The Deer Hunter (1978)

2016 #181
Michael Cimino | 176 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK & USA / English, Russian, Vietnamese & French | 18 / R

The Deer Hunter

One of the first movies about the Vietnam war made after it ended, The Deer Hunter was controversial before it was made (no American company wanted to touch it, leaving British group EMI to put up the initial funding), controversial when it was released (Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the war, called the use of Russian roulette “simply a bloody lie”), and remains controversial today (Mark Kermode called it “one of the worst films ever made, a rambling self-indulgent, self-aggrandising barf-fest steeped in manipulatively racist emotion”), but is cited by some as one of the best movies ever made.

The plot concerns three Pennsylvanian steel workers (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage) who have been conscripted. It follows their final days before joining up, then some of their time in the conflict, then how they react once home — this is a Vietnam movie where under a third of its running time actually takes place in ‘Nam. But, as per producer Michael Deeley, the film “wasn’t really ‘about’ Vietnam. It was something very different. […] It was about how individuals respond to pressure: different men reacting quite differently.” It takes its time getting there (this is a long movie that feels long), but that’s what the famed Russian roulette stuff is all about, really — a way of coping with some kind of mental collapse; of leaving suicide up to chance.

Walken a fine line

It’s certainly a problematic film, with its depiction of the Vietcong particularly tin-eared — they’re an old-fashioned baddie, cruel and evil without any apparent provocation. Coupled with a final scene that sees the cast singing God Bless America, it comes across a bit too right-wing to be wholly palatable. It’s also a slog, particularly the first third and its never-ending wedding sequence.

These things can’t completely negate the qualities Deeley highlighted in the above quote, or that many viewers clearly see in it. That said, if I’m completely honest, I think Kermode may be closest to the truth.

4 out of 5

The Deer Hunter was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Scotland, Pa. (2001)

2016 #61
Billy Morrissette | 99 mins | streaming | 1.85:1 | USA / English | NR / R

Scotland, Pa.Shakespeare gets transposed to 1970s Pennsylvania in this blackly comedic reimagining of Macbeth, which converts the Thane of Glamis into a diner chef and the Scottish throne into ownership of a new concept: drive-thru.

Writer-director Billy Morrissette cleverly reconfigures aspects of the original (the witches are hippies; the ‘spot’ on Mrs Macbeth’s hand is a burn from spitting oil), but dodges being literally beholden to the text, allowing the humour and new situations to drive matters — you don’t need to be a fan of the Bard to get it.

It’s probably a little too long, but still an amusing variation.

4 out of 5

Batman Returns (1992)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #9

The Bat
The Cat
The Penguin

Country: USA & UK
Language: English
Runtime: 126 minutes
BBFC: 12 (cut, 1992) | 15 (cut, 1992) | 15 (uncut, 2009)
MPAA: PG-13 for “brooding, dark violence”

Original Release: 19th June 1992 (USA)
UK Release: 10th July 1992
First Seen: VHS, c,1993

Stars
Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice, Birdman)
Danny DeVito (Twins, The Rainmaker)
Michelle Pfeiffer (Ladyhawke, Hairspray)
Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone, Seven Psychopaths)

Director
Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Dark Shadows)

Screenwriters
Daniel Waters (Heathers, Demolition Man)

Story by
Daniel Waters (see above)
Sam Hamm (Batman, Monkeybone)

Based on
Batman, a comic book superhero created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

The Story
Batman has a lot on his hands when abandoned Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin, emerges from the shadows seeking acceptance by running for mayor, backed by corrupt businessman Max Shreck. Meanwhile, a newly-created Catwoman has an axe to grind with Shreck, and won’t let Batman stand in her way…

Our Hero
Nana-nana-nana-nana nana-nana-nana-nana Batman! But, y’know, with a kind of ’30s Gothic edge.

Our Villains
A triumvirate of terror! Danny DeVito is the Penguin, deformed, abandoned as a child, and out for revenge against the city. Michelle Pfeiffer is Catwoman, PVC-clad, kinky, and also out for revenge. Christopher Walken is Max Shreck, a morally corrupt businessman with political needs, who clashes with Bruce Wayne as much as Batman.

Best Supporting Character
The one significant constant through the four ’80s/’90s Bat-movies, Michael Gough is a near-peerless Alfred.

Memorable Quote
Batman: “Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it.”
Catwoman: “But a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it.”

Memorable Scene
Batman and the Penguin are having an argument. Suddenly, a figure comes backflipping towards them — Catwoman. They stare. “Meow.” The building behind her explodes. It’s not actually her first appearance, but it’s quite an introduction.

Technical Wizardry
The whole design of the film, and Gotham City in particular, is fantastic; a kind of ’30s-but-also-modern art deco style. It’s all quite Burtonesque too, though not too much so for my taste.

Truly Special Effect
The Penguin’s army of penguins, an effective mix of real birds, animatronics, and actors in suits.

Making of
The first draft of the screenplay was intended to be more of a direct sequel to Batman: subplots included gift shops selling fragments of the destroyed Bat-Wing, revelations about the past of the Joker, and Bruce Wayne proposing to Vicki Vale by the end of the film. However, Tim Burton was uncomfortable with making a direct sequel, so the script was rewritten. Ah, the days when people wanted sequels to be less connected…

Previously on…
Tim Burton’s first Batman film brought the dark ‘n’ gritty ’70s/’80s evolution of the character from the comic books to the big screen for the first time. It was a huge success, though I think it feels notably more dated today than Returns does.

Next time…
Two semi-direct sequels — though with Burton and Keaton both abandoning the series, they took a distinct downward turn in quality. The 2005 reboot has so far led to three more Bat-movies, and now another new series dawns starring Ben Affleck.

Awards
2 Oscar nominations (Visual Effects, Makeup)
2 BAFTA nominations (Special Effects, Make Up Artist)
1 Saturn Award (Make-Up)
4 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Danny DeVito), Director, Costumes)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actor (Danny DeVito))
3 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Most Desirable Female (Michelle Pfeiffer))
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“Burton couldn’t play it safe if he wanted to, and he doesn’t want to. Entrusted with one of the most valuable franchises in movie history, he’s made a moody, grotesque, perversely funny $50 million art film. […] Something about the filmmaker’s eccentric, surreal, childlike images seems to strike a deep chord in the mass psyche: he makes nightmares that taste like candy.” — David Ansen, Newsweek

Score: 80%

What the Public Say
“unmissable in Batman Returns, Burton tends to employ the film noir style in his movies. […] a visual sensation from start to finish, nearly all to the credit of Tim Burton, and all of the other elements of the film noir style come together quite brilliantly to reintroduce Batman, as flawed antihero, back into popular culture.” — Kate Bellmore, Reel Club

Elsewhere on 100 Films
Just before the release of The Dark Knight Rises I went back over all the live-action Bat-films of the ‘modern era’. Of Returns, I wrote that “Tim Burton’s first Batman film is great, no doubt, but Returns is a much better film in so many ways. The direction, writing, acting, action and effects are all slicker. They spent over twice as much money on it and it really shows.”

Verdict

Controversial on release — and since — but for me, Batman Returns holds up best out of the four ’80s/’90s Batman movies. Tim Burton brings his own stamp to the Bat-universe, crafting a darkly Gothic fantasy world that’s both striking and effective, populated by grotesques (in different senses) like the Penguin, Catwoman, Shreck, and perhaps even Batman himself. There’s chemistry between the entire cast, memorable scenes and set pieces, and the sense of an entire artistic vision that the Bat-series wouldn’t have again for over a decade.

#10 will be… a tale as old as time.

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

2015 #72
Martin McDonagh | 110 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English & Vietnamese | 15 / R

Seven PsychopathsThe writer-director and star of In Bruges re-team for the former’s sophomore feature; and if that doesn’t sound oddball enough for you, the lead cast is rounded out by Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken. Zaniness is sure to ensue.

Colin Farrell is Marty, a screenwriter struggling with his new work (all he has is a title). Rockwell is his best friend, Billy, who kidnaps dogs and then returns them for the reward money. Walken is Hans, his associate in this enterprise, whose wife is dying of cancer. Harrelson is Charlie, a violence-inclined mob boss who loves his Shih Tzu, Bonny… which brings trouble to everyone’s door when Billy dognaps her (of course).

So, the inciting incident is Billy taking the Shih Tzu. The film’s US tagline was, “They Won’t Take Any Shih Tzu”. I get the pun, but c’mon, there must be a version of it that makes sense!

The film itself is similarly laden with decent ideas that somehow just miss the mark. It feels sloppily told — not badly made, but awkwardly put together. There are some hilarious bits scattered about, which do at least make it feel worthwhile, but in between there’s so much darn filler. It needs a good trim. Heck, it needs a good structure. Writer-director Martin McDonagh seems to think he can get away with this, and plentiful other storytelling oddities, Re-writingmainly via references to Farrell’s endeavours to pen a movie called, you guessed it, Seven Psychopaths. One wonders if there’s a hefty dose of autobiography in the writer’s struggle…

Perhaps this explains why McDonagh has produced a screenplay that feels kinda dated — with its talkative characters, violent crime story, and irreverent humour, it’s all very post-Tarantino. 20 years on from Reservoir Dogs, isn’t it time for something else? As Hans puts it when they’re all striving to improve Marty’s screenplay, “You’re the one who thought psychopaths were so interesting. They get kinda tiresome after a while, don’t you think?”

Seven Psychopaths has its merits — some bits are very funny indeed, even if they’re fleeting — but your tolerance for shaggy dog stories will determine how much enjoyment you get out of it. As a follow-up to the genius of In Bruges, it’s nought but a disappointment.

3 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Seven Psychopaths is on Channel 4 tonight at 10pm.

A Late Quartet (2012)

2014 #57
Yaron Zilberman | 106 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

A Late QuartetSet in the rarefied world of classical music performance, A Late Quartet charts the fallout among the members of a highly-acclaimed New York string quartet when their leader (Christopher Walken) announces his impending retirement.

A talented cast work wonders in this straightforward drama, layering emotion and plausibility over a sometimes heavy-handed screenplay. Particular praise is warranted for Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the group’s suddenly-ambitious second violin, and, in the key supporting role outside the quartet, Imogen Poots. Equally holding his own among the better-known names is Mark Ivanir, the quartet’s precise and entrenched first violin. As the fourth member, Catherine Keener is probably given short shrift, her personal relationships and backstory used to illuminate others rather than herself.

Some have criticised the narrative’s basic tenets, for it being quite the coincidence that a group who have been together for almost a quarter of a century should have such a tumultuous few weeks all of a sudden. I think that’s allowable: Walken’s diagnosis and proposed retirement sends shockwaves that bring long-standing issues and feelings to a head — that feels plausible to me. It remains a bit melodramatic at times… but then, isn’t that just artists for you?

Christopher WalkenWhere it does make a mistake is in divorcing Walken from the rest of the group for so much of the time. He ends up going to Parkinson’s groups and doing exercises as if this is some kind of “Issue of the Week” TV movie, while everyone else gets on with the plot. Some of the best bits belong to him though, like the story cribbed from a real musician’s autobiography.

Also worthy of note is Frederick Elmes’ beautiful photography, which is really crisp and warm (praise also for the Blu-ray authoring, I guess). Plus snow-blanketed winter New York always looks majestic.

A Late Quartet isn’t revolutionary or even exemplary in many respects, but as personal-relationships dramas go, the top-drawer performances give it appeal.

4 out of 5

Hairspray (2007)

2008 #53
Adam Shankman | 111 mins | DVD | PG / PG

HairsprayWho’d’ve thought a John Waters film could become a bright and breezy musical? It’s a bit of a surprise but, thanks to a successful Broadway version, that’s exactly what’s happened. But while the key to Hairspray’s success may be its positive attitude and memorable songs, perhaps the key to its quality — and the eventual score of this review — are the issues it tackles around those.

It’s the latter that I found must surprising while watching the film. Everything about its advertising campaign, largely young cast and candy-coloured design suggested Hairspray was a light-as-air feel-good flick — no bad thing, but nothing more than a couple of hours of disposable fun. Pleasantly that’s not the case, as the film tackles head-on issues of racism and other such discrimination, with the ‘beautiful people’ — led by a deliciously bitchy Michelle Pfeiffer — doing their best to keep down those who are in any way different, be they black or, in the case of lead character Tracy Turnblad, fat. The apparently fluffy style of the film in many ways makes it perfect to tackle such issues, showing how they can permeate every area of life, not just Serious Social Dramas, and forces those who would normally avoid the latter type of drama to face up to them. Its ultimately happy ending may be more in keeping with the film’s overriding optimism than with reality, but equally it’s wholly appropriate: the crusade against oppression has to end well here, because if it didn’t the concluding message would be “don’t bother fighting, things won’t change”.

The film’s unwavering optimism is perfectly encapsulated by newcomer Nikki Blonsky, leading the cast as Tracy. She’s instantly and constantly likeable, irrepressibly chirpy and yet not annoying — an impressive feat. Equally remarkably, she’s never overshadowed by the heavyweights who round out the cast; instead, they provide able support. Even John Travolta, disturbingly convincing as a housewife (under a ton of makeup), doesn’t steal the show — he comes close, but Blonsky’s performance holds sway. Elsewhere, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah, James Marsden and Zac Efron all get catchy songs and have a whale of a time — and, unlike the Ocean’s… sequels, the fun the cast is having is infectious.

The first credit at the close is an unusual one: “Directed and Choreographed by Adam Shankman”. Rather than shirking in either department, the rare combination seems to have helped proceedings: the numbers are all exemplarily executed and the direction doesn’t suffer elsewhere. It’s an indication of the music’s quality that even the three cut songs, which play over the end credits, are pretty good and wouldn’t’ve been out of place in the film itself. The first of these is clearly the actual closing number, though the decision to bump it to the end credits, thereby leaving You Can’t Stop the Beat as the final song of the film proper, was a wise one — it makes for a stronger, catchier, more upbeat finale.

Hairspray is a deft mix of issue-driven drama and colourful musical levity. Catchy, optimistic, uplifting, funny and fun, it may just surprise you.

5 out of 5

Hairspray is on Film4 today, Tuesday 11th November 2014, at 6:45pm.

Hairspray placed 6th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2008, which can be read in full here.

Annie Hall (1977)

2007 #115
Woody Allen | 90 mins | DVD | 15 / PG

Annie HallWidely considered to be Woody Allen’s breakthrough movie and winner of four of the ‘Big Five’ Oscars. One might call it a romantic comedy, but it’s very much an indie comedy-drama (for one thing, it utilises the ever-popular tactic of not taking place in chronological order), rather than the mainstream cliché-fest that first springs to mind whenever “rom-com” is mentioned.

Annie Hall is either the basis for or just exemplifies all the clichés of Allen films (essentially, neurotic Jew who struggles with life), but that doesn’t make it bad. It’s very funny in places, suitably realistic in others, and has a nice line in comedic philosophy too.

4 out of 5

Romance & Cigarettes (2005)

2007 #13
John Turturro | 102 mins DVD | 15 / R

Romance and CigarettesI was attracted to this because it was billed as a modern musical, with an impressive cast. Tsk.

Some people are put off by the musical tag — well, don’t be. The characters occasionally sing along to some popular songs (and sometimes to ones you’ve never heard in your life), and sometimes do fun dance routines. This sits at odds with the gritty-ish melodrama of the plot, but that’s the fun.

It’s worth a punt, but expect to dislike it.

3 out of 5