DVD Movie Review: The Deer Hunter (1978)

thedeerhunter2‘One shot’

“One shot, the deer has to be taken in one shot” is the central philosophy, proudly proclaimed by the ‘weird’ Michael Vronsky (Robert De Niro), that permeates throughout Michael Cimino‘s Oscar laden 1978 film The Deer Hunter. Set In the late 1960s in the small working class industrial city of Clairton in Pennsylvania, where steel production is the thread that binds the community, three friends from a close knit Russian-America community, Michael, Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steve (John Savage) are drafted into the army to fight in America’s ill-fated war in Vietnam. Not that they know of the impending disaster at the time. Patriotism abounds as they glorify their departure in a long wedding sequence celebrating Steven’s union with Angela (Rutanya Alda), who’s baby may or not be his.

The opening act (the films structure is often compared to that of a play, with three acts: before, during and after Vietnam – but make no mistake that this film is cinematic) is famed for its length and will either enrapture or infuriate. I fall into the former category. Over a period of time we get to know a community and all their foibles. Getting wasted in a bar early in the morning listening to Andy Williams’ I can’t take my eyes off of you while playing pool, unhinged Stan (John Cazale, who sadly passed away from cancer before the film’s release) knocking his girlfriend to the floor for allowing herself to be groped by another man, to Michael running through the streets stripping down to his bare body before having a soul searching conversation with Nick. “Whatever happens over there…don’t leave me…you gotta promise” says Nick. Michael accepts and their bond is sealed. The small details slowly lull us in and soften the blow before the intense action comes. The film resembles a Woody Allen dramedy rather than the powerful drama that it is until an America G.I is introduced to the wedding proceedings. He is subsequently taunted by the three departing hero’s for being unengaged and abrasive when probed about the action zones ‘over there’ in Vietnam. The emphasis is on being on ‘over there’, as opposed to ‘here’ with Nick declaring ‘I love this fucking place’.  They don’t want to leave but they have been forced to fight for an American dream that they already live.

Michael’s doctrine is tested on a final pre-Nam hunting trip. He will only hunt with Nick as the rest of the group are a “bunch of assholes” when it comes to hunting. He is a “control freak” who “doesn’t like any surprises”. He informs Stan that “this is this, this ain’t something else…this…is this” as he holds a bullet in exasperation at his lack of preparedness for hunting. Michael is true to his word, and will gladly walk away if he doesn’t catch his prey in one fell swoop. Nevertheless, Michael and his friends are about to learn a lesson they will never forget. After a touching rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne No. 6 in G Minor, Opus 15-3 by John (George Dzunda), the action brutally cuts to Vietnam with a Communist-held village being napalmed by US fighter jets. A clearly wounded Michael tries in vain to be the hero and is then reunited with Nick and Steve, who have been dropped by helicopter into the vicinity. However, they are captured by the Vietcong and so begins one of the most famous, controversial and intense sequences in film history.

Whatever your reading of it, Quentin Tarantino, a huge admirer of the film, once said:“The Russian roulette sequence is just out and out one of the best pieces of film ever made, ever shot, ever edited, ever performed. … Anybody can go off about Michael Cimino all they want but when you get to that sequence you just have to shut up.” The Vietcong force captured America and South Vietnamese soldiers to play Russian roulette whilst betting on their survival. It is without doubt one of the most brutal and horrific scenes ever shot. According to Cimino, the actors didn’t bath during the shoot to make it more authentic and the slaps are genuine. De Niro and John Savage required no stunt doubles to fall from a helicopter. Michael stays strong in the madness ensuing while Nick and Steve fall apart to varying degrees. De Niro’s acting has to be seen to be believed. In one moment he goes from defiance to sarcasm, from machismo to tears, from laughter to action. He is the glue that holds his friends together in the face of extreme prejudice.

Some critics, such as Mark Kermode, who I admire greatly, will argue that the scene is flat out racist. It is certainly troubling in many regards. Black Americans are in short supply in combat, and actual instances of Russian roulette perpetuated by the Vietcong have never been confirmed. The Vietcong appear to be the aggressors and Americans the victims, but as a metaphor for the randomness of violence, fear of death and its knock-on effects, the scene cannot be faulted.

The remaining characters go their separate ways in the aftermath of their experience. De Niro being the star of the film, it is no spoiler to say that Michael survives. Upon his return to Clairton he struggles to fit in and feels “a lot of distance and far away”. His three way love triangle, teased in the wedding sequence, with Nick’s fiancée Linda (Meryl Streep) resumes. Michael attempts to discover the fate of Nick and Steve. A post Vietnam hunting trip, alone this time on the actual hunt while his “asshole” friends play about like John Wayne with Stan’s stupid little gun, shows what Michael has learned. He has in effect become the American soldier he goaded earlier, embittered and cynical. Michael is true to his word and plays the reluctant hero again in an attempt the bring the group together as it once was, rather than as a shadow of its former glory. What he discovers will change their lives irrevocably.

There is a famous rendition of God bless America sung by the group. Again, some people use this to attack the film as right-wing propaganda piece. The Deer Hunter was interpreted by some to be to the right politically of Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, the other Vietnam film that collected Oscars for 1978, starring renowned anti-war activists Jon Voight and Jane Fonda who both received Oscars for their performances. The Deer Hunter is a depiction of small town American life, which in the 1960s/70s was largely demographically patriotic, Republican-voting Americans for whom it was rare to venture into the next state let alone leave the country. If The Deer Hunter is racist because the largely realistically depicted characters don’t actively denounce the American dream, then so be it.

Young men, black and white, were routinely plucked from local communities, big cities, small towns to fight for a country’s ideology when for some they were already living in their own contended bubble. They died arguably for a cause of self preservation perpetuated by the ruling elite whilst those at the top of societies ladder, such as George Bush Junior, largely got away it.

182 mins.

DVD Movie Review: Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Where_Eagles_DareWar is fun

Yet another one that I have been meaning to do for some time – I will never forget the first time I saw Where Eagles Dare (1968) by Brian G. Hutton (Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Nightwatch (1973)), back in the day when it was still a sufficiently modern film to be shown as the Saturday night ‘Big Movie’ on Yorkshire Television – I simply couldn’t believe that a movie could be so exciting, violent (for a war film that is, how’s that for irony?) and, well, just fun.

All these years later, when I still watch it as I do from time to time, my feelings have not changed an iota, and I am here to recommend it to you as being, well, still a perfect ‘Big Movie’ for Saturday or any other night.

A World War II action film, starring Richard Burton, a very young Clint Eastwood and a host of other big names, Where Eagles Dare was very well scripted by Alistair MacLean from his own novel, and benefits enormously from all participants being absolutely at the top of their game. It also has a tremendous score from award-winning conductor and composer Ron Goodwin, and splendid, tight, beautiful location cinematography (it was mostly filmed in the environs of Burg Hohenwerfen, Werfen, Austria) from Oscar-nominee Arthur Ibbetson.

In the winter of 1943-44, we join MI6’s Vice Admiral Rolland (Michael Hordern) and Colonel Wyatt-Turner (Patrick Wymark), in the midst of a top-secret briefing on the eve of a daring ‘rescue’ mission. General George Carnaby (Robert Beatty), a chief planner of the second front, has been captured by the Germans when his aircraft was shot down en route to Crete and taken for interrogation to the Schloss Adler, a seemingly impregnable fortress high in the Alps of southern Bavaria. Major John Smith (Burton) and US Army Ranger Lieutenant Morris Schaffer (Eastwood) are to lead a mission is to parachute in, infiltrate the castle, and rescue General Carnaby before the Germans can interrogate him – Carnaby knows far more than may be healthy for him concerning the imminent D-Day operation, and it is (allegedly) the team’s task to rescue him before he is made to reveal what he knows by fair, or far more likely foul, means.

Also on the team is fellow MI6 agent Mary Elison (Mary Ure), Smith’s lover, who is an insider under cover at the Schloss Adler, and her presence and identity is known only to Smith. Shortly after the team parachutes in, two of the sergeants, MacPherson (Neil McCarthy) and radio operator Harrod (Brook Williams) die mysteriously, but Major Smith seems unperturbed, keeping Schaffer as a close ally and secretly updating Admiral Rolland on developments by radio: ‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy, Broadsword calling Danny Boy.’ When word mysteriously reaches the Nazi’s high command that a rescue mission is in progress and Smith and Schaffer decide that the best option is to turn themselves in, the two officers are separated from the three remaining NCOs—Thomas (William Squire), Berkeley (Peter Barkworth) and Christiansen (Donald Houston)…and then things start to get really complicated and fun. Naturally, the team has a traitor or two in its midst – but who’s who? And how likely are any of them to get out alive, let alone complete their ‘mission’? All will be revealed…

Straight-faced, deadly serious acting from all involved allows the viewer to empathise with just how difficult the mission really is, and two brutal, ruthless and honest performances from Burton and Eastwood makes it very difficult until the truth is finally revealed to determine who is really running the show.

In addition, the action sequences, of which there are plenty, are breathlessly exciting, culminating in a high-wire tour-de-force of suspense aboard a fortress-bound cable car, very high above the Alps.

It could perhaps be argued that the James Bondesque aspects of the whole affair do not lend a great deal of credibility to proceedings (and both Burton and Eastwood have the definite air of Bond-like cruelty to them; Eastwood was once offered the role of 007, but turned it down, there’s a good chap, because he felt that Bond should always be British), but this matters not a jot – the film is quite simply a riot. The title is from Act I, Scene III in Shakespeare’s Richard III: “The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch”, and Eastwood and Burton reportedly dubbed the film ‘Where Doubles Dare’, acknowledging the great work of the stand-ins who doubled for the action sequences.

158 mins.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Quietly tragic

A story that speaks to everyone about the tragedy of war; a story that takes no sides – Lewis Milestone’s adaptation of All Quiet on The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque is as harrowing and profoundly moving as its source.

The movie tells the story of a group of German soldiers fighting in WWI. It opens with a speech about the glory of dying for one’s country, given by a professor to his enthusiastic but naive students, but the upbeat mood quickly spirals towards the hell of the reality of war, with its cruelty, bestiality and hopelessness. Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) and his classmates Franz (Ben Alexander), Leer (Scott Polk), Peter (Owen Davis, Jr.), Behm (Walter Rogers, Jr.), Albert (William Bakewell), Westus (Richard Alexander), Mueller (Russell Gleason) and Deter (Harold Goodwin) believe fervently in the importance of their duty, the ultimate goal of war, a belief that takes them to the front – and they go gladly and eagerly, not aware what it means to look death in the face.

Their dreams of heroism turn quickly into a nightmare, in which boys who have just begun their adult lives end up either dead or injured. And for what? The professor’s speech is long forgotten, and no one remembers any longer why the war is taking place or why they are fighting for a cause that they neither understand, nor support.

Remarque, a war veteran himself, wrote the book to show how the war destroyed the lives and spirits of millions of young men, on both sides. Milestone adapted the book very skillfully to create the gloomy, desperate atmosphere of the front – considering that the movie was made in 1930, the battle scenes are extraordinary, and have often been used instead of stock footage.

The battles seem never-ending, with the noise of the bombs, grenades and bullets exhausting. It’s true that Ayres’ acting is sometimes a touch theatrical, but it must be remembered that he had to verbalize everything presented as Paul’s inner monologue in the book. Even though his words sound a little pompous at times, he gets the message across – no one is ready to see death, no one is prepared to kill and no one can move on with life after experiencing the war.

The actors play very well; you can see how frightened they are when they first go to the front, how desperately they fight for the last minutes of life when they are on their death beds, and how their moods change suddenly when the sound of shells draws closer.

And finally, you see how they give up and give in, because there is no hope for those who have forgotten what it feels to not be surrounded by pointless death.

147 mins.

Valkyrie (2008)

Valkyrie (2008)The good German?

Ever since The Usual Suspects (1994), director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie have seemed more than capable of delivering the good stuff, when they’re together.

Further to that point, along with co-writer Nathan Alexander, who is also on board for Valkyrie (2008), and whose first film this is, they also seem to be able to get the best out of one Tom Cruise. Picturenose’s other half, Colin, has previously made his thoughts quite clear concerning ‘the stunted one’ (his words, not mine) – I, on the other hand, have always had a good deal of time for the Cruiser and his acting range, even if, as I must concede, he really shouldn’t espouse cults masquerading as life choices, or make a complete tit of himself on Oprah.

But enough of that. By and large confounding the critics (particularly in Germany, where they were queueing up, just waiting for the film to fail, thanks in no small part to Cruise’s allegiance to Scientology, which is, amazingly enough, regarded as a cult there) Singer, backed up by a swaggering, heavyweight cast, has delivered a thoroughly sober, engrossing and moving account of the last attempt that took place on Adolf Hitler’s life, on 20th July 1944.

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) is now regarded as a national hero in Germany, which also might explain why a Hollywood version of what went down was not exactly relished and, after all, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s simply marvellous Der Untergang (2004) had already said everything that needed to be said about der Führer’s final days in power, right?

Well, as a matter of fact, no, as Singer’s film largely succeeds in making clear.

Von Stauffenberg is severely wounded in Tunisia, and is evacuated home to Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, German Resistance member Major General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh, this time on the ‘right’ side of the wrong side, in a sharp contrast to his chilling performance as Reinhard Heydrich in Conspiracy (2001)) has already attempted to assassinate Hitler by smuggling a bomb aboard the Führer’s private airplane. However, when the bomb fails to detonate and Tresckow safely retrieves it to conceal his intentions, he learns that the Gestapo has arrested his fellow conspirator Major Hans Oster, and orders General Olbricht (Bill Nighy) to find a replacement.

After recruiting Stauffenberg, Olbricht delivers the Colonel to a meeting of the secret committee that has co-ordinated the previous fourteen attempts on Hitler’s life, which includes General Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp) and Dr. Carl Goerdeler (Kevin McNally). Though a willing participant, Von Stauffenberg is stunned to learn that no plans exist for after Hitler’s assassination – thus, Valkyrie is set in motion, an audacious plot to wrest power from the SS and Gestapo directly after Hitler’s death, then negotiate peace with the Allies.

Ludwig Beck: Gentlemen, we can save Europe from total destruction
Henning von Tresckow: We have to show the world that not all of us are like him. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany.

While some critical mileage has been made of the fact that none of the characters speaks English with a German accent (which, quite frankly, is a silly point – how, unless all speak German with subtitles, can one approach be deemed ‘more realistic’ than the other?), this is a genuinely measured, intelligent and adult interpretation. Cruise, although perhaps still a touch shackled with notions of All-American Action Hero, nevertheless delivers a humane, believable performance that has the strength of his and, one can imagine, von Stauffenberg’s original convictions – a man who knew, only too well, that death awaited him and his wife Nina (played here with grace by Carice van Houten) should he fail, but who proceeded regardless.

Convincing too are Nighy and another British stalwart Tom Wilkinson (who plays a ‘will he-won’t he’ coward, General Friedrich Fromm), as well as David Bamber who, although he has only a little screen time as the 20th century’s personification of evil, delivers a performance that rivals Bruno Ganz’s Hitler in Der Untergang (2004).

The film also manages, via its clever staging of the events at the story’s centre, to generate real suspense even though, as historical observers, we know that the plot must be doomed – a little like Fred Zinneman’s The Day of the Jackal (1971), except this time, as observers, we are hopelessly rooting for the assassins to succeed.

Refreshing to see that a huge budget need not mean that creativity and artistic endeavour are whitewashed – this is very much a worthy view.

Check out the trailer for Valkyrie here.

121 mins. In English and German.

Biloxi Blues (1988)

Biloxi BluesBlues heaven
It was with a poignant shrug, a sigh and a great deal of whining on my part that I was first dragged bodily toward watching this movie, many years ago. The object of my desire at the time had said: “It looks great – it’s the first in a trilogy of semi-autobiographical films about the playwright Neil Simon.” Imagine my excitement. It didn’t take long, however, for me to be introduced once again to a concept not unfamiliar to me – that of being proven horribly wrong.

We all know some of Neil Simon’s more famous works, of course – California Suite (1978), The Odd Couple (1968), Barefoot in the Park (1967) – but Biloxi Blues (1988) is different. It’s essentially a rites of passage flick, but Simon takes this often pretentious genre and makes it not only believable, but highly entertaining. Every character is blessed or cursed with their own particular traits and the voiceover narrative manages to introduce these without resort to contriving ludicrous plot devices.

Biloxi itself is a town in Mississippi, where young conscripts were sent to attend their ten weeks’ basic training before being shipped off to fight the Japanese in the South Pacific. Our “hero”, Eugene Jerome (Matthew Broderick) is a wise-cracking yet hopelessly naive New Yorker thrust into the task of defending his country alongside a hotchpotch mix of 1940s American society. He keeps a diary, and this is supposedly the tome on which the film is based.

Seconds after stepping off the train, he is formally introduced to his sergeant, Merwyn J Toomey (Christopher Walken). Toomey seems to be a pleasant and almost affable kind of a chap, but you know that if Christopher Walken is playing him, it’s going to get unpleasant for someone. It does – and very quickly too. He soon makes it abundantly clear that he has reserved a special place in hell for Eugene by making him decide who must be punished whenever squad discipline is necessary.

The main gist of the film is about growing up, and when faced with the prospect of having various parts of your anatomy distributed around the Pacific Ocean, growing up quick. Simon uses this ten weeks as a condensed passage into adulthood – arguing, fighting, working out boundaries, love, sex, shame and madness – not bad for 106 minutes of celluloid. The thing I loved about it was the dialogue. It’s still Neil Simon of course, but he has a real talent for writing from the perspective of a teenager, a far cry from his usual fare of middle aged and middle class men and women.

Some scenes are genuinely moving, some poignant and most are funny, but the stand-out winner for me has to be Eugene’s visit to Rowena (Park Overall), a prostitute who, while keeping things strictly business, gently helps him to rid himself of the stigma of virginity. His fumbling, stuttering and nervous attempts to fulfil what would seem to be a fairly basic task are excruciating and whimsical in equal measure.

Biloxi Blues contains such issues as racism, homophobia and anti-semitism but never tries to “deal” with them as some films would. They are just there as a part of growing up in a given time and place. There’s no big message that Simon wants us all to hear about loving your brother or how war is unjust, and this is why it is so likeable. The performances are all sound and the screenplay (adapted from Simon’s stage production) is very tight. I’m not sure if the final scene with Sgt Toomey is autobiographical, but if it is, Simon’s lucky to have been able to ever put pen to paper.

If you want fun and some genuine entertainment, don’t go and rent whatever old dross Stallone’s punting these days – get this instead. The benefits are two-fold – it’ll be cheaper, and it’s a far better film.

106 mins.