupid. It all feels a little false and Bernal, while still young and very attractive, seems a little long in the tooth to portray a young man on the cusp of attending post-graduate school.

Are we meant be completely annoyed by the antics of his frivolous, stupid friends? Is there not one redeeming character (except for the young Argentine beauty he is after) that we can sympathize with? What is the message here? That the Mexican upper classes are criminal, uncaring, racist? This is not a new or particularly nuanced view and Bernal brings nothing fresh to the story.

Based on the tepid applause at the end of the film, I think I was not alone in my feelings despite the considerable charm with which Bernal presented the film and answered the questions in the subsequent Q&A.

TIFF 2007: Reservation Road (U.S.)

Reservation Road (U.S.) directed by Terry George
Friday September 14, 2007

Three words come to mind: vigilante revenge fantasy. Nothing will press the emotional buttons of a parent like the death of child. It conjures up the most intense feelings of fear and anxiety and I think Reservation Road exploits this in a maudlin fashion which is insulting to the viewer.

Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix), a college professor, struggles with the death of his young son Josh after a hit and run accident in a small town in Connecticut. After a short time he comes to learn the identity of the perpetrator, Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), a lawyer and father of a similarly aged boy, whose path continues to cross Ethan's in a series of neverending coincidences that boggle the mind and stretches the credulity of the filmgoer.

Ethan, spurred on by grieving parents in the chatrooms he discovers while searching for a way to find the killer, becomes increasingly enraged by what he perceives as the lack of action on the part of the police and decides to take matters into his own hands much to the dismay of his equally grieved wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly).

They completely lost me right after Josh's little sister Emma Learner (Elle Fanning) asks her mother if music can be heard in heaven and, if so, she will play her piano for her brother. What dreck, and again, what a waste of good actors like Ruffalo and Phoenix, who did more than an adequate job with a horrible, manipulative script.

TIFF 2007: Atonement (U.K.)

Atonement (U.K.) directed by Joe Wright
Wednesday September 12, 2007

Based on the book of the same name by the British writer Ian MacEwan, the film brings to the screen the beauty and drama of the narrative with stunningly beautiful images of pre-war upper class prosperity in England and the ravages of war in England and France during WWII.

Director Joe Wright, previously known for the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, creates a completely credible world inhabited by the aristocratic Tallis siblings: Leon (Patrick Kennedy), elder sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and 13 year old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) and their relationship with Robbie (James McAvoy), the housekeepers' son, who lives on the sumptuous grounds of their estate and unfortunately crosses their path one hot summer night.

Robbie, who has been assisted financially by the Tallis paterfamilias and attended Cambridge University with Cecilia, is the object of desire for the two sisters. When a first cousin, who is briefly staying with the Tallis family, is sexually assaulted on the grounds, Briony falsely accuses Robbie for a number of reasons that I won't divulge here for fear of ruining the plot.

Given the option of prison or war, Robbie ends up at Dunkirk in 1940 which involved the evacuation of British and Allied forces separated from French defences by the advance of German troops. Before he leaves for the war, Cecilia tries to rebuild her thwarted relationship with Robbie. She renounced her family after Robbie was arrested and imprisoned for the rape of Lola.

Brion struggles with the truth and eventually confesses the trueevents of that night but only after unimaginable damage has been done to both Robbie and Cecilia. Every detail convinces from the luxury of the Tallis family's privilege to wartime France and England to the hospital where a now grown Briony attempts to do penance for her sins.

The director was on hand to introduce the film complete with a charming cockney accent and wonderfully quirky hat. It was a lovely surprise - this working class lad who had captured McEwan's book so well. It was the best film by far at the festival that I have seen.

TIFF 2007: Cassandra's Dream (U.S.)

Cassandra's Dream (U.S.) directed by Woody Allen
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Aaah Woody I will never desert you as a filmgoer (despite your nefarious deeds) even though you are inevitably, inexorably, beginning to repeat yourself dreadfully in your films. In this case, his latest film Cassandra's Dream hearkens back to Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). My partner says that Allen has not made a good film in twenty years which is, I think, a little harsh but seems to be a view that many share, even those that like him.

Two working class brothers, Terry (Colin Farrell) and Ian (Ewan McGregor), actors whom I really adore, are ensnared in the avaricious schemes of their fabulously wealthy uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) who wishes to eliminate a troublesome colleague who could land him in prison with his revelations about Howard's plastic surgery business.

Terry, who works in a garage and is euphemistically considered the "athletic" one, wishes to open a sports shop and Ian, the "smart" one wants to invest in hotels in California with his uncle's money, egged on by his desire to capture a beautiful young actress Angela Stark (Hayley Atwell) who he is courting. The commission of their crime and the subsequent guilt is reminiscent of Judah, the philandering doctor in Crime and Misdemeanours.

I am fairly certain that Allen did not intend the audience to laugh at portions of the dialogue (which happened repeatedly at the screening that I saw). The language is sometime overwrought and stagey and there is not a shred of humour in it. It ends quickly, catastrophically for Terry and Ian, and completely unrealistically to my mind. It wastes the talents of two fine actors. It also reinforces the bleak, almost Scandinavian outlook that Allen brings to most of his films. nowadays

Curiously enough. a 20 something girl behind me in line who had volunteered at the gala the night before at Roy Thomson Hall was regaling her friend, via cellphone, with how "small", "old" and "weird" Woody Allen was at the premiere. Not a glimpse of him today though nor of McGregor or Farrell which might, might, have been worth the price of the ticket.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

TIFF 2007: Into the Wild (U.S.)

Into the Wild (U.S.) directed by Sean Penn
Tuesday September 11, 2007

Oh how we age, and how we soften in our old age, especially when we have had child! All I could think of while watching this film was: what had this boy's poor parents done to him to drive him to make the drastic, sometimes desperate decisions he made with his life?

The portrait of the main protagonist, Christopher Johnson McCandless (Emile Hirsch), is based on a real person, a young man who graduated from college in 1990. His life was documented by Jon Krakauer in a book by the same name as the film. Influenced by great thinkers such as Thoreau, Tolstoy and Pasternak, and a score of others, Christopher decides to go "into the wild" on a solitary, epic odyssey across America.

He gives away the $24,000 he has saved for Harvard Law School to Oxfam, burns his money (literally) and his Social Security card. He willfully destroys his identity and re-christens himself Alexander Super Tramp. He deceives his parents as to where he is living to give him time to "escape" his safe, upper middle class life.

He leads a largely nomadic existence - working when he has to on farms or in fast food joints or selling books in a hippie caravan - and traveling from state to state by car and rail. He is befriended by hippies (among them Catherine Keener); navigates dangerous grand rapids by himself; eludes the police; shares a meal with Swedish hippies; is assaulted by a security guard when he tries to hop a train; encounters a bear; falls in love with a hippie chick and befriends Wayne, a philosophizing farmer (Vince Vaughn) who employs him until Wayne is jailed for illegal activities. Christopher records everything in minute detail in his journal.

But what is he escaping from? It is unclear. A cold, withholding father (William Hurt) with a secret past? A loving but cloying mother (Marcia Gay Harden)? A upper middle class existence that he abhors? There is a suggestion that there is violence between the parents, that they drink too much and have erected a cold, suburban facade to conceal the lack of real love between them. The greatest personal outrage Christopher seems to suffer at their hands is their offer to purchase a car for him upon graduation which elicits a tirade of abuse from Christopher about the evils of materialism.

Although the family cooperated in the filming and the portrait is far from flattering there feels like a piece missing in the puzzle - why would a son wilfully deceive his parents, conceal his whereabouts for two years on the basis of his repugnance for material things alone? Why punish them so drastically unless he feels that he has been harmed irreparably by them? What is it that we don't know about his life? Or was he merely a spolied brat with an oversized ego?

He eventually ends up in Fairbanks, Alaska on a solitary sojourn on an abandoned bus that he dubs "the Magic Bus". In the end, he is undone by so small a thing that his needless suffering sparks contempt in the viewer, or at least in me, rather than understanding and compassion.

I am sure that this is not the feeling that the director Sean Penn hoped to evoke and he is obviously captivated by McCandless' audacity and courage (hence the near three hour film, perhaps 45 minutes too long). But it all seems a senseless waste of the life of a bright, passionate, talented individual. I'm afraid that Sean Penn, who wrote the screenplay, has not tapped into the mysteries of McCandless' fateful actions and the story, as unusual and passionate and surprising as it is, leaves one cold.

TIFF 2007: In the Valley of Elah (U.S.)

In the Valley of Elah (U.S.) directed by Paul Haggis
Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Military films are not my thing nor is Tommy Lee Jones one of my favourite actors. I usually avoid them (and him); however, I like the Canadian born director Paul Haggis who was the director of Crash (2004) and the screenwriter on Million Dollar Baby (2004) and I thought that he might have an interesting twist on this story based, as they say, on actual events.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a career officer, returns to the military base from where his son Mike has gone AWOL to investigate his disappearance. He encounters not only resistance but subterfuge and apathy particularly when Mike's body is found on a roadside near the base, shot 42 times and burnt almost beyond recognition.

The military is anxious to portray Mike as a soldier gone bad once he returned from Iraq, a crystal meth addict and general hothead. The local police are just relieved that it is out of their jurisdiction.

Deerfield manages to solicit the support of Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) a young female detective who is consigned to investigate cases that are deemed the lowest of the low in the police squad room (i.e dealing with reports of psychopathic ex-GIs drowning their dogs and disgruntled factory workers torturing chickens) because it has become common knowledge that she had a relationship with Chief Buchwald (Josh Brolin), her commanding officer.

What they discover together shocks and sickens both of them. No one is blameless, not Mike's commanding officers, nor the military police, Mike's fellow platoon members, or even Mike Deerfield himself, who emerges as a troubled, angry boy desperate to leave Iraq and clearly unhinged by what he saw and did there.

The phrase "in the valley of Elah" refers to the place where David slew the giant Goliath in the biblical story, which Hank repeats to Emily's son. Here the metaphorical David, who is perhaps Hank Deerfield, could not conquer Goliath (the military) but only hold it a little accountable. or perhaps it is Det. Sanders who, despite the abuse and ridicule she receives, manages to learn the truth of Mike's death.

At one point in the film, Hank reprimands the janitor of the local school for hanging the U.S. flag upside down on the flagpole outside the school telling him that that is a universal sign that there is a crisis or emergency in progress. By the film's end he returns to that school and raises the flag again, turning it upside down himself, heartsick and nearly destroyed by the knowledge surrounding Mike's demise.

This is a wonderful film with enough cynicism and subversion of patriotic ideals to satisfy any filmgoer who questions the Americans' role in Iraq.

Here is what the New York Times has to say about it.

TIFF 2007: Elizabeth: The Golden Age (U.K.)

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (U.K.) directed by Shekhar Kapur
Monday, September 10, 2007

Elizabeth: The Golden Age is the sequel to Elizabeth (1998) directed by Indian born director Shekhar Kapur. Kapur, who spoke before and after the film, said he wanted to create (and did to great effect) the sense of Queen Elizabeth I becoming a sort of divinity with her political empowerment and conquests after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in the late 16th c.

The Spanish, led by King Philip of Spain, wished to vanquish the English queen (Cate Blanchett), the alleged Protestant "bastard" offspring of King Henry VIII, and set the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) upon the throne. Because Henry VIII had married and divorced a succession of wives and sired numerous offspring by them (against the edicts of the Catholic faith), his children were seen by some to be illegitimate.

Elizabeth, while rooting out the Spanish conspirators who plotted to assassinate her and the Spanish Armada which was poised to conquer England, had also, apparently, to combat her feelings for Sir Walter Raleigh (played by the dishy Clive Owen), an adventurer, explorer of the new world and discoverer of the state of Virginia which he named for his virgin Queen. She covets and flirts with Raleigh who in turns covets and flirts with one of her ladies in waiting. Elizabeth conducts a largely chaste if tormented relationship with him.

Beautifully costumed and shot, with only one or two scenes of bombastic acting on Cate Blanchett's part, she is by turns arrogant, "imperial", vulnerable and fraught by anxiety about the fate of her kingdom.

And as Kapur so charmingly stated, had she not vanquished the Spaniards we'd all be speaking Spanish now.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

TIFF 2007: The Jane Austen Book Club (U.S.)

The Jane Austen Book Club (U.S.) directed by Robin Swicord
Monday September 10th, 2007

I found the book of the same name by writer Karen Joy Fowler to be a major disappointment as a committed Jane-ophile. Too little Austen and too many silly superficial characters I thought. But the film brought me around a little bit. Three middle aged friends with various issues form a book club in which they decide to read all of Austen's oeuvre, six books in all, as a key to improving their relations with men and the world. One member only seems to have intense relationships with the dogs that she breeds (Maria Bello as Jocelyn); another is a serial wife (Kathy Baker as Bernadette); a third is a deceived. somewhat frumpy wife (Amy Brenneman as Syliva) left by her husband (Jimmy Smits) for a smart, attractive lawyer.

To round out the club they invite a frosty French teacher on the cusp of sleeping with her teenage student because she is in a unhappy marriage (Emily Blunt as Prudie), the deceived wife's lesbian daughter (Maggie Grace as Allegra) and, lastly a young sci-fi techie/geek (Hugh Dancy as Grigg) who is enlisted by Jocelyn and appears to join merely because he is in love with Jocelyn .

As one might imagine, each reader identifies greatly with the one of the six books she or he has chosen and the plots of the six books: Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion and Emma, seem to reflect the personal dramas of their lives.

The plot is paper thin and predictable ... Grigg and Jocelyn conjoin happily after many fits and starts; Sylvia's husband returns to her and even joins the book club; Prudie and her husband Dean (Marc Blucas) find an understanding together engineered apparently after he is asked to read a snippet of Austen; Bernadette marries yet again; Allegra dumps a writer who is using her for writing material and hooks up with a pretty doctor.

But may I say … I loved the discussions of Austen’s characters which is something I have personally never seen on film. Geek that I am, I wanted more of that but perhaps this is not something that could be filmed to dramatic effect?

The audience was chock a block with female Austen readers and the two women on either side of me asked if I had read the book as they were poised to start them. I didn't have the heart to completely disparage the book and told them at the end of the film that I might give it another try (and I might).

Saturday, September 8, 2007

TIFF 2007: My Winnipeg (Canada)

My Winnipeg (Canada) directed by Guy Maddin
Friday, September 7, 2007

How to explain a Guy Maddin film if one has not seen his films? This film is his most personal one to date. It is a sort of faux documentary about the director’s attachment to the hometown where he still lives. Maddin uses many techniques from the b&w era of German Expressionist cinema (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari anyone?) with sharp contrast, melodramatic music and beautifully strange, enigmatic figures. Maddin was on hand to narrate the film at this screening, which he did to great comic effect in the kitschy but beautiful Winter Garden theatre, which I was seeing for the first time.

He re-enacts traumatic encounters from his personal past and from Winnipeg’s history all commingling together in a strange but very entertaining pastiche. The director rented out his childhood home (assuming this is true) to reenact certain scenes from his childhood and hired actors to represent his mother (played by 40s film noir actress Ann Savage) and his three siblings. They replay key scenes from his past but Maddin also includes film and stills from Winnipeg’s history throughout the "documentary".

These include sections about the tumultuous Winnipeg General Strike of 1919; allusions to the suicide of his brother at sixteen; the demolition of the Winnipeg Arena where his father worked for 30 years with the Winnipeg Maroons; a particularly horrible fight between his mother and his sister where his mother accused her of sleeping around; the demolition of the grand old Eatons store in downtown Winnipeg to be replaced with the new, much despised sports arena; the horrible death of the eleven horses frozen in a river while trying to escape a fire and left in the ice, with their heads exposed, until the spring (true history or another fantastic figment from Maddin’s imagination?).

He ponders why so many Winnipeggers remain in the “coldest city” in North America with a population greater than 100,000 and attributes it, tongue in cheek, to the native myth that it is the magnetic pull of the waters that commingle in Winnipeg. From the peals of laughter and recognition in the audience from fellow Winnipeggers he seemed to have struck a chord.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Toronto International Film Festival (September 6 - 15, 2007)

The Toronto International Film Festival starts today. Film geek that I am, I have taken off next week to attend and will post mini-reviews of the films I will be seeing on a daily basis. Till then!

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Brando for the Summer 5

Brando does not appear until almost two hours into Apocalypse Now (1979) (1 hour 54 minutes to be exact) and even then he is shrouded in darkness. The story goes that when Brando appeared on set, Francis Ford Coppola was "horrified" by how much weight he had gained at 300 pounds and decided to shoot him in darkness in many of the scenes. This anecdote, if true, proved a brilliant move because it enhanced the mystery and power of the fictional character Colonel Walter Kurtz that Brando portrayed.

In both the film and the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad on which the film is loosely based, Kurtz is described by writer Patrick Galloway as "a company man turned savage ... a brilliant and successful team-player, being groomed by "the Company" for greater things, suddenly gone native". In the book, Marlowe must track down Kurtz, a colonial administrator "gone native" in the heart of the Congo; in the film, Willard (Martin Sheen) must find and kill Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a Special Forces operative, member of an elite squad, gone terribly astray in Cambodia during the Vietnam war. Accused of "illegally" killing several Cambodians and disobeying orders, the powers that be decide that he must be terminated.

Much of the spectacular footage in the film surrounds Willard's voyage by boat through Vietnam and into Cambodia where the U.S. denies it has a presence. He encounters a frightening tableau of madness, drugs and violence. A Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) invades and attacks a seemingly peaceful hamlet in Vietnam so that a renowned surfer, Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms), may surf in a desolated area to a deafening recording of Wagner's Flight of the Valkyrie and utters the famous lines: "You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

The men enter combat zones where the GIs are strung out, violent and seemingly without a commanding officer; GIs take Ecstasy; innocent villagers are slaughtered. Stranded men plead to be taken aboard and are left behind. Willard kills a wounded woman so that his mission is not jeopardized.

Slowly the men accompanying Willard are killed off by mishap or violence and Willard makes his way to Kurtz who has created a pagan empire of his own where he is the supreme ruler. Willard is met by Dennis Hopper, a strung out, unnamed hippie/photographer who appears to act as a spokesman for Kurtz. Violated bodies, presumably of those who have defied Kurtz, swing from trees like perverse fruit, skulls adorn the landscape and the native population, which is comprised of Cambodians, Kurtz' offspring with the native women and GIs gone AWOL, appear to worship him and follow all his commands in near somnambulistic states.

Willard is granted an audience with Kurtz where he finds an imposing figure half hidden in the shadows. Slowly prowling the parameters of his inner sanctum he questions Willard and asks why he has been sent to kill Kurtz. Willard says, "I was sent on a classified mission, sir." Kurtz replies contemptuously, "You're an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill." Here, Brando's physical presence works to advantage for he intimidates both Willard and the viewer. His combination of civilized hauteur and a quietly threatening demeanor compel the viewer.

Willard is imprisoned and after an interminable period trapped in cage, he is presented with the severed head of Chef (Frederic Forrest), one of the men had him to Kurtz. The next day Colonel Kurtz reads to Willard from T. S. Eliot's poem The Hollow Men ( notes that the poem was inspired by Heart of Darkness) and the camera pans across the books that Kurtz is reading: the Bible, From Ritual to Romance and The Golden Bough.

Brando portrays Kurtz as a sort of wounded, brooding poet/warrior who feels compelled to commit acts of violence and refuses to be condemned for his actions. Against his will, Willard becomes the repository of Kurtz's conflicted feelings of horror and righteousness in his actions. Kurtz tells him, "I've seen the horrors, horrors that you've seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me - you have a right to do that - but you have no right to judge me."

In a moving monologue, Kurtz recalls a pivotal moment from his Special Forces days when some South Vietnamese children were inoculated against polio. In a vicious act of revenge, Vietcong guerrillas came into the village and hacked off the left arms of the inoculated children. Despite his anguish, Kurtz admires the actions of the men who acted "without judgment" acknowledging that that is what he seeks in his constructed paradise, men who will act without judgment and hence end the war quickly. This seems to cement Willard's resolve to kill Kurtz as if he is receiving tacit approval from Kurtz to do what he must do.

During a sacrificial ceremony where a caribou is to be killed, Willard struggles inwardly to compel himself to act: "They were going to make me a Major for this and I wasn't even in their fuckin' army any more. Everybody wanted me to do it. Him most of all. I felt like he was up there, waiting for me to take the pain away. He just wanted to go out like a soldier, standing up. Not like some poor, wasted, rag-assed renegade. Even the jungle wanted him dead, and that's who he really took his orders from anyway."

He slays Kurtz with a machete just as the caribou is ritualistically slain by Kurtz's "people". Kurtz seems to sanction his own sacrifice whispering, "The horror. The horror." as he dies, uttering the last words of Heart of Darkness. As Willard leaves the slain Kurtz, the cowed villagers bow to their new "leader" and lay down their arms. Willard betrays a momentary hesitancy as if he is contemplating replacing Kurtz then abruptly changes his mind. Willard leaves, leading Lance, the stoned surfer seduced by Kurtz's "paradise" and the last man living who was on his mission, to the patrol boat so that they may escape.

As I think of what Brando brings to the five roles discussed in these last five blogs, immediately I think of that now politically incorrect word "primitive". He seems to reach into himself and tap into a sort of man that many would find reprehensible but who represents a certain male psyche: dominant, ruthless, aggressive.

The brutal, insensitive Stanley Kowalksi in Streetcar Named Desire, the boxer turned petty criminal Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, the ruthless Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather, the emotionally disturbed, volatile Paul in Last Tango in Paris and the wounded warrior Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. But the roles are always coupled with something else: a vulnerability, a shame in his "primitive" nature, a reflectiveness about why he has become what he has become.

His willingness to expose the ugliness and violence of the characters made him a brave actor. That he layered these roles with complex emotions and vulnerability made him great one.