Sorcerer: The misinterpreted classic from the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection

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By the mid-1970s, William Friedkin was one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood. His 1971 crime drama The French Connection picked up 5 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Two years later, The Exorcist became a milestone in the horror genre, was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Only Francis Ford Coppola with his two Godfather films and The Conversation between 1972 and 1974 could be said to shine brighter.

At this point, Coppola and Friedkin both embarked on ambitious new film projects which would take them far from civilization, both physically and metaphorically. Each would personally confront the existential demons that their on-screen protagonists were fighting to overcome.

Coppola’s film took a year just to complete photography, due to an arduous location shoot in the jungles of the Philippines and health issues with his key actors. It nearly destroyed his career, but after several postponements, it was released in 1979 to critical and commercial success and cemented his place in the pantheon of directing gods. The film was Apocalypse Now.

Friedkin’s film similarly required nearly a year of photography, with elaborate sets built in the jungles of South America, besides location shoots in other parts of the world including Paris and Jerusalem. His crew suffered from injury, gangrene, food poisoning and malaria. The film, titled Sorcerer, was released in the summer of 1977 and sank without a trace. The title misled audiences into thinking it was a supernatural movie from the director of The Exorcist. In fact, it was a slow-burning story about four men trying to transport boxes of dynamite through the jungle. Also, no one could have predicted the cultural phenomenon that Star Wars became a few weeks later. In no time at all, theater owners took Sorcerer off and brought back George Lucas’ scifi epic. Friedkin’s career nose-dived and he never got another decent directing gig in Hollywood again.

I watched Sorcerer for the first time last weekend; it is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. And that makes the fate of the film and its director even more tragic.

Sorcerer is a remake of the 1953 French classic The Wages of Fear, itself based on the 1950 novel of the same name. Why the unfortunate and misleading title? It’s the name painted on one of the two trucks used to transport boxes of explosives through the jungle. So random! In retrospect, if the title had been different and the movie had been released closer to the Oscars, it may have all turned out differently.

If you haven’t read the book or seen The Wages of Fear, it is difficult to describe the movie. It is partly a character study, partly a thriller and partly a morality tale. It has therefore been described as an ‘existential thriller’. There are four opening vignettes that show the backstories of the four men (from Mexico, Jerusalem, Paris and New Jersey) and how each ends up on the run. The scene then abruptly shifts to a hot, humid, muddy Latin American jungle. The four characters have all landed up in a shanty town, living in squalid conditions, surrounded by impoverished locals, trying to eke out an earning taking whatever jobs are available, mostly with the giant American oil company that dominates the local economy. The transition is extreme and you can sense how wretched it must be for these men to find themselves stuck in this hellhole. They were running away from civilization, but now they want to get back somehow. But illegal visas cost money and they have none. Eventually an opportunity comes up that brings the four men together – a dangerous assignment transporting 6 cases of highly unstable nitroglycerine sticks (split across 2 trucks) through 200 miles of jungle to help put out an oil well fire. The oil company is willing to pay handsomely on completion of the job.

The trucks themselves are key characters in the film. There is a sequence where the men pick two trucks from a scrapyard and then painstakingly bring them to working order using scavenged parts. You can see ‘Sorcerer’ below; looks menacing doesn’t it? Doesn’t look like this creature wanted the men to complete their assignment…

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And so at the half-way point of the movie, the journey finally begins. Each truck carries three cases placed far apart from each other on a bed of sand in the back. The men have to be extremely careful not to jolt the truck while driving through the jungle. There are several tense moments as the trucks have to navigate natural and man-made obstacles relying on a combination of skill, teamwork and pure luck. The bridge crossing sequence which is illustrated in the movie poster is truly memorable. This scene alone took months of reshoots and cost USD 3 million (a full movie’s budget in those days).

One can imagine that a story like this cannot possibly end well. On the positive side, the mission is indeed accomplished and the men achieve a sort of redemption, having at least re-discovered their own humanity.

A special note regarding the eerie soundtrack by German electronic band Tangerine Dream. It is discordant, relentless and extremely unsettling. Apparently, the band composed the music based only on the script without seeing a single minute of footage from the film. The music is indeed a perfect fit with the images on the screen.

If possible, do watch the restored version which was released on Blu-ray in 2014. Really worth it.


Captain America: Civil War – The Avengers sequel that’s better than the Avengers sequel

And so, the Captain America trilogy has come to an end. It began nearly five years ago with The First Avenger, a movie characterized by its simplicity and earnestness, reflecting the spirit of the times. During World War II, when your country asked you to fight, you fought; and it was easy to tell your allies from your enemies. The 2014 sequel The Winter Soldier was set 70 years later in the present day, but drew its inspiration from the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, a time when spies and double agents made it difficult to distinguish between friend and foe. The sibling duo of Joe and Anthony Russo are back again in the directors’ chair for the third and seemingly final entry in the series, Civil War. This time around, they seem even more at ease in managing what has become a hugely complex storytelling effort. Not only does Civil War continue with the second movie’s theme of “you don’t know who your allies are”, it goes one step further and turns friends into enemies.

The trailers made it clear that Civil War features pretty much all the characters from The Avengers; Age of Ultron and has frequently been referred to as ‘Avengers 2.5‘; in fact, the Russos will be directing the next two films in the Avengers series, so Civil War is indeed a bridge, both story-wise and thematically, between Age of Ultron and 2018’s Infinity War Part 1.

The only complaint I had after watching the movie yesterday (and this has been echoed in multiple reviews) is the absence of a worthy villain to challenge Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. To think that over the course of the trilogy, we have gone from Hugo Weaving’s menacing Red Skull to Robert Redford’s duplicitous S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Alexander Pierce to Daniel Bruhl’s rather bland Colonel Zemo…that’s somewhat disappointing.

The two new characters – Black Panther and Spider-Man – do add some freshness to the growing ensemble of heroes. Many critics have praised Chadwick Boseman’s performance as Prince T’Challa/ Black Panther and so I was expecting something very special. I came away a bit disappointed with Boseman’s rather stiff rendering of the Wakandan prince. What did work was the wonderful chemistry between him and his father, which is a credit to South African acting veteran John Kani, who plays King T’Chaka. Spider-Man, on the other hand is an unqualified hit and Tom Holland seems a perfect embodiment of the wise-cracking teenage superhero that we all love. I was least expecting his entry into the plot at the point that it happened and there was a collective gasp of joyful surprise from the audience when we all realized whose apartment we were in.

While all the reviews have spoken glowingly about the set-piece fight sequence at the airport in Germany, I thought the opening encounter in Lagos was also very well done, with the camera work particularly effective at bringing the audience into the midst of the hand-to-hand combat in a busy market place. It’s reminiscent of the shaky cam/ quick cut style of Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies, but far easier to watch. The Russo brothers describe themselves as ‘guerilla filmmakers’ and you understand why.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing very distinctive as far as the theme music is concerned. Henry Jackman is the composer and I loved what he had done with X-Men: First Class in 2011 (particularly Magneto’s Theme). But all we get here is a generic, bombastic score with lots of strings and horns. The best music in the extended Avengers/ Captain America film series so far is still Alan Silvestri’s theme from The Avengers.

Here are my top moments from the movie:-

  • Black Widow’s stylish fighting jacket – Scarlett Johansson continues to be the style icon for the Marvel movies, sporting a tan cotton jacket during the opening fight scene in Lagos. The jacket is already a hot seller on many online stores.

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  • Scott Lang shows he can go both ways – The airport fight sequence is the showpiece of the movie. It’s where the growing schism between the two factions of the Avengers becomes all-out war. A last minute reinforcement for Captain America’s side is Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man. But there’s a big surprise in store as Lang shows that there’s more than one way to use those Pym particles.
  • Goodbye Peggy Carter – This was a really poignant moment for me. I’m sure Rogers-Carter doesn’t have the same ring to it as Romeo-Juliet, but for me, their unfulfilled romance has been one of the great tragic on-screen love stories of recent times, perhaps accentuated by actress Hayley Atwell’s strong performance in the Agent Carter TV series.
  • Cap keeps the Carter family connection strong – Steve Rogers moves right on, building a nice relationship with Peggy’s niece Sharon, although I do find it very difficult to accept the vapid Emily VanCamp as a replacement for the feisty Hayley Atwell.
  • We get to see the Raft – The prison for super-criminals makes an appearance.
  • Audi product placement – Audi continues their association with Tony Stark and the Avengers. Tony Stark is seen driving the super cool R8 V10 plus Coupé. The new SQ7 features prominently in a tunnel chase sequence involving Bucky, Cap and the Black Panther (check out Audi’s tie-in ad below).
  • Aunt May is really attractive – What a brilliant casting idea to get Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. Even Tony Stark seemed interested.
  • CGI is getting better at making actors look young – A low profile company called Lola VFX has been creating younger versions of actors on-screen for a few years. They ‘de-aged’ Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan for a flashback scene in X-Men: The Last Stand. In last year’s Ant-Man, a young Michael Douglas appeared in the opening scene. In both those films, they were able to take 20 years off the faces of actors in their late 60s/ early 70s. In Civil War, there’s a scene featuring a very young Robert Downey Jr., who appears to be in his late teens or early twenties; a significantly tougher task and a sign of how much the technology has improved. This is a sign of things to come in the sub-specialization now known as ‘visual cosmetics’.
  • Closing titles – The closing title sequence uses abstract shadows to describe the character played by each actor. A nice touch to have ’13’ come up against Emily VanCamp’s name, as Sharon Carter is called Agent 13 in the comic books.

And so, Marvel has yet another bona fide hit on their hands. The Disney machine already has two big hits this year with Zootopia and The Jungle Book. Look for Civil War to zoom up the charts and potentially overtake the current 2016 box office champion Deadpool in the coming weeks.