Film Reviews

Comeback Auteur

Who knows how many bottles of Francis Ford Coppola's Directors' Cut Pinot Noir it would take to forget that the virtuoso who made the Godfather saga was also responsible for the sentimental embarrassment known as Jack, starring Robin Williams at his self-indulgent, man-childish worst?

Thankfully, though, Coppola's days of driving audiences to drink with such anonymous, underwhelming endeavors as Gardens of Stone and Peggy Sue Got Married appear to be over. The 68-year-old Coppola, who acknowledged a decade ago to the New York Times that several disastrous pet projects forced him to become a "hired gun," is done making films for others.

Trumpeted as Coppola's long-awaited return to personal filmmaking, Youth Without Youth marks his first time behind the cameras since he jumped on the John Grisham bandwagon with The Rainmaker in 1997. His new film, an adaptation of Mircea Eliade's novella, follows a professor (Tim Roth) on the run in pre-World War II Europe.

He's also readying Tetro, a semiautobiographical drama chronicling the friction between members of an artistic-minded Italian immigrant family in Argentina.

Ten years is a long time to wait for a new film from the director who admittedly went insane filming his last true masterpiece, Apocalypse Now, which was released in 1979. Coppola devotees still have to wait until the fall to decide whether Youth Without Youth should be uttered in the same breath as The Godfather. But the Miami Beach Cinematheque (MBC) is offering a sneak peak of sorts on May 13 with CODA: Thirty Years On, a documentary about Coppola's return to directing and his filmmaking philosophy and techniques.

Coppola will participate in a post-screening Q&A moderated by the Miami Herald's Rene Rodriguez, who recently wrote that Rumblefish inspired him to become a film critic. "An Evening with Francis Ford Coppola" also is the highlight of the MBC's Coppola tribute, which kicks off May 9 to 11 with the Godfather trilogy, and ends June 2 with the lucrative money job, Bram Stoker's Dracula. There also will be an exhibition of Coppola-related memorabilia.

The films chosen by MBC director Dana Keith portray Coppola as the fierce and daring maverick who ran amok for years in the jungles of the Philippines to deliver Apocalypse Now (screening May 25, preceded on May 12 by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper's riveting making-of, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse); the misguided visionary whose technically ambitious One From the Heart (screening May 26) and experimental teen drama Rumblefish (screening June 1) cost him his independence; and the downtrodden director who couldn't recapture past glories with The Godfather Part III.

Perhaps the most glaring omissions — due to "availability" of prints or "space on the calendar," per Keith — are the gripping 1974 morality tale The Conversation, Coppola's own favorite of his films, and the colorful, optimistic Tucker: The Man and His Dream, from 1988, which draws parallels between pioneer car designer Preston Tucker's fight against the auto industry and Coppola's Tinseltown struggles.

Coppola can't blame anyone but himself for selling out. The Godfather films gave Coppola the artistic and financial freedom to turn Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness into a hallucinatory antiwar screed. But he didn't learn his lessons from spending too much time and too much money on Apocalypse Now. The film's critical and commercial acceptance seem to have made him feel invincible, so much so that he could pour a then-astounding $26 million into One From the Heart. The Las Vegas-set musical tanked. With his American Zoetrope studio bankrupt, Coppola had no choice but to sell his soul to Hollywood.

A return to the franchise that made him a legend seemed inevitable — but unwarranted. The Godfather Part III had its moments, and replacing a sickly Winona Ryder with his ill-at-ease daughter Sofia wasn't Coppola's undoing. It was the feeling that Coppola closed the book on the Corleones out of obligation rather than passion.

Coppola didn't intend to take ten years off. For years he tried — and failed — to nail the script to his ambitious sci-fi epic Megalopolis. He restored and re-released Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart, and he served as the executive producer of many films, including daughter Sofia's Lost in Translation and son Roman's CQ. He also kept himself busy with American Zoetrope; his Napa Valley, California winery; and his literary and online ventures.

But filmmaking clearly remains Coppola's first love. And it's obvious that the conflict between art and commerce is very much on his mind these days.

"The successful artist has to contend with economic issues and questions of fame that the younger artist can only fantasize about," Coppola, who did not respond to an interview request, wrote in 2005 on the Youth Without Youth Website. "Should I do it to make the big money or because it will make me even more famous? Those are very dangerous questions not often compatible with doing great work."

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