The Deer Hunter


Are you talking to me?

Are you talking to me?

(1978) Drama (Universal) Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, George Dzundza, Chuck Aspegren, Shirley Stoler, Rutanya Alda, Pierre Segui, Mady Kaplan, Amy Wright, Mary Ann Haenel, Richard Kuss, Joe Grifasi, Christopher Columbi Jr., Victoria Karnafel, Jack Scardino, Joe Strnad, Helen Tomko. Directed by Michael Cimino

Waiting for Oscar

1979 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Actor – Robert De Niro
Best Supporting Actress – Meryl Streep
Best Original Screenplay – Michael Cimino, Deric Wasburn, Louis Garfinkle, Quinn K. Redeker
Best Cinematography – Vilmos Zsigmond
WINS – 5
Best Picture
Best Director – Michael Cimino
Best Supporting Actor – Christopher Walken
Best Sound
Best Editing

Ritual are an important part of life. We mark various rites of passage – birthdays, weddings, funerals – with rituals whether we label them such or not. Rituals give our lives a sense of constancy, a feeling of continuation and connect us to past, present and future.

Mike (De Niro) is a Pennsylvania steelworker on his last day before joining the army with his buddies Steve (Savage) and Nick (Walken). Steve is also getting married to Angela (Alda) who is pregnant but not by Steve. The wedding is a traditional Russian Orthodox ceremony followed by a traditional raucous Russian reception. Nick proposes to his girlfriend Linda (Streep) and the next day the three friends, joined by their friends Stosh (Cazale), John (Dzundza) and Axel (Aspegren) go hunting for deer. Mike tells the group about his “one shot” philosophy of hunting.

Next it’s off to Vietnam. The three men are sent their separate ways but against all odds are reunited unexpectedly during an attack on a village which the NVA has occupied. Unfortunately, the attack fails and all three men are captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp.

They are tortured by sadistic guards and forced to play Russian roulette against one another. Mike manages to outwit his guards and shoots them, allowing the three men to escape. By chance an army helicopter finds them but only Nick is able to board it. Steve, who is badly injured, floats down the river and Mike goes after him to rescue them. He manages to carry Steve to safety.

Nick becomes involved in underground Russian Roulette parlors in Vietnam while Mike goes home. Embarrassed by the fuss everyone makes over his return, he tries to locate Steve. Eventually Mike locates him in a local veterans hospital. Mike is eager to go back to Vietnam and find Nick whom he is certain is still alive and whom he promised he wouldn’t leave behind in that country. All three men will eventually return home in their own way but none will come back the same as when they left.

In many ways, this is as powerful a movie as you’re likely to ever see. Cimino, definitely inspired by the scope and grandeur of The Godfather, seems to want to make a movie that explores America’s mixed emotions about the Vietnam war. Cimino wants to make an adult epic, one with plenty of symbolism and foreshadowing. While I can applaud his ambitions I do believe his reach exceeded his grasp.

This is a movie that dwells on minutiae. It comes to the point – and surpasses it – of being cinematic babble. The wedding sequence that takes place over the film’s first hour (!) is a good 45 minutes too long. While it’s supposed to establish what the men are giving up and leaving behind, at the end of the day I don’t think all of this is necessary to the story. Worse yet, Cimino and his co-writers create lapses that sacrifice logic for emotional power. For example, the Russian roulette sequences which are at the heart of the film – what captor would give his captive a loaded weapon? That’s why there are no recorded instances of American POWs being forced to shoot themselves as is depicted here. Why wouldn’t you shoot your captor if you were going to do that?

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some powerful performances to be observed here. De Niro was in his heyday, on a string of roles that established him as one of America’s best actors in the 70s and 80s (and of course all the way through until now) and his work as the film’s moral center garnered him yet another Oscar nomination. Streep, already with two Oscar wins to her credit, was luminous as Linda while Walken established his career with a searing performance that would win him Oscar gold.

Ultimately what undoes the movie is its lack of focus. I’ve watched the movie several times and each time I try to find what it is that has so engrossed people whose opinion I respect and who consider this one of the best movies ever made. Each time I come away unable to find that same level of respect, although there is some. Ultimately I am let down by this film, one which in trying to be realistic, symbolic and thoughtful falls into the abyss of being none of the things it tries to be. In my opinion, this is the most overrated Best Picture winner of all time.

WHY RENT THIS: Some powerful performances by some of the best actors of the time whose careers received big boosts from this film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overblown, overrated, overly long wedding sequence, full of plot holes and inconsequential business.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some extremely intense situations and images, war violence, language and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cazale was in the final stages of cancer when filming began and due to his weakened condition, his scenes were filmed first. When the studio caught wind of his condition, they put pressure on Cimino to replace the dying actor but Meryl Streep put her foot down and threatened to leave the production if Cazale was removed. He died shortly after filming was completed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Unbelievably, nothing but the usual suspects.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Platoon

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Waiting for Oscar concludes!

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The Godfather Part III


Just when I thought I was out...

Just when I thought I was out…

(1990) Drama (Paramount) Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Andy Garcia, Talia Shire, Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna, Sofia Coppola, George Hamilton, Bridget Fonda, Raf Vallone, Franc D’Ambrosio, Donal Donnelly, Richard Bright, Helmut Berger, Don Novello, John Savage, Franco Citti, Mario Donatone, Al Martino, Vittorio Duse, John Cazale. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

“Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.” 16 years after the second part of the trilogy comes the conclusion, although Coppola prefers to think of it more as an epilogue. Coppola also wasn’t particularly eager to make this film but with his production company having serious money issues he went ahead and did it anyway.

Using real life events surrounding the Vatican Bank and the short reign of Pope John Paul I, Coppola weaves a tale that involves Michael Corleone (Pacino) – now a legitimate businessman, still fighting to keep his family out of the old family business. His nephew Vincent Mancini (Garcia) the illegitimate son of Michael’s brother Sonny and his sister’s friend and bridesmaid Lucy Mancini, has an issue with Joey Zasa (Mantegna) who runs what used to be the Corleone family in New York. Michael doesn’t want to get involved but reluctantly does so at his sister Connie’s (Shire) urging.

Michael has made at least an accord with his estranged wife Kay (Keaton) to let their children go their own way so that Anthony (D’Ambrosio) is free to pursue a career in opera rather than become the lawyer his father desires him to be. Mary (Sofia Coppola) is also free to pursue Vincent although Michael disapproves of the union. And despite Michael’s attempts to remain legitimate, his past will come back to haunt him in a big way.

Whereas The Godfather was operatic in tone, The Godfather Part III is more soap opera than opera. Daddy Coppola is masterful at weaving multiple storylines into a crescendo, bringing them all together in a terrifying violent coda. He still shows that ability here but this script simply doesn’t have the power that the first two movies did.

Still, this movie has Pacino at the top of his game and while he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his work here he richly deserved one. Here Michael is aging and his vitality is ebbing from him. He speaks in a gravelly voice roughened by time and tears, stooped with the weight of all his misdeeds. He may have gone legitimate but he still carries his sins like anvils around his neck. The eyes of Michael Corleone are haunted by demons so horrible that thee and me could never imagine it. It is in the eyes that Pacino’s performance truly becomes masterful.

He has some help. Talia Shire, often overlooked in the first two movies becomes a black widow here. Connie Corleone sits in the shadows, weaving her webs, Michael’s feminine support but also the demon of his lesser nature. She is the siren call of the Mafia life, the life Michael has struggled so hard to get away from. Her machinations are central to the movie’s plot and help Shire give the performance of her career.

Garcia who was so memorable in The Untouchables channels James Caan here playing his bastard son with explosive violence and yet the cool and snake-like intelligence of a Corleone. You can see Sonny in the son but that isn’t all Vincent is. Garcia imbues him with loyalty and malevolence, violence and cleverness but also love and respect. In many ways Pacino and Garcia have taken the roles of Brando and Pacino from the first film, allowing Michael to go full circle.

Sadly, Sofia Coppola – an excellent director – doesn’t fare as well as an actress. It’s not that she doesn’t have talent in that department – she actually delivers a decent performance. Unfortunately, the role and the situation both call for something better than that. She’s a housecat among lions, having to put her performances up against some of the best in the business and by comparison suffers badly. She doesn’t really have the screen charisma developed to give the role what it really deserved – a performance that forces the audience to care about the character. We kind of do but not enough by the end of the final reel. She was perhaps unjustly excoriated by critics and audiences alike which effectively ended her career as an actress which in a way is a good thing – we’ve gotten some pretty damn good movies from her as a director perhaps as a result. Still, I can’t help but wonder how well she would have developed as an actress had she not been kicked around so much in the press which surely soured her on pursuing acting at all.

There are other problems with the movie as well – the convoluted story line, Paramount’s inability to let Coppola make the movie he wanted (among other things they wouldn’t pay Duvall a salary akin to what other actors in the film were making so Coppola wound up being forced to write the character of Tom Hagen out) and perhaps most importantly the movie simply wasn’t able to hold up against two all-time classics. That’s not to say that The Godfather Part III is a bad movie – far from it. Part of the problem is that expectations are sky high after the first two. If There hadn’t have been the first two movies of the series, The Godfather Part III taken by itself probably would be remembered with far more fondness.

It is worth seeing as a closing chapter in the series although there has been talk on and off over the years of a Godfather Part IV but if there is it is unlikely Pacino or Coppola will be involved. With author Mario Puzo – very much Coppola’s muse when it came to these movies – passed away, it isn’t likely that another Godfather movie will ever capture the lightning the way the first two movies did. When you take the three films as a whole, it is as epic a saga of an American family as has ever been made. There hasn’t been it’s like before and there never will be again. While the third entry in the trilogy may be something of a disappointment, it is still a good movie if you avoid comparing it to the first two which is admittedly hard to do but if you are able to do it, you’ll enjoy this movie more.

WHY RENT THIS: Closure. Pacino is mesmerizing as always.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really hold up to the other two films in the trilogy. Story often confusing and Sofia Coppola’s performance isn’t up to scratch.

FAMILY VALUES:  More than its share of violence (some of it bloody) and foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Godfather trilogy was the first to have all three films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The Lord of the Rings trilogy later duplicated the feat.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Be warned that editions which contain the individual films tend to be fairly sparse with extras. If you’re looking for extras you’re better off picking up the trilogy boxed sets in either DVD or Blu-Ray which include some scintillating material as it relates to the trilogy plus it is a cost-effective way to get all three films in the saga. However if you want to skip the third film and are just interested in the movies themselves without the bells and whistles, buying them individually is the way to go.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $136.8M on a $54M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Family

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Saving Mr. Banks

Handsome Harry


Handsome Harry

Steve Buscemi wishes he could be as Handsome as Harry.

(2009) Mystery (Paladin) Jamey Sheridan, Steve Buscemi, Maryann Mayberry, Aidan Quinn, John Savage, Campbell Scott, Titus Welliver, Karen Young, Jayne Atkinson, Rutanya Alda, Bill Sage, Emily Donahoe, Asher Grodman, Andrew Dolan. Directed by Bette Gordon

 

That which we do in our past often doesn’t remain there. There are things that we do that can haunt us or influence us from the moment it happens all the way until this very moment and all the way to the future. Reconciling ourselves with those events sometimes is the only way to find peace.

Harry Sweeney (Sheridan) is, as the title proclaims, a good looking man who has gone gracefully into middle age. He’s one of those charming Irish guys who strides into a bar and everybody knows him. The ladies adore him and the men want to be like him.

Harry’s son (Grodman) is distinctly different in that sense. He and his father have a relationship that is strained to put it mildly, although why it is so is never really explained. Perhaps it’s just the way of fathers and their grown sons. Harry has been a mechanic most of his life, ever since he got back from Vietnam and the Navy in which he served.

When he gets a call from his Navy buddy Thomas Kelly (Buscemi) to let Harry know he needs to talk to him, Harry is a bit reluctant – he has ambivalent feelings about his military years. However when Kelly tells him that he’s on his deathbed and won’t be around much longer, Harry knows he has to go.

Kelly reminds him of an incident in the Navy in which five men, including Kelly and Harry, beat up a sixth and maimed him. Kelly wants to find the maimed man and apologize. At first Harry doesn’t want to do it; he would much rather say his farewells to Kelly and move on but when Kelly passes away, Harry knows the right thing to do is to find the victim of their attack and try to make amends.

To do so, he first needs to visit the other men involved in the beating and not all of them want to be reminded of it. There’s Peter Rheems (Savage), a wealthy blowhard who’s become an abusive husband to Judy (Mayberry), who takes quite a liking to Harry. There’s Professor Porter (Quinn), who pretends not to know Harry or have been in the Navy. There’s Gebhardt (Welliver), another wealthy man who has a love for golf but not so much for Harry.  All of this will lead to Harry’s face-to-face with David Kagan (Scott), whose potential career as a concert pianist was ruined and whose life was forever changed by the attack on him.

Gordon has directed a couple of indie films over the past 15 years – you wouldn’t exactly call her prolific – but this certainly has the look and feel of an assured hand on the tiller. The movie is on the uneven side but the good does outnumber the bad pretty much.

Let’s start with Sheridan. He can be very charismatic (as he was in “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” and in the TV mini-series of Stephen King’s The Stand in which he played Randall Flagg), and while he mostly does television and mostly supporting roles, he shows the ability to carry a movie here. He has that easy charm that translates well to the screen.

The supporting cast is strong. Buscemi, Savage, Quinn and Scott are all capable actors who rarely give poor performances and the quartet of them don’t disappoint here. Buscemi in particular has become a regular on the indie circuit, although his critically acclaimed and Golden Globe-winning performance on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” might bring him some meatier roles in mainstream films.

The writing is a bit uneven. Harry’s character doesn’t always act according to his own nature, going from pacifist in one scene to brawler in the next (and no, I’m not talking about the flashbacks either). There is also a feeling that the malaise that hangs over Harry’s life was hanging over the film as well; there are times it lacks energy.

Still, most films that depict middle aged regret in men show the men to be down and out losers who have drank, drugged or otherwise messed up their lives in almost incalculable ways and require some kind of redemption. Here you don’t get that sense; Harry is not after redemption so much as forgiveness, and the way that it is given is actually one of the film’s highlights.

Gordon never allows Harry to be completely forgiven – after all, the act that was committed by all five men was heinous and there need to be consequences for that and those consequences appear in very subtle ways. There is a lot to like here but there is also a lot that doesn’t quite work and so the recommendation is a mild one I’m afraid.

WHY RENT THIS: Middle aged regret is rarely portrayed as well as it is here. Sheridan does a great job. Terrific supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The writing can be uneven; certain changes in Harry’s behavior take place that seem a mite extreme.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words sprinkled here and there, as well as a bit of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Handsome Harry premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25, 2009.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13,500 on a $1M production budget; undoubtedly this lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Innkeepers