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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Last Chance Harvey


Last Chance Harvey

Hoffman and Thompson bask in the admiration of the rest of the cast.

(Overture) Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Kathy Baker, James Brolin, Richard Schiff, Eileen Atkins, Liane Balaban. Directed by Joel Hopkins

Happiness is a rare and precious commodity in this life, and we get so few opportunities to reach out and grab it. We have to treat each of these opportunities as if they are our last chance to be truly happy.

Harvey Shine (Hoffman) is a failed jazz pianist who has made a living – okay, quite a bit more than that – writing jingles for Madison Avenue. He has flown to London to attend the wedding of his daughter Susan (Balaban). While arriving at Heathrow, he has a brief encounter with Kate (Thompson), who works as one of those airport survey takers, the kind of job that one must have a very thick skin to perform. Harvey is somewhat rude to her, as many are.

Harvey has reason to be in a pissy mood. He is entering the lion’s den, as it were. He and his daughter have been drifting apart for many years, especially after Harvey’s marriage to Jean (Baker), Susan’s mother, collapsed. Jean is married to Brian (Brolin) now, and at the rehearsal dinner Harvey is informed by his daughter that she wants Brian to give her away at the ceremony the next day rather than Harvey.

For a father, that would constitute something akin to water boarding. It is the rejection of a man’s paternal abilities, a means of telling a dad that his services were never appreciated. Whether or not Harvey had earned that kind of rejection, it still hurts in ways that cannot truly be fathomed by someone who has never been father to a daughter.

To make matters worse, Harvey gets a phone call from his boss (Schiff) at the agency he works for to inform him that his services are no longer required there either. Drowning in a sea of emotional torment, Harvey decides to get out of London with what little pride he has remaining, stick his tail between his legs and head home to lick his wounds.

Unfortunately, he is denied even that and he winds up at an airport bar waiting for a flight to take him back to New York. There, he sees Kate reading while on a break from her thankless job. Remembering her from his arrival, feeling guilty at his rudeness (and perhaps feeling a need to improve his karma somewhat), he tried to strike up a conversation with her and apologize. She is distant and uninterested, but he gradually wears her down with his charm. As they get to talking, they begin to realize that they are more like than unalike, and that one of those opportunities we spoke about earlier is suddenly right there in front of them.

Writer/director Hopkins had the framework for what could have been one of the better romantic movies of recent years. Certainly he has a couple that an audience can get behind; there is definite chemistry between Hoffman and Thompson and the couple they portray have been wounded by life, people who have been abandoned by the angels of their better nature. Instead, they have suffered from wrong choice after wrong choice, leading them to an encounter in an airport bar that might well be their last chance at happiness.

Hopkins could have just easily sat his camera in a two-shot in front of these two magnificent actors and just let it film the two of them talking. Instead, he opts for romantic interludes of montages of the two of them walking on the banks of the Thames, chatting animatedly with a truly awful, treacly score drowning out what they’re actually saying. It’s frustrating as all get out because we would much rather hear what they have to say.

There’s also an unnecessary subplot involving Kate’s paranoid mom (Atkins) and a neighbor she suspects of being a serial killer. While Atkins is a charming enough actress, whenever her character calls Kate it blows the movie right off of the tracks. And, let’s not even talk about the movie’s third act in which all the charm of the first two is lost in a cliché and hoary finish that makes us wish this movie had been made by more capable filmmakers, which isn’t to say that Hopkins isn’t one – he just isn’t one here.

The saving grace of this movie, and the reason to seek it out, are those scenes in which Hopkins simply lets us watch Kate and Harvey interact. There is literal magic in those scenes, and those moments are worth cherishing. This is a case of the actors transcending the material they are given to work with and making a decent movie out of one that might easily have been just awful.

WHY RENT THIS: Hoffman and Thompson are two of the best actors of our generation; any opportunity to see them is worth taking.  They make a likable couple that you can’t help but root for; whenever they are onscreen together chatting, there’s plenty of magic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An unnecessary subplot involving Kate’s paranoid mother derails the movie at every turn. The movie falls apart in the third act, relying on cliché and happenstance to resolve the action.

FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of blue language but nothing more than that.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hoffman and Thompson first performed together in Stranger than Fiction. While they only had a couple of scenes together, they both enjoyed the experience so much that they looked for a project that they could tackle together as leads.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Up in the Air