Awakenings (1990)

2017 #154
Penny Marshall | 116 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Awakenings

Based on a true story, Awakenings tells of Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams), who stumbles across an element of responsiveness in previously catatonic patients on his hospital ward. Finding a condition that links them buried in their medical histories, he supposes that a newly-invented drug might help their condition, subsequently testing it on Leonard (Robert De Niro), who ‘wakes up’ for the first time in 30 years. As Sayer continues his work, the new treatment reinvigorates the lives of more people than just the patients.

I hadn’t even heard of Awakenings until the untimely passing of Robin Williams, when it was brought to my attention by Mike of Films on the Box (er, I think — I can’t find where this occurred. Either it’s on someone else’s blog or I’ve entirely misremembered the circumstances). Frankly, I’m not sure why it isn’t better remembered. Okay, it’s a little schmaltzy towards the end, but there are plenty of films that are worse for that which are held in higher esteem by some. Perhaps it’s not schmaltzy enough for those people, but still too much for people who hate that kind of thing? Or maybe it’s something else — but I don’t know what, because the rest of the film is packed with quality and subtlety.

Such qualities are to be found in its writing — a screenplay by Steven Zaillian that conveys not only the usual story, character, and emotion, but also relates medical facts and processes in a way that is expedient to the narrative but still seems genuine. Whether it is or not I couldn’t say, but I didn’t feel conned by movieland brevity. Such qualities are to be found in the directing — unshowy work by Penny Marshall which matches the screenplay for its attention to detail in a way that never makes it feel as if we’re being fed a lot of information (although we are); that finds moments of beauty and life in the humanity of the characters, their plights, their successes, and their connections.

You waking up me? Well I'm the only one here...

Such qualities are to be found in the acting — De Niro’s immersive performance as a teenager trapped in a 50-year-old’s body, bookended by a medical condition so extreme that in lesser hands it could easily have become a caricature. Also Williams, giving quite possibly the most restrained performance of his career, but fully relatable as the socially inept doctor who is slowly, almost imperceptibly, brought out of his shell. And also an array of supporting performers, who each get their moment to shine in one way or another — although “shine” feels like the wrong word because, again, it’s understated. One or two moments aside (the schmaltziness I mentioned), there’s no grandstanding here.

Combine those successes with the knowledge that this is a true story (heck, you wouldn’t believe it if it weren’t) only makes the film’s events — and its messages about being attentive of others and embracing the life we’re given — all the more powerful.

4 out of 5

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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.

Brazil (1985)

aka Brazil: The Final Cut

2015 #100
Terry Gilliam | 143 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

I normally aim for a “critical” (for want of a better word) rather than “bloggy” (for want of a better word) tone in my reviews, just because I do (that’s in no way a criticism of others, etc). Here is where I fail as a film writer in that sense, though, because I’m not even sure how I’m meant to review Terry Gilliam’s dystopian sci-fi satire Brazil, a film as famed for its storied release history as for the movie itself.

It’s a film I’ve long looked forward to watching, utterly convinced it was “the kind of thing I’d like”, but then almost put off by the fact that I should like it. I was rather pleased when it finally popped up on this year’s What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen because it’s precisely the kind of film (or “one of the kinds of films”) that project was meant to ‘force’ me to watch. And, thankfully, I did really enjoy it. It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s massively imaginative in both its visuals and its storytelling, and its influences on the 30 years of dystopian fiction that have followed is… well, fairly clear, because it also has influences of its own, so whether future works are influenced by the original influence or whether the influencee has become the influencer is an over-complex matter for over-complex people to discuss ad infinitum.

I can tell you, factually, that there are at least four versions of Brazil: differing European and American theatrical versions; the “Love Conquers All” version (which according to the Criterion DVD is a cut for syndicated TV that made all the changes Gilliam refused to make, but may never have actually been released outside of that box set (IMDb implies it was never shown)); and the “Final Cut” that Gilliam assembled for Criterion in 1996 that is now the version released everywhere always (to the best of my knowledge). I’m sure there’s a thorough list of differences somewhere, but one good anecdote from Gilliam’s audio commentary tells how the ‘morning after’ scene was cut from the European release so last-minute that it was literally physically removed from the premiere print. (Gilliam regretted it immediately and it was restored for the video release.)

I can also tell you that I now struggle to read the word “Brazil” without hearing the “Braaziiiil” refrain from the soundtrack.

Brazil was 30 this year, but its particular brand of retro-futurism hasn’t dated, and its themes and issues are as relevant as ever. It’s a bit of a head trip of a film, which is what one should always expect from the guy who did the cartoons for Monty Python, I figure. I don’t know if it always gets its due in the consensus history of sci-fi cinema — in “best ever” lists and that kind of thing — though I’m not doing anything today that will help improve that.

The best I can say is that, if you like a bit of dystopian SF but have somehow (like me, until now) missed Brazil, that’s a situation you want to rectify lickety-split.

5 out of 5

Brazil was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

It placed 8th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Braaziiiil…

Raging Bull (1980)

2015 #88
Martin Scorsese | 124 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

It would be boring if we all liked the same stuff, wouldn’t it? I’m sure there’s at least one ‘universally’-loved classic that we each dislike. Heck, tends to be every ‘universally’-loved classic has at least one Proper Critic that dislikes it. The flip side of this is that, in my opinion, if you don’t like something that everyone else does, there’s a fair chance it’s you who’s missing something. That’s a rule I apply to others, naturally, but I also try to bear it in mind myself (and, at the risk of sounding terribly arrogant, I think a few more people could do with thinking the same).

Given that introduction, I guess it’ll come as no surprise that I didn’t get on very well with Raging Bull. We’ve established before that I don’t like boxing (see: Million Dollar Baby, which (I’ll say now) I didn’t like more than Raging Bull, but has a higher score because I was softer back then), but I don’t think that precludes me from enjoying a film set in that world. Anyhow, I wouldn’t say Scorsese’s biopic pitches the sport as an aspirational one full of honour and wonder or something. And indeed, the boxing scenes were some of the bits I liked the most — they’re very well done; immensely effective. Unfortunately, they make up barely ten minutes of the running time, and it was the rest I didn’t care for.

Robert De Niro stars as wannabe-a-contender boxer Jake LaMotta, as he grows in stature — both his reputation and physically — and also grows ridiculously paranoid, which is probably the kind of thing that happens when you spend years being repeatedly punched in the head. This arc seems to unfold through interminable scenes of people mumbling semi-unintelligibly at each other, realised with a style of camerawork, editing, and acting that seems to be aiming for documentary-like realism, which has both pros (realism) and cons (s’boring).

The aforementioned fights, on the other hand, are full-on Cinema, and glorious for it. The make-up is also very good. Relatedly, De Niro’s physical transformation, from lithe boxer to washed-up fatso, is remarkable. Decades before the likes of Christian Bale and his Machinist/Batman Begins flip-flop, De Niro gained a then-record-setting 60lbs.

Mixed technical success aside, I was never sure what the film was really meant to be about. Things turn up and go nowhere — like, what happened with that 14-year-old girl in his club? One second he’s been arrested, then it’s a couple of years later and he’s slumming it as a stand-up in New York; then, just as fast, he’s doing some kind of literature recital to a packed house. I mean, what? I would say that this is a film only of interest to people who are already fans of LaMotta and want to see some of his life on screen, but clearly that’s not the case. That’s certainly how it felt to me, though; and it’s what I would believe too, were it not for 35 years of widespread appreciation that demonstrates I’d be wrong.

Based on where we find him at the end, I guess LaMotta would appreciate a Shakespeare quotation. For all the film’s “greatest of all time” acclaimedness, this is the one that came to my mind:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

You can’t win ’em all, right?

3 out of 5

Raging Bull was meant to be viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, but I missed it. I’ve righted that as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

Machete (2010)

2014 #114
Robert Rodriguez & Ethan Maniquis | 100 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 18 / R

MacheteMulti-hyphenate Robert Rodriguez takes his Grindhouse fake trailer and expands it into an all-star “Mexploitation” actioner, with mixed results.

When it’s on its game, Machete is the best kind of spoof: innovative, comical, and as thrilling as the cream of the genre it’s targeting. Moments that achieve this are liberally scattered throughout, and to cite them would be to spoil them.

Unfortunately it’s far too long, with an overabundance of characters and conflicts dragging things out. A serious prune could have made this sharp, quick and fun, rather than a mix of highly enjoyable sections with dull longueurs.

The cast at least seem to be having fun, and are certainly in on the joke. Jessica Alba was nominated for a Razzie, which shows someone completely missed the point — she’s actually pretty good here. The number of “goofs” listed on IMDb suggest plenty of other people didn’t get it either, mind. I suppose any kind of comedy is an acquired taste.

Part of that joke is to be OTT, but sometimes the film goes too far, trying to be crazily fun but instead ending up overcooked. It’s also clear that bits from the fake trailer have been joylessly shoehorned in. It seems fitting for the genre to shoehorn in “cool stuff” that doesn’t make much narrative sense, but occasionally Rodriguez seems to be jumping through hoops Let's hope it's not a gun fightto fleetingly include something that ‘needs’ to be there purely because it was in that trailer.

Machete has enough entertaining moments to ensure enjoyment for many; as to how much the thumb-twidding filler mars the experience, your mileage may vary. For me, it stood in the way a bit too much.

2 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Goodfellas (1990)

2007 #123
Martin Scorsese | 139 mins | DVD | 18 / R

GoodfellasThese days perhaps even more praised than Taxi Driver, Goodfellas tells the true story of Henry Hill’s 25-year career as a gangster.

It’s certainly a notable achievement on virtually every level, which are too numerous to list here. The use of popular music struck me especially though, creating a sense of time (and never too obviously) while also complementing the visuals in its own right.

In the lead role, Ray Liotta seems to have been underrated, lost behind the top billing of De Niro and the award-winning craziness of Joe Pesci. He carries the film, with a performance that isn’t showy but is perfectly pitched.

I didn’t fall in love with the film as so many seem to have, but I also don’t think there’s really any denying its worthiness for full marks.

5 out of 5

A new, restored Blu-ray of Goodfellas is released in the UK today, 25th May 2015.

Taxi Driver (1976)

2007 #122
Martin Scorsese | 109 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Taxi DriverMuch praised, discussed and quoted, Taxi Driver needs little introduction. The weight of expectation also makes it hard to judge when first viewed.

Personally, I didn’t buy Travis’ slide into psychosis, which is unfortunate as it’s the core of the film and why it’s meant to be so great. In fact, I found Robert Pupkin’s broadly similar, self delusion-based character arc in The King of Comedy more believable. The ending was also dubious, although one theory does make it work better, so it perhaps depends on what you choose to believe.

Further viewings may help the film work better for me — as my rating shows, I still liked the film as a whole, but I wasn’t as impressed as I’d been led to believe I would be.

4 out of 5

2007 | Weeks 46-48

Welcome to the second most film-packed entry ever! Why has this come to be so?

I’ve had a little bit of a theme season (one might say) these past few weeks, so I’ve been waiting for those films to appear in a single entry; plus there are other films watched in between, making the list even longer.

So, what was the theme? Well, being the dedicated student that I am, I’ve watched all the suggested viewing for a seminar in which my group had to pose the questions. The seminar was on “Urban Rhythms”… but in film-viewing terms that translates to four Scorseses, four Woody Allens, and an anthology featuring shorts by both of them and Francis Ford Coppola (plus a fifth Scorsese that wasn’t on the list but was on TV). Such respectable viewing!

Throw in another four films and this is the most film-packed entry since the seven-week, fifteen-film behemoth that was the first entry! And it makes it to only one film less in under half the time. Well blimey. Best get on with it then…


#113 On the Town

#114 Bringing Out the Dead

#115 Annie Hall

#116 Wild at Heart

#117 New York Stories

#118 Play Time

#119 Manhattan

#120 Hellboy: Director’s Cut

#121 The King of Comedy

#122 Taxi Driver

#123 Goodfellas

#124 Manhattan Murder Mystery

#125 Bullets Over Broadway

#126 Mean Streets