The Deer Hunter (1978): AFI 100 Days 100 Movies #53

★★★★

 

#53 The Deer Hunter (1978)

Director-Michael Cimino

Running Time-183 Minutes

Rated-R

There are some movies that everyone loves.  There are also movies that make the audience feel better about the world. The Deer Hunter is neither one of these movies. Don’t get me wrong, some people do love The Deer Hunter, but it certainly isn’t a movie that everyone loves.

The Deer HunterThe Deer Hunter is the story of Russian American steel workers living in working class Pennsylvania. We have Mike (Robert De Niro) who is the hard-edged leader of the group, and his best friend Nick (Christopher Walken), who is kind-hearted and loving, especially to his long time girlfriend, Linda (Meryl Streep). Then there is Steven (John Savage), who as the movie opens is about to get married before he, Nick, and Mike head off to fight in Vietnam. Also in their group of friends is Stanley (John Cazale), who is the hot-tempered misfit trying to be more important in his own life, John (George Dzundza), who is also the local bartender, and Axel (Chuck Aspegren).

The first act of The Deer Hunter takes place in their hometown and starts on the day of Steven’s wedding, which is also a going away party for the three men who are leaving the following week. We get to see the personalities of all of the characters, as well as seeing how they all feel about each other. Mike is obviously the “top dog” of the group and doesn’t seem to care much for anyone except for Steven, Nick, and of course Nick’s girl, Linda.

After the wedding is over all of the men, except for Steven who is on his honeymoon, go deer hunter in the mountains. Mike once again shows his power and dominance over the others, especially Stanley.

The Deer HunterThe second act throws the audience directly into the middle of Vietnam. Mike is apparently alone, trying to fight off the enemy, and when relief comes its Nick and Steven that arrive. Almost instantly they are captured and in some kind of make-shift prison camp. The prisoners are being pulled out and then forced to play Russian roulette while the group of enemy soldiers places bets on who will lose. Steven is unable to hold up against the pressure and is placed in a jail cell that is almost entirely under water and has rats swimming in it with him. Nick and Mike are then forced to play against each other. Mike convinces them to put three bullets into the gun instead of just the one, and Mike and Nick use these circumstances to achieve their freedom. Once they get out they float down the river until they are spotted by American troops.

In the third act all three of the men are separated and we get to see the results of them serving in the war, as well as them being forced to play Russian roulette. Mike seems to be the least scarred by these events, but what he wants most is to have things back the way they were before they left.

The Deer HunterI realize that my third act synopsis is extremely vague, but the last thing I want to do is give away more plot details than necessary.

 

While watching The Deer Hunter I couldn’t help thinking about the amazing way that director Michael Cimino made this movie feel as if the viewers were watching a documentary. If all of the actors weren’t such high stars I would believe that they were actually steel workers in a small town. The entire movie has a raw feel to it that makes you feel as if you’re doing more than just watching The Deer Hunter; you’re living it. This entire movie was filmed on location, including the scenes in the small prison camp on the water. Real rats were used and there was one real bullet in the gun during the Russian roulette scenes. (They did check to make sure that the bullet wasn’t going to be fired.) The men were filmed in a real steel mill, in fact Chuck Aspegren who played Axel wasn’t an actor at all, but a foreman at a steel mill that DeNiro met early in pre-production, who became part of the movie.

There has been plenty of talk over the years as to the subject matter including the Russian roulette scenes in The Deer Hunter. Although America cinema was on the precipice of Vietnam movies, The Deer Hunter was the first to display the The Deer Huntergraphic violence that went along with wars. There was no sugar coating anything at all. The same year of its release Coming Home also came out, portraying the effects of Vietnam on those who came home, and it also was critically acclaimed. The next year saw Apocalypse Now come to the screen, and within a decade audiences had seen Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Born On The Fourth Of July. All of these movies have to give some credit to The Deer Hunter for preparing audiences for the darker, more dynamic side of war.

There is so much that can be said about The Deer Hunter that I don’t even have a fraction of the time that I need, but I want to single out the acting performances in this movie as being one of the greatest ensembles ever assembled. Robert De Niro gives one of the most inspiring performances of his illustrious career. He was instantly excited about the script, and was just the star needed to get a studio attached to this project. Once he was on board, things really began to start rolling. De Niro brought in Meryl Streep, who easily could have won an Academy Award for her performance, and once she was on board her partner John Cazale came right behind. Of all the brilliant actors in The Deer Hunter, Christopher Walken was the one to win a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar. His performance is emotional, touching, and frightening, all at the same time.

The Deer HunterJohn Cazale was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer but elected to do The Deer Hunter anyway. It was a final opportunity to make a movie with his partner Meryl Streep, and the cast and crew had to film all of Cazale’s scenes first. He plays his role perfectly (just as in all his movies) and unfortunately did not live long enough to see The Deer Hunter completed.

Many viewers even today feel that The Deer Hunter is hard to watch, as well as being inaccurate, since there is no evidence that war prisoners were ever forced to play Russian roulette. It is hard to watch this movie, but I have always felt that was the whole point. Are war movies ever supposed to be easy to watch? This one certainly has a dark feel that leaves you pessimistic, but that shouldn’t take away from what has been created here: a truly magnificent movie that leaves the audience thinking about it for weeks, months, and even years. I certainly will be.

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M*A*S*H (1970): AFI 100 Days 100 Movies #54

★★★

 

#54 M*A*S*H (1970)

Director-Robert Altman

Running Time-116 Minutes

Rated-R

MASH is the story of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. The story follows Capt. “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Capt. “Duke” Forrest as they arrive at the camp. Instantly we discover they are troublemakers who are always looking for some new mischief, but are also extremely talented surgeons. They spend their MASHfree time drinking and making jokes, especially at the expense of Major Burns (Robert Duvall) and Major “Hot Lips” Houlihan. They convince the Lt. Colonel that they need a thoracic surgeon and soon Capt. “Trapper John” MacIntyre (Elliot Gould) arrives and is a perfect fit with Hawkeye and Duke. These three men, along with a plethora of supporting characters, take the audience on a hilarious journey through the day-to-day lives of the camp members.

The reason MASH has made it onto the AFI list has very little to do with the movie itself, and more to do with the correlations between this movie and America’s feelings surrounding the Vietnam War. Being released in 1970, MASH gave American’s something related to the war that they were able to laugh about. Even if it was just making jokes about infidelity and alcohol.

The other significance MASH had was on the cinematic world. I have read that it was one of the first (if not the first) movies to use the expletive that starts with an “F”. (That’s right, I try to be as family friendly as possible.) It also was one of the first movies to show sex as a joke. And where would our cinematic world be today without millions of jokes about sex and nudity. Thank you MASH for every high school comedy that came out in the last 40 years.

MASHThis was one of Robert Altman’s first major directorial movies, and in many ways it is unlike anything else he did. Its pace moves much differently that a typical Altman movie. Somehow it also ends up being his funniest movie as well.

MASH was a huge success in 1970, not only at the box office, but also at the award shows. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and it also won the Palme d’Or at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival.

Any way you want to look at it, MASH was certainly a turning point in American movies. Good or bad.

 

North By Northwest (1959): AFI 100 Days 100 Movies #55

★★★★★

&

My Hall Of Fame

 

#55 North By Northwest  (1959)

Director-Alfred Hitchcock

Running Time-136 Minutes

Rated-Not Rated

The best thing about North By Northwest is the suspense of watching Cary Grant stand in the middle of a deserted road, waiting for something to happen, even though we all know what is actually going to happen. Alfred Hitchcock didn’t get the title, “Master Of Suspense” for no reason. Time and time again he has filmed scenes that under normal circumstances North By Northwestwouldn’t or shouldn’t be suspenseful, but because they have Hitchcock’s name on them they are automatically suspenseful.  North By Northwest is an entire action suspense movie with very little action at all.  Every time I finish watching this movie I am amazed to think back at the slow moving scenes that have been meticulously put together in order to build suspense slowly. It is the kind of movie that would have trouble surviving with today’s audience. There is action, but it is not the in-your-face kind of action. For me there really is no better kind in the world.

North By Northwest tells the story of Roger O Thornhill (Cary Grant) who very early on is “mistaken” for a government agent named George Kaplan. A confused Thornhill is taken against his wishes to meet our villain, Philip Vandamm (James Mason). Once he discovers that they believe him to be a spy, Thornhill spends the rest of the movie trying to figure North By Northwestout what is really going on, and how can he stop Vandamm. Just to complicate matters, he meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who Thornhill does his best to seduce, before he (and the audience) realizes that it is she that is seducing him. All of this culminates with everyone reaching the top of Mount Rushmore for the most impractical (and brilliant) chase scene ever.

 

One of the greatest tings about North By Northwest is its sense of humor. In fact it feels as if Cary Grant doesn’t have to act throughout the movie. He just gets to be himself. Originally they were going to use Jimmy Stewart, but as they got closer to filming, it was obvious that the role of Roger Thornhill was North By Northwestperfect for Grant. He had many great roles in his career, but this one allowed him to relax a little and show the audience his “natural” talent.

When Grant starts bidding at the auction in order to draw attention to himself, he has the most genuinely sincere face that I have ever seen him have in any movie. He is brilliant, because he was himself.

It is hard to believe that this is the first time Alfred Hitchcock has appeared on the AFI list. Of course of the next 55 movies, four of them belong to Hitchcock.  I don’t think that anyone can argue the greatness that is Hitchcock, but somehow I expected more than four of the movies from his illustrious career to make the AFI list. It is important to remember that these are only his “American” movies, so some of his early movies like A Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps North By Northwestwere not eligible. But my general wondering has made me think about other Hitchcock movies that I thought would make it onto the list. As I have watched 45 of the movies I am surprised that the voters ranked some of these above other Hitchcock “masterpieces” that didn’t make the list, such as Notorious or Rebecca. Anyway you want to look at it, I was extremely excited (as were my children) to be able to sit down tonight and watch North By Northwest. It has always been one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, and obviously I am thrilled that others agree.

On the first AFI list North By Northwest was number 40, but I’m not too worried. Both Rear Window and North By Northwest dropped on the AFI list, but Psycho and Vertigo went up significantly.

The Lady Eve (1941)

★★★★★

&

My Hall Of Fame

 

The Lady Eve is a romantic comedy about Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) who is the heir to the Pike Ale fortune. He is crossing the Pacific on a boat when he meets the gorgeous Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck). She is a con artist

The Lady Evetraveling with her father (Charles Coburn), and they are out looking for a sucker. They have certainly found him in Pike. She flirts innocently at first but the moment she gets him lying down, he gives in without her even trying. The only problem is that she falls for him almost as fast as he fell for her.

This is an incredibly fun movie to watch, and I assume it was just as much fun to make. Stanwyck is incredibly funny and just as dangerously seductive as any of her more typical femme fatale roles. It is nice to see her get to use her sexuality to be manipulative without anyone having to die.

If you have a brilliant woman, you need a brilliant man, even if he is playing the sap. Henry Fonda gives what could be his funniest role as the goofy lost soul wandering around looking for something, but never knowing what it is. (By the way, it’s Barbara Stanwyck.)

The Lady EveIf it isn’t enough to have these two fantastic actors together, the viewers are also blessed to see Charles Coburn in the role of the happy-go-lucky father waiting to see how badly things go when love comes into play. He is hilarious throughout the movie, and no one else could have done any better.

Once you have all these pieces together, you only need one more thing in order to make a great movie: Preston Sturges. As long as you have him molding the script into a work of art, you’ll be fine. He knows exactly how to get laughs throughout the movie, and even into the next day when you think back on it. This is a great movie, that no one should deprive themselves of seeing.

Jaws (1975): AFI 100 Days 100 Movies #56

★★★★★

 

#56 Jaws (1976)

Director-Steven Spielberg

Running Time-124 Minutes

Rated- PG

Jaws“Show me the way to go home

I’m tired, and I want to go to bed

Well, I had a little drink about an hour ago

And it’s gone straight to my head”

Sorry, I’ve had that song stuck in my head since I finished watching Jaws, and a thought I should share it with you. Jaws is one of those few movies that doesn’t need any introduction. Everybody knows about this movie, and everyone knows to hide when you hear John Williams’s brilliant score. Even my two-year-old knows to run and hide when I start singing the Jaws theme, because that means Dad is coming to get you.

JawsEveryone thinks of Jaws as being an entertaining movie, but it is important to remember what a well made movie it is as well. It was deservingly nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as earning three other nominations. Jaws is the movie that brought the name of Steven Spielberg into everyone’s home. With the exception of Schindler’s List, Jaws is certainly his best movie to date. Which says quite a lot for a man who has had nine of his movies nominated for Best Picture.

The script itself for is amazingly suspenseful, and yet has a dark sense of humor about it. Robert Shaw (Quint) gives an absolutely hysterical portrayal of the “Captain Ahab” character that is astounding to watch. It is a brilliant performance that still deserves more credit than it is given. Roy Scheider (Brody) and Richard Dreyfuss (Hooper) were both phenomenal in their roles as well, but honestly they were upstaged by Shaw, as well as the star of the movie, Bruce, the shark.

JawsWhen it comes to watching Jaws for the AFI countdown, it is very easy to see why Jaws has solidified itself on this list. Besides the cinematic elements of this movie, one must also consider the significance Jaws had on the world. And no, I am not talking about the empty beaches up and down the East Coast in the summer of 1976.  I am referring to the “invention” of the summer blockbuster. Jaws was advertised greatly and it certainly paid off. It quickly became the highest grossing movie of all time, and set the trend for action packed movies right after kids get out of school for the summer. These days its hard to believe that advertising a movie wasn’t a big deal, especially when you consider how far in advance they start showing trailers these days. In addition to creating “blockbuster” status, Jaws also relied heavily on merchandise tie-ins. The amazing lists of toys and games that were produced for that summer are endless, and now almost every movie that comes out during the summer has followed in the footsteps (or fins I suppose) of Jaws.

JawsOn the first AFI list Jaws was number 48, so it did fall a little, but not enough to be considered more than a fluke. Jaws is one movie that will be remembered forever.

The 39 Steps (1935)

★★★★★

&

My Hall Of Fame

 

I am writing this post today in honor of The Criterion Collection’s release of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. Although The 39 Steps was released by Criterion before, this is the first time it has been available on Blu-ray. It was originally released in 1935, and in many ways it was the first “great” Hitchcock movie. I know that most Hitchcock movies are considered great, but this seems to be the one that started him down the road to becoming one of the most magnificent directors ever.

The 39 StepsThe 39 Steps is the story of Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), who one night meets Annabella (Lucie Mannheim) and takes her to his home in order to hide her from someone. Once there she reveals herself as a spy and explains that she must go to Scotland in the morning. They both retire for the night, but Richard is soon awakened by Annabella who has been stabbed and is dying. Richard flees his home and heads toward Scotland, but now he is wanted by the police for “allegedly” murdering Annabella.

Richard embarks upon an intense journey where he is chased by both villainous spies as well as the police. Everywhere he goes he finds that there is no one who believes his story. No matter how hard he tries, he always ends up alone. That is until he finds himself handcuffed to the lovely Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who also believes him to be guilty.

The 39 StepsThe best scenes of The 39 Steps come while Donat and Carroll are together. They end up still handcuffed together in a hotel, trying to share a bed but still be as proper as possible. They have an incredible chemistry together, and they truly light up the screen.

One of the best things about The 39 Steps is being able to watch it with my children. The five-year-old was admittedly quite lost, but my ten and eight-years-olds soaked up every moment of the movie. When you have seen a movie many times and then you watch it with someone who is seeing it for the first time, it gives you a fresh perspective on what you are seeing. I have seen The 39 Steps many times over the years, but there was something about watching it with my kids that gave me a fresh, excited feeling. Even though I knew where the movie was headed I found The 39 Stepsmyself much more energized by the story than the previous times I had watched.

My final thoughts are on how The 39 Steps has never looked any better than it does on this Criterion Blu-ray. I would never have guessed than this movie was almost 80 years old. They have done an unbelievable job restoring this print, and I am thrilled to know that this incredibly movie will live on.

Rocky (1976): AFI 100 Days 100 Movies #57

★★★★

 

#57 Rocky (1976)

Director-John G. Avildsen

Running Time-119 Minutes

Rated-PG

Everybody loves an underdog. Any time we get the opportunity to root for someone that is by definition inferior we will jump on it instantly. I suppose it comes from the desire in all of us to be better than the rest of the world thinks we are. RockyNobody likes to be told that they are worthless, and so any time we see an underdog we hope for success, against all odds. The whole idea of rooting for an underdog works extremely well in movies, especially sports movies. Rocky will always be the greatest example of a movie where the entire country embraced an underdog.

I’m not going to talk much about the plot of Rocky because I think just about everyone knows what it is about. As I started watching Rocky this time through I was looking at it from a different point of view. I was trying to be entertained (which I was) and I wasn’t looking for a great sporting movie (which it is). I was watching what is supposedly the 57th greatest American movie, and that opened my eyes to all kinds of new facets of this movie.

  1. This is barely a boxing movie. I don’t like boxing movies; in fact I don’t like boxing at all. I wasn’t raised in a house that allowed physical violence in any way, shape, or form, so for me the idea of two men beating each other in the head just seems ridiculous. It’s just not my sport. (Hence my lifelong obsession with baseball.) With that being said, there is very little boxing in Rocky. The movie opens with Rocky in a boxing match that lasts just a few minutes, and then of course at the end there is the climactic fight against Apollo Creed. Combined together this Rockyis less than 18 minutes of boxing footage. That means that Rocky has about an hour and forty minutes of pure drama. Well, drama mixed with scenes of Rocky training.
  2. No matter what you think about Sylvester Stallone now, with Rocky he made a brilliant movie. From what I have read, Stallone was completely out of money, so he locked himself in a room and wrote the screenplay for Rocky. Different studios offered large amounts of money for the script, but had no interest in using Stallone as the actor. When he didn’t give in, they eventually let him play the role. So basically he was the underdog just as much as Rocky. He ended up doing a great job in the role, and in convincing the audience that he is a boxer. The training scenes alone in this movie are intense to watch. He is in unbelievably good shape, and when he sprints up those stairs with “Gonna Fly Now” playing in the background it just makes the audience excited, and fills everyone with a sense of hope. Trust me, even if you don’t think it will get to you, it will.
  3. Talia Shire is a sensational actress. I don’t know why I never noticed how amazing Talia Shire is as an actress until today. I have seen her many times, but it was this particular viewing that made me see how talented she is. It is her role in Rocky that takes this movie from a boxing movie and turns it into a movie about the transformation of a man.
  4. RockyRocky didn’t need sequels. I am sure there are some people out there that think this is obvious, but by the time I saw Rocky for the first time, they already had four sequels, and I watched them all within about three days. At that time I thought they all went well together, but now I see how great the first Rocky is, and I think that the subsequent Rocky movies have only hurt the beauty of the original.
  5. Throw your preconceived thoughts out the window. Many people in the world today (including my wife) have never watched Rocky because they think they know what it is all about. Perhaps they have seen bits and pieces, or they caught part of one of the sequels at one point and they just assume that they know exactly what is going to happen. They have never really given Rocky a chance. This is a mistake.

Any way you feel about Rocky it certainly has remained popular since its first release. It did win the Best Picture Oscar in 1976, which says quite a lot considering three of the other four nominees that year (Taxi Driver, All The Presidents Men, Rockyand Network) are also on this AFI list. On the first AFI list Rocky was number 78, so even in a short ten-year span it moved up quite a lot.

My final thoughts today are actually more than thoughts. I am giving my humble apologies to Rocky and to Sylvester Stallone for years of me making jokes about this movie. It truly is one of the greatest American movies ever made, and when you get to the end and the music swells…and Rocky is calling for Adrian…and she starts running toward him yelling back at him…its just…well its beautiful. That’s right, I said it. Rocky is a great movie!