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.

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Apocalypse Now Redux (1979/2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #3

Francis Ford Coppola presents an all new version of his groundbreaking masterpiece.

Original Title: Apocalypse Now (obviously)

Country: USA
Language: English, French & Vietnamese
Runtime: 202 minutes (theatrical/DVD) | 196 minutes (Blu-ray)*
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

* This appears to be due to the Blu-ray removing the end credits, but the number of disc reviewers who haven’t even noticed the discrepancy is remarkable.

Original Release: 15th August 1979 (USA)
UK Release: 19th December 1979
Redux Release: 11th May 2001 (Cannes) | 23rd November 2001 (UK)
First Seen: DVD, c.2002

Stars
Martin Sheen (Badlands, The Departed)
Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Godfather)
Robert Duvall (THX 1138, The Godfather)
Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, Speed)

Director
Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, The Conversation)

Screenwriters
Francis Ford Coppola (Patton, The Godfather Part II)
John Milius (Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn)

Based on
Heart of Darkness (loosely), a novella by Joseph Conrad.

The Story
In the middle of the Vietnam war, burnt out soldier Captain Willard is given a top-secret mission: locate US Army Colonel Kurtz, who’s gone renegade and is leading his own personal army in unauthorised attacks, and terminate his command. Travelling up the river on a Navy patrol boat, its crew unaware of Willard’s goal, they see snapshots of the war and the elements of human nature it exposes — the very horrors that drove Kurtz insane…

Our Hero
Martin Sheen is Captain Benjamin Willard — not exactly a hero, but certainly the narrator. Already mentally wracked by his experiences in Vietnam, he may not be the best person to send after another officer similarly mentally afflicted…

Our Villain
Marlon Brando — top billed, only on screen for minutes, and a nightmare to work with… but another performance for the ages as the rambling, insane, but insightful, Colonel Kurtz.

Best Supporting Character
A Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and an Oscar nomination rewarded Robert Duvall for his turn as the commander of a helicopter unit, Lt. Col. Kilgore. More than that, though, was true immortality in the form of the movie’s most famous quote: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Memorable Quote
Colonel Lucas: “When you find the Colonel, infiltrate his team by whatever means available and terminate the Colonel’s command.”
Willard: “Terminate the Colonel?”
General Corman: “He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct. And he is still in the field commanding troops.”
Civilian: “Terminate, with extreme prejudice.”

Memorable Scene
The sound of unseen helicopters circle. The Doors playing. A pretty forest… which explodes into flame, under the barrage of a napalm attack. One of the most iconic opening scenes.

Technical Wizardry
Apocalypse Now was one of the films that pioneered the creation of surround sound, now the industry standard. Nowhere is it better exemplified than in that opening scene, with the helicopters circling the room.

Making of
“My movie is not about Vietnam, my movie is Vietnam.” Apocalypse Now was a notoriously troubled shoot, for all kinds of reasons, from an uncooperative Brando, to Martin Sheen’s heart attack, to the cast and crew’s copious drug use… Originally scheduled to shoot for six weeks, it ended up filming for 16 months, and took nearly three years to edit.

Awards
The original version won 2 Oscars and 2 BAFTAs, and was nominated for 6 more Oscars and 7 more BAFTAs. In 2002, the Redux was nominated for 7 World Stunt Awards.

What the Critics Said
“this might be the most audience-friendly art-house film ever made, and that’s where the sheer majesty of Coppola’s daredevil balancing act comes into true focus. Coppola’s art is stripped of pretension; what lies on screen may as well be Coppola’s — and probably several other peoples’ — heart, laid bare for all to see, somehow expressed through arguably the most populist of all mediums. It may be messy, but it’s also vivaciously alive.” — Rob Humanick, Slant

Score: 93%

What the Public Say
“The most critically acclaimed movie of 2001 was made 22 years ago… The new material isn’t entirely necessary, and some may find it excessive… But Redux’s virtues far outweigh its flaws. Apocalypse Now in any version remains one of the richest, most extravagant moviegoing experiences of my life.” — Jeffrey Overstreet, Looking Closer

Verdict

The first (and, indeed, last) time I watched Apocalypse Now was shortly after the Redux version had been released, when Francis Ford Coppola was busy proclaiming it was the only version that would be made available ever again. That didn’t last, of course. Adding some 49 minutes of footage to the praised theatrical version, Redux divides viewers and critics on whether the extensions make a classic even better or just dilute it. If there’s a consensus, it’s that in either version this is a great movie. I’ve never got round to the original cut to compare for myself, so it’s the longer one that makes my list. My favourite quote about it comes from Danny Boyle: “It’s imperfect; which every film should be.”

#4 will be… the 13th.

Tropic Thunder: Director’s Cut (2008)

2015 #24
Ben Stiller | 116 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Germany / English & Mandarin | 15

Tropic Thunder: Director's CutA bunch of obstreperous actors are too much to handle for the director of a Vietnam war movie, so he dumps them in the jungle to shoot it with hidden cameras. Things go awry; hilarity ensues.

Conceived by co-writer/director Ben Stiller in the ’80s when all his actor friends were in war movies, “struggling” with training boot camps that made them feel like they were “really in the army”, the idea of skewering pretentious actors hasn’t dated in the intervening decades, though the specific targets may have been updated. De facto lead is Ben Stiller as a cheesy action star looking to go legit with a serious movie, but best is Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar-nominated turn as a Daniel Day-Lewis/Russell Crowe-type actor, who has an operation to dye his skin so he can play a black character. Less well-served among the leads is Jack Black, as the drug-addicted star of a series of ‘comedies’ based around fat suits and fart gags, who feels superfluous more often than not.

Following events from the safety of Hollywood are a pre-McConaissance* Matthew McConaughey as Stiller’s agent, and a Surprise Cameo™ as the film’s other best character, studio head Les Grossman (I imagine you’ve learnt who that is at some point in the last seven years, but in case not…) There’s an element of Hollywood-insider comedy to some parts of this, I suppose, but the characters are broad enough to generate laughs from a wider audience too.

Character buildingThe film may run a little long in the middle, though I don’t think that’s the fault of this extended cut. It adds just over 17 minutes across many little changes and extensions according to movie-censorship.com, but the most notable of these are character-building beats that struck me as fairly worthwhile. Nonetheless, it’s not so padded that it outstays its welcome, generating pretty consistent laughs.

While not all the gags or characters may land, there’s enough that works (mainly thanks to Downey Jr and Mr Surprise Cameo™) to render Tropic Thunder a jocular pillorying of The Movies.

4 out of 5

* I would like to apologise now for using that term. ^

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

2014 #88
Barry Levinson | 116 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Good Morning, VietnamInspired by the true story of a US Army DJ in Vietnam during the war, the resulting film is a showcase for star Robin Williams — reportedly, his antics aren’t even close to what really happened.

Doesn’t matter though, does it, because this is Williams at his best. His radio monologues show off his fast-paced improvisational riffing — as hilarious as always — while the more dramatic parts engage with the conflict and remind us of the serious flipside to Williams’ considerable skills.

Comedy-dramas are notorious for not being particularly comedic or particularly dramatic. This is funny and engrossing enough to subvert that.

5 out of 5

Good Morning, Vietnam is on Film4 tonight at 11:25pm.

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

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.