Movie Review: The Deer Hunter (1978)

The opening shot of screenwriter and director Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter frames an industrial center nestled into the hills of Western Pennsylvania with an underpass as light shifts against its black walls. It’s an eerie and strangely evocative image for a movie about the Vietnam War, a war which is memorialized in the nation’s capital with two slabs of granite forming long, angled and descending black walls.

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I had never seen The Deer Hunter, which won Oscar’s Best Picture for 1978. With that distinctive shot and gentle music by Stanley Myers over black-and-white opening credits, announcing that this was photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) with a story by the late Michael Cimino and three others, one of whom wrote the script, the scene is set.

Part of why the film made its mark is this unique focus on a certain place. I do not think The Deer Hunter is a great motion picture. But it depicts a company of characters that are men and women from the beleaguered American industrial middle class which, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, would never regain its status as the center of America’s culture. This is an untold story. And the epic downfall of the middle class is portrayed with grit.

But not with depth. The hot steel being poured and controlled by factory steelworkers dramatizes man molding metal for a higher purpose. This capitalist ideal comes full circle when The Deer Hunter later dramatizes at mid-point man reducing himself to the mercy of a piece of machinery for deadly risk without purpose, arguably the essence of the quagmire which was the American war in Vietnam. The Deer Hunter shows men being driven from the joyful exercise of forging the manmade to the abysmal duty of destroying human life for self-abnegation, not self-defense.

Yet even at their best, the excited and boisterous factory workers, who bound around in camaraderie with naked vitality, rarely seem more than aimless, mindless pawns. They cavort with equally mindless women before a wedding. They assemble in a cavernous church. The women are beaten by their men, who drink to excess in incessant displays of boorish profanity. The bride fusses in her wedding dress and veil with a crucifix on the wall. She never stops to think about the meaning.

Neither do the men, played here by a gaggle of young actors, including Robert De Niro (The Intern, New York, New York) and Christopher Walken (Hairspray) as best friends. Men recklessly go drag-racing between a classic car and a big rig, taunting a Green Beret and screaming and carousing while watching the Pittsburgh Steelers on TV. In the ethnic neighborhood in which they live, old women pull a wedding cake past a telephone booth and corner grocery market while bridesmaids (including one played by Meryl Streep before her role in Kramer Vs. Kramer) go gallivanting in the street.

These aren’t the best and brightest being dislodged from glorious lives and dispatched to a jungle. Their place of worship and ritual ceremony is meaningless. A banner proclaims that the young men being sent (by force of the draft) into an undeclared, unwinnable war are “serving God and country proudly.” But these young men and women are too drunk and disorderly to be proud, let alone have pride in themselves. The wedded couple drives off, tin cans and all, for a hillside jaunt of drunken driving.

They’re lushes and oafs, with De Niro’s leader running down the street in his underpants. They go deer hunting while drunk.

But their mindless lives are their own, and this is how The Deer Hunter leaves its tracks. Just as Cimino gets the audience ready for action in Vietnam’s swamps, rivers and rice paddies, with war movie cliches to match, the band quietly gathers for piano playing after their revelry. The men are dumbstruck. They bond in reflection of uncertainty to come.

Cut to the sound of a helicopter and explosions as they’re under siege somewhere in Vietnam. Some fight, some cower, some stay home. But all are changed, moved and torn. Scenes of gunplay on a river boat as Americans are held as prisoners of war by the Communists form the central theme of The Deer Hunter…that each soldier is hunted and haunted in war.

That this is unequivocal and that this is deeply, irreversibly painful and wicked comes as a matter of fact when one man returns. The deer hunting goes stale. The hills hold no hope. The emptiness of their lives can’t be ignored. The party’s over. The band of drunks are left to drink without the delusion that being alive doesn’t mean being aware of the dead or wounded.

Suicide, fatigue and the end of Saigon during its last days play out as the measure of a man brought by war to the brink comes around. A mindlessly sung version of “God Bless America” plays with neither vigor nor life and this, bookended by a drunken white wedding and a sober black funeral, captures the sad, vacant, elegiac essence of our emergent American nihilism which is the byproduct of the Vietnam War.

Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter might have filled the emptiness of these mid-American lives which might have elevated this tragic movie, a film which skillfully puts the anti-war movement offscreen. As it is, The Deer Hunter depicts a slice of empty lives, which informs and explains the deadly doubts and outcomes in chilling, frightening and grisly detail.

Book Review: Don’t Stop Believin’ by Olivia Newton-John

This longtime admirer and journalist of Olivia Newton-John (Grease, Sordid Lives, Xanadu, Two of a Kind, Summer Nights) read her new memoir, published this week, with intense interest.

The co-written memoir, Don’t Stop Believin’, which is both personal and light in substance and tone, contains many surprises, details and insights. The 70-year-old singer, whose career is marked by several movie performances, cultural milestones and an inspiring musical catalog and personal life, writes in the easy, natural and restrained but relaxed manner with which she performs. The woman knows her ability.

Olivia writes about every part of her life and career. Though the reader may be disappointed that she stresses people’s names at the expense of examining the songs, albums and songwriting for which she’s become a pop star, there’s also no chapter of her life untold. In this sense, Don’t Stop Believin’ is, like memoirs by Fred Astaire and Doris Day, a classic Hollywood memoir.

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In short, it offers quality, light reading from a rare, telling perspective. Don’t Stop Believin’ is loaded with clinical and treatment details about Olivia’s cancer (she’s recently been diagnosed again, as I wrote about here) which alone makes the book worth reading. Olivia spares no detail yet she never lets herself, her values or her privacy go.

Among ONJ’s disclosures: she was injured in a car crash on LA’s 101 freeway, experienced debilitating pain during her three-year residency in Las Vegas, has a tattoo, failed music and math and became self-educated, was propositioned by a movie star during her first visit to America at LA’s Universal City Hilton and faced Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman during a contract dispute which she ultimately won — in court — gaining ownership of her master recordings.

Olivia traverses everything from her first marriage and divorce to miscarriage, pregnancy and parenting and neither goes deep nor shallow on any one topic. I think the Don’t Stop Believin’ reader will find himself wanting more or less of any given topic. The result, however, satisfies.

Olivia’s lifelong general advocacy for animals and the environment gets particular attention. Introspection comes in glimpses and fragments, with only an occasional indulgence from the disciplined performer. Whether recalling someone’s early career observation, which Olivia took as criticism, that she’s “ambitious” or her late sister or mother, the singer sails through the remembrances.

I adored my father and think more about him now than ever before, especially when I hear classical music, which was always playing loudly in our house. I close my eyes and see my father busily conducting each note as he smiled and drank his evening sherry.”

Some tales may surprise those who don’t know that Olivia Newton-John’s part of an extremely brave, intelligent family that, among other achievements, includes those who were awarded a Nobel prize for physics, helped to decode Nazi messages and invented the first portable iron lung.

Other tidbits include that Olivia sought emancipation from her mother after her parents’ divorce, recorded her first album while the Beatles were recording an album in the same studio and admires Andy Williams, Bob Hope and Dean Martin — with whom she made her first American appearance on television — all of whom she performed with during her youth. You’ll learn about Olivia spending the day with Dustin Hoffman (Kramer Vs. Kramer) during an audition for Tootsie and partying while vacationing with Sammy Davis Jr., Totie Fields, Carol Burnett, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gormé and Helen Reddy.​​

In a memorable encounter, Olivia remembers seeing Gloria Swanson at a waterfront hotel during a film festival, recalling that:

I spooned sugar into my [tea]cup at the exact moment, in the South of France, the iconic film star … swooped up those stairs. There she stood in full makeup with a bright silk scarf around her hair and wearing a long, flowing robe with bangles on her wrist. She was absolutely gorgeous, and looking right at me . . . and the tray filled with treats. “Darling,” Ms. Swanson said as she approached. “Don’t eat sugar. It’s poison.” It’s amazing that she was aware of the health risks of sugar back then, and I should have listened to her. Now, it’s forty years later and I’m finally on a no-sugar diet. I’m a slower learner!

Imagine watching Elvis Presley cover your song live in concert at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1974 while sitting next to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice — and then meeting Doris Day backstage. Or suggesting that a new fellow Australian actor named Mel Gibson co-star in your movie Xanadu with Gene Kelly, who’d give you advice for living before rehearsing a dance with you and doing all of his own skating for the movie because he said he loved skating when he was a boy growing up in Pittsburgh. In Don’t Stop Believin’, Olivia puts the reader there.

As noted, Olivia’s admirers (and I am one of them) are likely to be disappointed with a lack of depth and detail. She calls almost everyone she mentions her friend, drawing few distinctions. There’s an abundance of material on her spiritual beliefs but nothing substantial about certain seminal albums such as Have You Never Been Mellow, Physical, Soul Kiss and The Rumour. The memoir lacks an index and discography. When she does write about her music, such as the Nashville-tinged Back with a Heart, the perfect “Right Here With You” or Grace and Gratitude, it’s with a chapter title or brief reference. There are exceptions, such as her thoughts on Grease and “I Honestly Love You”. Olivia proves to be a good observer and storyteller though there is more material about her travels and various plants, animals and exotic voyages — with snakes, rhinos and Magic the Chinese kitten — than about herself and those she values.

Few are as strong — a word Olivia says she likes — as Olivia Newton-John, which I think astute readers, admirers and cultural observers will come to realize, know and appreciate. Olivia captures the wider scope of her life.

“Time is a wonderful healer,” she notes on the topic of losing her sister Rona to brain cancer, “but grief is like an ocean. I found it comes in waves and there are times when you are lost at sea. …” The woman who recorded Liv On, a trio album on grief recovery, also recalls what a friend who lost a child once told her: “grief is just proof that you loved.”

So, read Don’t Stop Believin’ to discover why Olivia declines to use the word remission — why she admires the late motivational author Louise Hay — and why she enjoys vodka in good measure. Reading this memoir helps one to know that Olivia wants everyone interested in her blend of innocence, sweetness, lightness, strength and harmony to know that she honestly loves (especially her husband) and is loved and that you should strive to find the comfort from inside, too.

And ONJ’s sense of play — including having a whipped cream fight with composer Paul Williams in a private jet — comes through. As she describes her first encounter with the late Joan Rivers when the comedienne came to help during a grueling charity walk along the Great Wall of China:

You’ve got your heels on, Joan!” I said in an amazed voice. I’ll never forget her words to me. Joan said, “Olivia, when you invited me, I thought you said the Great Mall of China!” She followed this by walking up a few stairs, turning around and asking, “Where’s the ladies’ room?” Later she told Martha Stewart on her show, “There was so much wind on the wall, I could have skipped my last two face lifts.” She also remarked, “The wall was built and rebuilt over the centuries. It’s had more work done on it than I’ve had on my face.” God love her.”

For sharing some of what is personal and for 50 years of good humor, grace and performing arts, may God bless the thriving and triumphant Olivia Newton-John.

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Movie Review: Gloria Bell

I haven’t seen director Sebastián Lelio’s 2013 Chilean original, Gloria. But Gloria Bell, Lelio’s 2018 remake of his own movie, is strange and interesting on its own.

Gloria Bell is not a typical Hollywood movie. Screened at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas with a director Q & A afterwards, I didn’t know what to expect other than what I had seen in the lively trailer and what the poster implies.

Gloria Bell is less jubilant than its advertising. With dark, strange and wordless scenes and interludes, the movie’s mostly pictorial. A hairless cat that’s a thousand times more involving than the cat in this weekend’s hit movie, the lifeless Captain Marvel, wanders in and out of the leading character’s life.

What Gloria says to the cat doesn’t amount to much as it’s more about what the cat represents. This is what Lelio (Disobedience), directing his own movie over again for leading actress Julianne Moore (Catching Fire), carefully threads throughout the remake. The result is uniquely unusual, comical and quietly satisfying.

Popping prescription drugs the audience never learns more about, smoking tobacco and marijuana and drinking every type of alcoholic beverage in almost every life context you can imagine, fiftyish Gloria’s more than a little exhausting. She clearly lives in her own world, ugly cat intrusions and all, while making ends meet in Southern California and going dancing at a disco frequented by people her age and up.

But don’t make the mistake I did if you choose to see this strange, contained little picture and think that Gloria Bell centers upon Gloria at the disco. It doesn’t and I almost wished it did. Instead, it’s about what draws her there.

Or, rather, Gloria Bell‘s about what she draws from within herself. This is not an easily accomplished task for the insurance claims agent nor is it an easily examined aspect. But what makes the movie sing to the extent it does (and this is neither like an opera nor an operetta) is its honesty about self-discovery through music.

Of course, this may explain why Gloria Bell comes off as cold and complicated, which mirrors the mysteries of music. From her solo sing-along to Olivia Newton-John’s hit single “A Little More Love” to tunes by Paul McCartney, Earth Wind & Fire and Air Supply’s pleading “All Out of Love”, the alternately self-caring, self-absorbed mother, ex-wife and daughter invests herself in favorite songs. Isn’t this true for anyone seeking a few minutes of romanticism or at least a dash of romantic love in sometimes lonely lives?

Gloria is far from sympathetic. Like most people, she can be painful to be around and she tries too hard. This is what sometimes makes Gloria Bell harder to watch, as it cuts close and doesn’t strive to make the audience laugh out loud, though that’s exactly what happens. She’s a bit of a lush, though she maintains control. She seeks too often to get stoned. She badgers and lays unearned guilt trips on her kids, driving one of them far, far away. Her family scenes are agonizing, dreary and pathetic.

When a man (John Turturro) she meets at the disco discloses that he’s had surgery to get thinner, she laughs at him. She’s so self-absorbed that she hijacks her son’s birthday party, humiliates her daughter and neglects her new main man. Honestly, it’s little wonder she ends up being terribly lonely in Las Vegas, even as Turturro’s ex-Marine entrepreneur wins her over and keeps at it.

But this small film about one lonely human’s discreetly epic quest to be alive, with pills, eye drops and, centrally, a self-made playlist through which she nourishes her sense of life, sneaks inside like that darn cat. It isn’t grand. It isn’t romantic and this is not likely to be your favorite movie this year. But, like Wild, Demolition and other strange slice of life pictures intended to make you think twice and ultimately go for broke, Gloria Bell makes you listen and look while it makes you think and feel.

In a scene toward the end, with a single, pregnant pause on the dance floor, Moore as Bell captures that moment when the consequences of life’s choices catch up — and the next moment when you choose not to let what matters go.

The ArcLight’s interview with director Sebastián Lelio was as lame as ever — USA Today‘s Claudia Puig seems like a nice person but she’s an inadequate and obsequious interviewer — but Lelio was able to express his thoughts on the film. He rightly describes Gloria Bell as a “mundane slice of life” while also sharing that he sought to differentiate each performance so that the audience feels like they’re watching people, not characters.

Mission accomplished as Michael Cera, Holland Taylor and others as Gloria Bell’s family are pitch perfect and so is the outstanding actor John Turturro who creates empathy, chemistry with Moore’s character and shock. Also look for Brad Garrett, Rita Wilson, Sean Astin in a cameo and Jeanne Tripplehorn. Lelio, who surprisingly made an excellent defense of casting regardless of pressure groups, strikes me as too tidy in his directing. But he shows real cinematic potential.

When I asked why he switched from the original movie’s setting, Santiago, Chile, to Southern California, he explained that it was Julianne Moore’s idea (she reportedly asked for the remake). Citing LA’s sense of isolation and a certain sensibility, Lelio said he agreed with Moore, who does some of her best acting.

Movie Review: Captain Marvel (2019)

After the nonsensical to middling Avengers movies, and last winter’s mediocre Black Panther, I must admit that I didn’t expect much from Marvel Studios’ newest movie, Captain Marvel, for Hollywood’s only mega-studio. With mixed themes and flat characters, it’s Marvel’s worst movie yet. But, even on Hollywood’s new feminist Me, Too terms, this putters.

Brie Larson (Kong: Skull Island), an affable actress, like everyone in this movie, including series mainstay Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law (Closer) and Annette Bening (American Beauty), deserves better screenwriting and directing.

Larson is not what’s wrong with Captain Marvel. But she’s so stiff, dull and distant, the opposite of Marvel’s male comic book heroes, that you keep waiting for an alien to pop out of her to explain her lifelessness. And, oddly, a good chunk of Captain Marvel derives from alien abduction/torture conspiracies or fantasies.

With supernatural powers in a faraway galaxy with flying cars and some sort of Middle East type conflict that goes unexplained, Larson’s blank character aimlessly wanders wondering about her true identity. Though her mentor, played by Law, assures her that he seeks through her superior’s “supreme intelligence” to guide her toward her own “best version”, something’s off about the altruism. Somber music and platitudes forewarn.

But what exactly is the mystery and why doesn’t she remember her past? I stopped caring after a while. Any but the most diehard Marvel fans and Disney investors will, too. A race of shape-shifting aliens resembling a cross between Lucasfilm’s Darth Maul and Mandy Patinkin’s character from Alien Nation that figure into the plot are more interesting than Larson’s plain, ordinary woman.

In terms of plot, my primary objection is that the protagonist fails in almost every task at almost every turn. She’s either incompetent or incapable or both. But the lack of heroism, let alone superheroism, stands out. This fact is on prominent display when an earthling pal (Lashana Lynch) shows up and Captain Marvel, which measurably lacks anything remotely marvelous, turns into a female version of Top Gun complete with cocky pilots, rock music and a mascot named Goose. The gals strut and mutter about how they’re going to “show these boys how we do it”.

The audience is primed to react to the movie’s feminism via the soundtrack cues which include a nonstop string of female rock anthems from the Wilson sisters’ Heart, Gwen Stefani and Lita Ford. With fetishism, a Ford Mustang cameo and the multiculturalism of TV’s Deep Space Nine with the snooze-inducement factor to match, Larson’s confused woman traipses around with Cybill Shepherd’s style minus the sex appeal.

All of this might be tolerable or defensible as escapist fare if the protagonist accomplished anything but she rarely does. When she could use a hostage early in the action, she runs away instead, abandoning her shot at using the leader of the antagonists as leverage to make a clean getaway. By the time Captain Marvel arrives on earth circa 1995, complete with visual reference to the Smashing Pumpkins (minus, of course, their male vocals), you hope against the odds that, as one character puts it, “it all makes sense”.

Captain Marvel doesn’t come close to pulling it together. Each plot point is predictable. Every crash, dogfight and effect looks like it’s taken from a video game. Screenwriting is stale. Characters are boring. Women either dress like Madea and stomp about in perpetual, causeless anger or they pose, turn and pose again and wear outfits that men mock. In its forced feminism, Captain Marvel tries too hard and goes too far in counting on a sisterhood it never earns.

For example, a child character named Monica at one point enthusiastically urges her sole guardian, her mother, to fly into space against an army of aliens knowing that her mother, who expresses that she’d rather stay, live and enjoy raising her child, may die. Not only is this a shocking scene that’s hard to swallow, it is played for emotion, as if the audience should want the child to urge her mother to choose near-certain death. That this happens after the child is kidnapped by an alien, held at gunpoint and forced to watch an alien attack on earth is disturbing.

Larson’s character destroys private property with abandon, never once offering to compensate anyone for her crimes. She muses about what it means to be human, it’s true, between her many unsuccessful attempts to display that women, too, can be as devoid of values as nihilistic or inscrutable men. That she does this in a t-shirt that makes reference to a nihilistic male rock band whose name refers to a male sex organ is at once too clever, stupid and appallingly condescending to the rational individual.

I “can’t unsee” Captain Marvel, to borrow a phrase from Jackson’s Nick Fury character played here as younger thanks to computer animation, though this, too, feels forced as no one really used that expression in the mid-Nineties. I’m pretty sure this includes secret agents of the government.

But I can say that I have seen Marvel’s newest politically correct mixture of carefully calculated plot points and call out its cynically lazy sexism.

At a crucial point, one female character asks another female character: “How’s my hair?” This line sums up Captain Marvel‘s value as art and entertainment. Add a not-so-subtle plug for the pro-Palestinian “BDS” movement against Israel that’s being spread on college campuses and you get the essence of a movie about a woman that neither deserves to be called a captain nor what one might rightly consider marvelous. In this tale, the woman is pretty and she’s pretty dim.

App Review: CBSN

For an excellent source of news through streaming, try CBSN, an application for CBS News for television streaming which is one of my favorite regular means of getting news. It’s free on Apple TV.

CBSN also features live streaming of CBS News. Other programming is also available, from CBS Evening News, Face the Nation and CBS Sunday Morning to 60 Minutes and Mobituaries.

Functionally, CBSN is both satisfying and accessible. For example, unlike other apps for major broadcasting news competition, such as ABC News, CNN, Fox News and NBC News, its content is both substantive in terms of content and fast to use without excessive advertising, promotions and noise, graphics and fast cuts. I’ve been informed, amazed and moved by multiple reports, stories and segments, including an excellent report on an American Prisoner of War’s widow and some sense of closure during last week’s failed summit in Hanoi, Vietnam between Communist Korea’s dictator and the American president.

Leftist bias creeps in, though in smaller measure than in other quality press sources, such as National Public Radio (NPR). Wide access to CBS News archives, with archival reports, footage and material from the late Walter Cronkite and other CBS News journalists, adds value to the source. Major Garrett’s reports and podcasting (The Takeout) from Washington, DC, are especially good. That’s where I learned that Face the Nation hostess Margaret Brennan’s favorite movie is the awful hamfest The Departed starring Jack Nicholson and for no good reason, really, and that her favorite book is The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, which she says made her never want to eat beef. This answer by Brennan says so much about her and helps me better judge her inquiry on Face the Nation.

But one of the best reasons I like CBSN is that it’s an intelligent news tool. Unlike the worst of these apps, such as the ABC News app, which moves too fast in bright color with lots of sound effects and seems designed for unthinking audiences, the CBS News app deals primarily in stories, in facts and, occasionally, because it is an app, in tidbits. The ads are not too distracting. The longer form features, such as 60 Minutes segments, are very well done. Generally, there’s a kind of respect for the viewer as a thinker; a benefit of the doubt that you’re a person who’s capable of exercising independence when consuming the news. Strikingly, this means CBS News is more balanced and less biased in its approach than other sources.

I watch, read and listen to other news sources. But I find that, increasingly, bias and an agenda to push me toward a certain viewpoint creeps in, whether I’m watching Fox News, listening to NPR or reading the Los Angeles Times. Or, worse, there’s a general aversion to any coherence or reporting at all in the name of neutrality, which results in a sort of burp of sensory-level material that makes no sense, like a meme or a looping video clip. CBSN isn’t perfect, but it helps me accomplish the crucial task of keeping myself informed.