Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writer: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, and Masato Ide
Cinematographer: Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda, and Asakazu Nakai
by Jon Cvack
Having only seen this movie twice, I still feel ill-equipped to offer anything beyond superficial insights. The movie contains such a vast amount of depth and humanity, based upon director Akira Kurosawa’s lifetime of education and filmmaking that I’m certain to only graze the surface. Like most of history’s greatest films, this is another that failed to receive the accolades it deserved, having been completed past the Cannes deadline, instead premiering at the Tokyo International Film Festival, which Kurosawa failed to attend. As a result, Japan refused to enter the film as a nominee for Best Foreign Film Academy Awards, and while it was still recognized for directing, costume design (which it won), cinematography, and art direction, it would have likely brought home the statue for Japan.
Ignorant of Kurosawa’s history, I was stunned to learn that by the 1970s, he was considered old fashioned and struggling to get his films financed. Although between 1948 and 1965 he made over seventeen of his finest films. Yet between the periods of 1965 and 1993 he only made seven(!) pictures. Financing fell through for many, he was once attached to direct Tora! Tora! Tora! (‘70) and was quickly pulled from the project when his perfectionism bordered on “insanity”. Of course, one wonders how much better the film could’ve been if he remained at the helm. A year after he finally got his first film in six years completed, Dodesukaden ('70), which later flopped, Kurosawa attempted suicide by slitting his wrists, believing his career over and his best years long behind him.
Thus, Roger Ebert was famous for declaring that Ran was as much about Kurosawa’s life as it was an adaptation from "King Lear". In fact, while the two share many traits, the film’s are significantly different, with Ran focusing more on Hidetora’s comeuppance for a lifetime of warfare, murder, and greed, while Lear focused more on the king’s general foolishness. Nevertheless, the story of a maddened King and his jester, wandering around their former empire, is retained, with Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora offering one of the great performances of the decade.
The story begins with Hidetora having a dream that tells him he must divide up his kingdom to his three sons Taro (Akira Terao) , Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), with the eldest Taro receiving the prestigious first castle, and Taro and Saburo accepting the second and third. Hidetora believes that so long as they stick together they will remain strong. He hands around a single arrow which is easy to break, but when bundled together it’s impossible. Of course, Saburo puts the bundle against his shin, putting a bit more power behind the attempt, foreshadowing his alliance with warlord Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki), who’ll join forces to battle the other brothers. His spoiled son’s immediate dissent and dissatisfaction of Hidetora’s decision indicates where it’s going. In no way is there going to be a peaceful alliance between the three, not so long as the innate desire for power and prestige exists.
BELOW: A short clip of the castle attack, providing a decent glimpse into the film's beauty (now just imagine it on a big screen in 4k)
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Director: John Irvin
Writer: James Carabatsos
Cinematographer: Peter MacDonald
by Jon Cvack
John Irvin needs to make a war film about Iraq. After watching his highly underrated When Trumpets Fade I was thrilled to check out Hamburger Hill. When you see Best of Vietnam War lists you often get the classics - Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket. I’ve seen Hamburger Hill on a few lists, yet it never seemed nearly as revered. This isn’t to say that it’s equal to Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket, though it’s vastly superior to Platoon.
Similar to When Trumpets Fade, the story contains countless layers of military life, focusing primarily on the relationships between the soldiers, though extending to race relations and many of Vietnam’s futile missions. We follow three new recruits who are shipped to the front lines: Beletsky (Tim Quill), Langiulli (Anthony Barrile), and Washburn (Don Cheadle), Bienstock (Tommy Swerdlow), and Galvan (Michael A. Nickles), each with their own personalities, all determined to stay alive. They’re led by Squad Leader Adam Frantz (Dylan McDermott), who while watching them messing around, admonishes that while his duty is to try and keep them alive, they’re equally responsible for his life. It’s a frightening moment of reality. Frantz doesn’t want them to die because it’d require him to have to train a whole new crop of soldiers, while their negligence will increase the chance of his own death. During a brief explanation on how to properly brush their teeth, medic Abraham ‘Doc’ Johnson (Courtney B. Vance) who on takes the prescient look of a New York hipster, scolds one of the FNGs (‘Fucking New Guys’) as they fail to brush for as long as ordered. Johnson uses the moment as an example of how to end up dead - orders are carried out to keep soldiers alive, plain and simple, no matter if it’s brushing your teeth to avoid decay or during battle.
The Platoon is led by Sergeant Dennis Worcester, played by the excellent and lately absent Steven Weber of Wings fame who, no matter the role, is able to convey hilarious sarcasm. Weber and Frantz are close, hitting up the local brothel, getting drunk and trying their best to stay alive no matter the overwhelming odds. They seem to serve as the remaining soldiers from their own class of fresh recruits, most who have been KIA. Amidst the strict discipline is the camaraderie between men, which counter to Platoon, isn’t riddled with grandiloquent, officious commanders and subservient men, but rather with realistic relationships (which isn’t to say Platoon doesn’t have its moments - such as the first time Taylor smokes weed - so much as that many of the character feel more like exaggerations than real people).
Similar to When Trumpets Fade, the platoon is commanded to take Hill 937, which served little strategic significance and would later get abandoned once captured, much to great public and military criticism given the 72 killed and 372 wounded. John Irvin’s style was similar to what Spielberg would adopt with Saving Private Ryan, in having the men actually participate in boot camp in order to build authentic camaraderie, along with shooting in the Philippines which was undergoing its own war, causing some of the production to face sniper fire while en route to set. During the taking of the hill, Irvin set fire to countless tires in order to create a thick haze of black smoke, shooting in the rain and generating as much mud as possible to ensure the most authentic recreation possible, which was celebrated by many Hamburger Hill veterans
Once the Battle of Hill 937 began, the futility of war followed. We weren’t sure what the point of their mission was, other than to keep pushing up the hill, doing your best to keep yourself and the man next to you alive. Watching this film and knowing how the entire would eventually end makes you furious. To undergo such conditions, all for such little significance, costing as many lives as it did, seems to reflect the entire war. I don’t know much about military tactics, but I do know that having a high point advantage while an enemy approaches from below is one of the most favorable in battle. It makes sense - while you get fortify yourself, the enemy is forced to run up a hill, with no clue as to where the fire is exactly coming from.
While Platoon is very much an anti-war film, Hamburger Hills shows the hypocrisy of criticizing the soldiers who chose to honor their country’s demands. The men might not have wanted to go, or might have enlisted to at least ensure they had a choice over what they did, and yet the stateside criticism was horrendous. In one heart wrenching scene, Bienstock receives a "Dear John" letter from his girlfriend who met a new guy that told her it’s immoral for her to support him. In another emotional scene Sergeant Worcester recalls his recent leave home where he faced severe criticism from the community, leading to the collapse of his marriage. Later he received calls from a good friend, who was driven to an emotional breakdown when college students harassed him about his son who was killed in Battle of la Drang. Irvin's horrific portrayal of the conditions these soldiers were forced to live in makes the scene all the more bitter. As his friends are dying all around him, as he’s fighting for his own life, with limited food and supplies, wet socks, and nowhere to sleep, he’s told that all he’s doing is immoral. I can’t imagine what effect that must have had.
At least in World War II the soldiers were told they were heroes. In Vietnam, there was a very uneasy and tragic sentiment that, beyond one’s family, no one really cared or supported them. Irvin demonstrates that regardless of the politics of war, the soldier is not the one responsible. There is no reason to pass judgment on their actions. They are heroes because they are willing to do what their country orders them to do, and because they’re most concerned with keeping the man next to them alive. To think that privileged college kids would pass judgment makes me furious. I don’t think anyone wanted to be there, but there was no other option. As other films such as The Hurt Locker and American Sniper would explore, for many of the soldiers, it wasn’t about the mission, so much as lending their expertise and experience to save lives.
This film opened to the #5 slot at the box office, only taking in about $13.5 million. Compare this to Platoon, which opened at #1 and $138.5 million dollars. Platoon premiered on December 19, 1986, going wide on February 7, 1987, placing it in perfect Oscar Position (of which it’d take Best Picture, amongst others). Hamburger Hill rolled out in that dead movie month of August 28, 1987, a bit too early for awards fair, and I assume, similar to The Thin Red Line, was drowned out by Platoon’s success. I think it’s a much better film and one of the greatest Vietnam movies of all time.
BELOW: Steve Weber needs to make a comeback
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writers: Terry Gilliam & Michael Palin
Cinematographer: Peter Biziou
by David Duprey
It was the giant. That is the answer to what set off a long span of creativity within myself when I was young, the beast’s slow, looming, arrival and its imposing presence that utterly shifted the direction of my imagination. That and the Ogre. And the dangling cages. And, well, all of it, truly. Terry Gilliam’s endlessly fascinating, metaphorical fantasy adventure remains one of the most affecting movie experiences of what can best be described as my film addiction, and one that still keeps secrets waiting to be revealed.
The story centers on a boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock; in his only film appearance) who lives in the heart of England, awash in commercialism and vapid material wants. His parents, while not abusive, are neglectful as such, spending their time sitting on plastic-covered furniture watching banal TV programs that advertise futuristic kitchens and games shows that put people in absurd predicaments (with host Jim Broadbent). They are complacent members in the modern machine.
An avid reader of history, Kevin sits well away from the influence of the screen and goes to bed one night only to find a knight on a white horse bursting from his wardrobe, riding off into the woods that have suddenly appeared in his bedroom. The next night, it gets even more peculiar when a group of dwarves arrive carrying a large map, running from The Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson). The map is no ordinary map though, as it is reveals time portals throughout the universe and the dwarves, who work for and have recently been demoted by the Being, have stolen it to travel about time and get rich. The problem is, their actions have drawn the attention of Evil (David Warner), who sets his minions out to steal the map for himself and reset history in his own name.
Mixing basic creationist themes with science-fiction fantasy, Time Bandits is a clever balance between children’s story-telling with some decidedly adult inclinations. Through a series of historical and legend-inspired vignettes, we travel about time with the gang, taking part in well-known scenes of the past a full thirteen years before Forrest Gump did. Written by Gilliam and Michael Palin, who also appears with other Monty Python member John Cleese (a quick note is to mention how each member of the Monty Python troupe is said to be represented by one of the dwarves), the story is ostensibly about a boy and his dreams but touches on a number of philosophical directions, leading to an ending that is both ambiguous but with purpose. A kid’s movie by design, it appeals to them because of its vision, but grows with them as a tale rich with unanswered questions that beg for one to fill in the gaps.
From the opening moments in Kevin’s room, filled with clues as to his coming adventures, we are meant to consider the parallels between dreaming and reality, yet Gilliam and Palin aren’t just content with drawing a single line of which side to choose. As the stories within the film unwind, we see the boy's growth as well as sharp jabs at the world he lives in, with nearly every character and situation serving as commentary on his life at home.
In Gilliam’s uniquely blended vision of real and imagination, we witness scenes that are layered in frights and laughs, such as the introduction of Evil, played with menacing fun by Warner. As a child, Evil’s quick undoing of his minions, who constantly question his validity, are objectively gruesome and yet there is great humor to it as well, something that Gilliam masters throughout. The gritty, earthy feel to it all makes every frame feel authentic, even as it spirals into the fantastical.
For adults, the movie is a criticism of consumerism, with the gang in the film eventually deceived by Evil to pursue “The Most Fabulous Object in the World.” This leads the narrow-sighted thieves along a path of hurdles that could and should stop them, but in their thirst for something no one else has, manage to trek ever on, eventually finding themselves suspended in cages over oblivion; another terrific visual metaphor. What happens next, I’ll leave for you to discover.
With that said, it is a challenging ending, one that for children will seem funny and clever and perfectly free of questions, but for everyone else, opens a box of mystery that, for people like me, inspire great conversations about possibilities. Who is that Firefighter? What really happens to Kevin’s parents? What will become of Kevin? And many more.
And so it brings me back to the giant. At one point in the film, the dwarves and Kevin find themselves atop the bald head of a giant who has emerged from the ocean, themselves on a wooden sailing ship. Notice how Gilliam frames the towering figure (played by Ian Muir), which lends him great majesty while generating an amazing sense of height and presence. Even now, it is a stirring sequence that, in an age of incredible CGI, stands far above it. This is the greatest achievement of Time Bandits, a film that, much like its premise might allow, has become timeless. It’s time to watch it again.
BELOW: The Supreme Being explaining why Evil exists
Director: John Huston
Writer: Tony Huston; based upon "The Dead" by James Joyce
Cinematographer: Fred Murphy
by Jon Cvack
I checked out James Joyce’s story before visiting the film. My aunt had gifted me a version that included the story and then four essays focusing on historical and psychological analysis, deconstruction, and feminist theory. Learning that many consider "The Dead" one of the finest short stories written in the English language, and after finishing Ulysses and failing to understand more than a few pages out of the 750 and presently trying to wade through Finnegan's Wake (and having the most frustrating reading experience of my life), I was excited to check out something a bit more accessible. It’s a solid story, involving a dinner party between old friends, each with rich personality, ranging from alcoholism to artistic talent to supreme intelligence. It’s a snowy night and Joyce splices in pop culture, political, historical, and cultural references. For anyone that’s a critic of films that include direct modern cultural references, you needn’t point to the finger at Tarantino, but rather to Joyce, as the text is filled with so many references of the time that the footnotes take up a David Foster Wallace portion of the book.
The supplementary critical essays ranged from fascinating to academically absurd - the type of analysis that makes you wonder who reads it beyond those who would write equally dense pieces. We learn about the political and social environment in Ireland during the time, as it was struggling with complete severance from the UK, discussing a return to Native Gaelic in order to preserve its identity, as expressed by Molly Ivors. We learn that the snow must have represented the vast wasteland and hopelessness experienced by Joyce during the time, who might have placed part himself into main character Gabriel Conroy (played by Donal McCann in the film), looking out into the future of his country and remaining uncertain over its future. We learn that the women were treated as inferior, with Kate and Julia Morkan having little to say about culture and functioning as superficial hostesses rather than contributing substantially to the dialogue.
The book had mentioned John Huston’s adaptation, specifically it’s concluding montage as the snow is falling. It was Huston’s last film after a career that spanned 46 years, beginning with The Maltese Falcon (1941), going on to provide us The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), The African Queen (1951), The Night of the Iguana (1964), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), with many great films, concluding with The Dead, in which he died shortly after. The closing moment, as Gretta Conroy recounts the story of her past love in youth, who died from tuberculosis, shortly after he journeyed through the cold snow to visit Gretta one night, of which the memory was brought on by a song sung at the party, is something I found myself unable to forget and grew excited to see come to life. There’s an intimacy with the story, as we see how everyone is willing to let loose a bit, enjoy some drinks, good food, great discussion, and lifelong friendships all while a melancholy extends throughout the story. I assume John Huston knew that his life was coming to an end, and that this film would likely be his last; that he too would be staring out into the cold snow, not knowing what was next, only that the uncertainty was overwhelming and smothering to the mind.
The film made me recall those rare moments when all the friends you hope to gather at a party are finally able to arrive. It occurs only once across years, no matter how hard people try. There’s always the one straggler that you wish could have made it. In those rare moments you spend a few moments reflecting on past memories, and move on to discussing the present and future. You talk about jobs and prospects; films, shows, books, and new ones to come; you discover how some relationships have evolved, others have remained, and a few have ended. The night’s always end far too quickly, and there’s a melancholy at the end, as you wonder when, if ever, you’ll all assemble again, knowing that it’ll take years more, and who knows what might happen.
It’s captured so perfectly by the closing line by Joyce, as Gabriel stares out into the cold snow, “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Gabriel wonders if he ever loved Gretta as much as the boy she mentions, causing him to reassess his life and all he experienced. I think Huston, having such a monumental body of work, wondered if it was all worth it; if he got all he wanted out of life; if he too could have done better, or something more. He was one of the rare directors who transitioned to color film with grace, never allowing his style to age, as happened to many others from the classical period. He accomplished the rare feat of adapting one of the most revered stories in literature, and doing so with such compliment. The film's not better, it’s supplemental. He immersed us within an environment that Joyce brought to life. At only sixty pages, the story feels so real. Huston puts images to those words, and I’d bet the closing images would have made Joyce proud. You feel cold while reading the story and watching the film, wanting to sit next to a fire with some bourbon and those you love. For two giants to elicit such a reaction is incredible. I loved it.
BELOW: The beautiful finale, both for the film and for Huston. Rarely does such a revered moment from a book adapt so well to the screen
Director: Philip Kaufman
Writer: Jean-Claude Carrière and Philip Kaufman
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
by Jon Cvack
I had read Milas Kundera’s book about a month before checking out the film. I’d known about the novel for years. I was aware that it dealt with ideas that Nietzsche explored, and having read all of Nietzsche's work - with the exception of his posthumous "The Will to Power" - was thrilled at seeing them adapted into a narrative. I was hoping it’d read as well as other philosophical literature, per Camus, Dostoyevsky, or Sartre. Unfortunately, I was a bit bored, failing to understand what made the book so popular, or what exactly it was exploring. I was hoping the movie would close up the loose ends. Instead, I was left thinking the movie was far greater than the book, later learning that Kundera despised the movie so much that he refused another adaptation of any of his novels, leaving me really confused.
Visiting the Wikipedia page, I see that the book explores Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal state of recurrence, in which all that is to come has already come before.* This means a person should take full advantage of the life they’re living, and in the novel’s case, and Tomas in particular (Daniel Day Lewis), this means a life of sex and love that add lightness to life, which adversely impacts those he gets involved with, in this case two women, creating an unbearable struggle on their end. Get it?
Tomas is a doctor and womanizer, currently involved with the artist Tereza (Lena Olin) who’s as sexy as they come, in addition to numerous other woman he demands remove their clothe moments aftervmeeting them; that is, until he takes a meeting in the country and meets a barmaid, Sabina (Juliette Brioche), who’s reading "Anna Karenina", making her more intellectual and therefore more appealing. Tomas is unable to control himself, leading the three to enter into an epic love triangle, where no one provides any ultimatums, though constantly express their jealousy.
It was Lewis’s involvement in the film that really got me excited to check out the three hour story. Given the backdrop of the Soviet’s invasion of Hungary I was expecting an epic film per the likes of 1900 or Dr. Zhivago. Let me go out on a limb and assume that Tereza represents Hungary under Soviet control - sexy, powerful, confident, while Sabina is an independent Hungary - sensitive, precarious, sentimental. I just find this symbolism uninspired.
The film is good, beautifully shot by Sven Nykvist. Daniel Day’s performance is not amongst his most memorable, but it didn’t need to be. Once again I had no doubts that he was a Hungarian doctor during the Soviet expansion, as he embodied the man’s spirit, allowing us to watch his uncontrollable urges, both with women and in protest against the Soviets, portraying a genuine conflict between acquiescing to the regime and toward his love for Sabina.
Yet somehow the story never feels like it quite connects. We see Tomas eventually attempt to escape to the country with Sabina after he published a damning political editorial, causing him to lose his job at the hospital. We later learn that both he and Sabrina died in a random car accident, by which point Tereza had run off to the states where she learns of their deaths later on. The sporadic nature of Tomas and Sabina’s demise is tragic; I just don’t know what I was suppose to take from it. In the end, Tomas might have come around to vowing complete commitment to Sabina, who put up with his philandering far longer than any partner should’ve. It seems he only changed because of circumstance - no longer able to use his confidence as doctor to demand women remove their clothes. So did he really change, humbled by their rustication, or did he simply have few other options?
Even after reading numerous essays, I still don’t find anything all that deep about this story. It seems to take a superficial understandings of Nietzsche and politics and create the illusion of profundity. The movie is worth checking out for the performances, but for a book that had achieved cult status ever since I first heard about it in college, I was disappointed. I suppose I’ll just have to check out another from Kundera.
*Kundera doesn’t agree with the eternal state of recurrence.
BELOW: One of about a dozen [really good scenes] about jealousy
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Writer: ,Jean-Claude Carrière; collaborating with Andrzej Wajda, Agnieszka Holland, Bolesław Michałek, and Jacek Gąsiorowski
Cinematographer: Igor Luther
by Tory Maddox
I have a fairly superficial understanding of the French Revolution. I know there were tens of thousands of beheadings, the storming of Bastille, and Robespierre was the face of the cause. I had never heard of Danton and although I enjoyed the film it’s much advised that you check out the wikipedia page before watching (or better, take the free Coursera course), as I imagine it’ll create a much richer viewing. Allow me to summarize what I learned (mostly read from wikipedia).
Many historians consider Danton the chief proponent in overthrowing the monarchy and establishing the First French Republic. He has been accused of orchestrating the September Massacres, in which thousands of French prisoners were killed for fear that they’d join the monarchist forces in fighting against the revolution. He was Minister of Justice for the National Convention, which sought to reform the government. He supported the beheading Louis XVI, and eventually co-created a Revolutionary Tribunal that stripped the weapons from many in the masses in order to avoid any backlash for the September Massacres. The actual power of the government resided in the Committee of Public Safety, which had dictatorial powers that Danton supported and helped create, though he never held office at the CPS.
Opposite the Committee of Public Safety was the French National Convention that exerted further authority over the state, soon resulting in the Reign of Terror that would claim the lives of over 40,000 French Citizens. This led to the rise of political party The Montagnards, with Danton as their most vocal supporter. Danton hoped to move the Revolutionary cause back to a more moderate stance in order to appease possible foreign invaders. This put the French Convention at even heavier odds against the Committee of Public Safety (led by Robespierre), eventually pushing Danton into a corner as he had to defend his more moderate stance against the extremism of the CPS.
After various financial corruption and bribery accusations while Danton was attempting diplomacy with Sweden, he was arrested by the Committee with various other members. Because of Robespierre’s supreme dictatorial powers he was denied a fair trial, unable to even defend themselves in court, or to have witnesses testify on their behalf. Danton and the others were found guilty without even being present in court. They were sentenced to the guillotine and Danton was beheaded, his last words being “Don’t forget to show my head to the people. It’s well worth seeing.”
Coincidentally, as Danton attempted to warn, the government found Robespierre's pretensions disagreeable, and only three months later, he was also beheaded.
The film follows Danton (Gerard Depardieu) as he’s about to be imprisoned. For any fan of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, here’s a film for you. It’s gritty and real, with an ability to keep the narrative grounded rather than overly dramatic. Danton and his compatriots laugh and remain gregarious no matter the consequences of what they’re facing.
There’s an interesting exploration of ego and its operation within a revolutionary capacity. As the nation was fearing invasion and a complete failure of the cause, knowing that they were ushering in the modern era of democracy as their allies across the seas in American had done, you could feel both the electricity and the danger. The person who led the nation one day could just as easily have everything turned against him, beheaded the next. There are people lying in the streets, waking up, ready to do whatever the day brings, knowing they’re part of something special, similar to our own Founding Fathers. Except it’s the chaos and mass murdering that operates in the background that makes it so eerie.
BELOW: Robespierre's (Wojciech Pszoniak) powerful speech, denouncing his old friend Danton
Director: Jerome Boivin
Writer: Jerome Boivin and Jacques Audiard
Cinematographer: Yves Angelo
by Jon Cvack
Baxter is a very strange film and probably one of the best killer dog movies out there, involving a canine that might be inhabited by Hitler's spirit. We follow him as he goes through three different owners in a small town - an older, uptight lady; a newlywed couple, expecting their first child; and a young boy who’s developing a strange infatuation with Hitler’s last days, and has created his own version of the infamous bunker at an old trash dump in order to recreate the period over and over again.
Baxter resents and eventually kills his first owner, who finds him nettlesome at first, though eventually grows to appreciate the animal. And yet when she tries to give him in a bath and he goes sprinting up the forbidden stairs, which are filled with wood and other obstacles to prevent his entry, Baxter pushes her down, resenting the limitations.
He then ends up at the newlywed couple’s house, staying with them for an extended period, past when they have their child, which he then tries to drown in a fountain in their backyard. After the accident, they can no longer provide Baxter the attention he needs, and the dog moves to a young, deranged kid. Baxter has now met an owner he can appreciate. The boy trains Baxter to attack and kill. One day, a straggler enters the bunker area and falls into the training pit. Baxter is instructed to kill the young visitor, but refuses, saying it’s his own decision on who to kill. This enrages the boy, who after having Baxter impregnate a local girl’s other dog, kills the puppies and eventually Baxter as well.
Given all the abundant Nazi motifs throughout the movie and the French suburban setting, I had a hard time understanding what it all meant. There does seem to be an ongoing issue with authority that Baxter struggles, indicated by his rebellion beneath the old lady and couple's guardianship. The kid, who’s ostensibly on track toward Neo-Nazism, feels like the right fit for Baxter, until he instructs the animal to kill an innocent child. Yet why would this be a problem if he finds the boy so accommodating and respectable? It’s as though something has been left out. Perhaps Baxter appreciated the kids sociopathy and could relate, yet didn’t want the kid telling him what to do, demonstrating that no one wants to live beneath totalitarianism. Baxter was fine until he discovered that his pups were killed and that the boy was going to exploit him to do more of his dirty work. An alternative is that Baxter - as Hitler - was fine being served by his protectors, until that relationship was exploited or damaged (the Old Woman's limiting his ability to travel; the Couple's Child who steals their attention; the Young Boy demanding murder), in which case he flipped; that is, until another, more powerful Dictator entered the picture. I'm not all that confident I'm even close.
It’s a solid film, and eerie enough to be scary. There’s something that’s just a little too unfocused, as though there was suppose to be more included and it either hit the cutting room floor, or just never made it into the film; something another viewing might resolve.
BELOW: Indicating how obscure this film is, I can't find one other YouTube clip beyond this intro.
Director: Brian de Palma
Writer: Brian de Palma
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
by Jon Cvack
Taking inspiration from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up ('66) and its deconstruction of images, Brian de Palma introduces us to the craft of sound design, told within a highly progressive Hitchcockian structure .
Blow Out’s a movie that’s best watched without knowing a single thing about it. The opening scene alone is one of the best in cinematic history, precisely for how seamlessly it captures the essence of slasher films and teen scream sexuality and objectification. To think this movie preceded the onslaught of 80s slashers films, understanding the formula before the formula ever reached its zenith, is worth appreciation. The film opens up in the POV of a voyeur who’s looking at a cop who’s peeking through the windows of a sorority - contrary to horror convention, we are looking at the person who is looking rather than being the looker. We move to two women dancing with their breasts gratuitously revealed through their thin pajamas, another is masturbating on the floor, we find another girl who’s having sex with a man, and finally we enter the showers and the voyeur stabs a woman in pure Psycho style. We then cut out and see that we’ve been watching a Slasher Film the whole time; that it was all fictitious. The over-the-top sexuality and objectification was deliberate.
We’re now with a sound designer Jack Terry (John Travolta) who’s criticizing the woman’s scream as ineffective. This is just the MacGuffin of what will unravel into a multi-layered narrative. This small and seemingly insignificant scream will return again and again. And yet, beyond the scream, the Producer (Dennis Franz) hates the generic wind noise that he’s heard used ‘a thousand times.’ He wants the real deal and sends Jack out on location. Jack heads back to his studio to prep the materials. While doing so and the credits roll, we see that the Philadelphia Governor is running for President, facing a significant challenger on the other side. Jack then heads off to a nearby park to capture the sounds.
In a great Hitchcockian moment, we see Jack shifting his shotgun mic from the wind whistling in the trees, to a couple talking of their prurient desires, to a bullfrog down in the riverbed, and finally to a car that’s roaring down the road and then crashes off a bridge and into the river. He races down and into the water and rescues Sally (Nancy Allen) from the wreckage.
At the hospital, after Jack asks Sally out, not being aware of the situation’s enormity, he’s pressed by the Governor’s former Chief of Staff to keep things quiet. Turns out the girl was with the adulterous governor in the car. Jack is confused, but Travolta’s eyes say it all. He struggles, knowing it’s wrong. In a brilliant moment of internal struggle, it’s no wonder Tarantino tapped him years later for Pulp Fiction.
Later at the studio, Jack discovers a gunshot on his recording. With a photographer coincidentally being there to capture the accident on splash mode, Jack syncs up his sound with the photography. Brian de Palma walks us through the arduous process of yesteryear’s sound editing, and you can’t help but have an appreciation for the tedious craft that today’s world no longer forces upon its designers. Soon, he gets the sound synced up and sees the gunblast from the woods, which shot out the tire and crashed the car. It was an assassination.
A lot of filmmakers who take inspiration from Hitchcock often fall far too short. They end up feeling like second hand rip offs, in which sexual and violent elements are given priority over the cinematic. Blow Out pushes the bar. It takes all Hitchcock’s formulas and style and advances them in imaginative ways. Reviewer Sabbir Parvez Shohan says, "De Palma has sprung to the place that Robert Altman achieved with films such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville and that Francis Ford Coppola reached with the two Godfather films—that is, to the place where genre is transcended and what we're moved by is an artist's vision.... “ While clearly inspired by the thriller format, there is so much put into this film in terms of pastiche, theory, cinematic and American history, that you feel as though you could watch it all over again, paying attention to different details, and seeing the film in a completely different light.
Blow Out is a film about how movies are made, introducing us to the structure of sound design. And yet as we watch the climactic sequence, and all the other sound-heavy moments, we are paying more attention to the story than the elements that comprise them. Although we now understand the laborious process, we miraculously remain in the story, differentiating between ‘real’ and ‘fake’, when in fact, it’s all fake. De Palma’s method of film grammar meta-analysis has the rare quality of never drifting into distraction. I’m aware of it, but the film is so great that I can easily shift between considering how it operates and what it means, and appreciating the great story.
BELOW: Blow Out's steadicam operator Garret Brown on using his invention for the film
This screenshot's hardly doing it justice, but seeing a pop film (by the likes of Saturday Night Live, Grease, etc.) shot in anamorphic and shot well, particularly for the hoedown and bull riding sequences, was a very welcome change of pace. Unfortunately this is the best screen grab I could find, as most others were cropped to all hell.
Director: James Bridges
Writer: James Bridges, Aaron Latham; Story by Aaron Latham
Cinematographer: Reynaldo Villalobos
by Jon Cvack
Riding off the coattails of Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta decided to head south and limit the dancing to a few hoedowns and trade up for a bull ride machine. It’s an interesting, fish-out-of-water story, except instead of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles it’s Houston, Texas, taking place at the famous Gilley's Club; famous according to WikiPedia, that is (not that I would doubt it).
I think it’s safe to assume that this film is most appealing to conservative crowds, particularly the type of redneck-wannabes that I knew in my middle class suburban town, who would buy pick up trucks and blast country, attempting to bring the Southern Style to us, which by it's very name was impossible. Bud Davis (John Travolta) leaves his nowhere town and heads to the big city, where he stays at his Aunt and Uncle, Bob and Corene Davis's house (Barry Corbin; Brooke Alderson) who get him a job at a local manufacturing plant. He heads to the nearest Honky Tonk and then meets Sissy (Debra Winger) who quickly becomes the love of his life. In Classic Cinema-style the relationship goes from Zero to Married within about five minutes, though not after an incredibly awkward moment, when after Sissy gets some eyeballs from an ex-con and ultra-badass, ultra-ripped Wes Hightower (Scott Glenn) who is an expert mechanical bull rider, Bud storms out with Sissy and slaps her across the face and she falls into the puddle.
I kept recalling an old modern western love story - possibly Coal Miner’s Daughter (coincidentally, with Sissy Spacek), where the domestic abuse was frighteningly frequent - and figured Urban Cowboy was either a) that film, or b) the rest of the movie is going to be about an abusive spouse, and therefore like that film. I was very mistaken. Although the initial incident between Bud and Sissy was jarring, it pales compared to what occurs later when Sissy and Bud break up and she shacks up with Wes Henderson who pretty much beats her anytime there’s the slightest disagreement (i.e., ‘Hand me the cigarette case’ and she fails to respond). As usual in situations of abuse toward women, you can’t help wondering why she stays with the man, except that maybe in Houston there aren’t many jobs at all and she is attracted to tough, strong men, with or without veins, and that she’s willing to overlook these shortcomings because bull riding fame and these relationships provide purpose to her life. It's a great insight into alienation, as Sissy clearly has nothing for herself, getting stuck into an endless loop, finding her only fulfillment in abusive mates. How great of an ending it could've been if she ditched both Wes and Bud, and went off on her own, discovering something for herself? Instead none of it is ever really resolved.
I’m not sure if this is one of the more extreme moments like I discussed in Can’t Buy Me Love or License to Drive ('88), where once upon a time in the 1980s this was fine, acceptable, and I would assume, more or less, normal. These scenes really jolted me awake - making me realize that for all we can complain about how far we have to go, the women’s movement has made progress. This movie could never come out today with the current conclusion. It's that rare film that provides a snapshot of the era's politics, without at all being about the era's politics; portraying how things once were, rather than how things could be.
And at the center of all this is a bull riding machine. This is where I have to hand it to director James Bridges, since for something so ridiculous and insignificant as bar room bull riding, he really makes us feel like it’s the most important event in the world. I craved a BluRay so I could best taste the anamorphic photography, complete with elaborate set ups that, in a single take, would take you all around the bar, creating a feel that, for most of these people, this truly is their entire world, this is the most exciting thing they do, where beyond work and family and barbecues, this is where life begins and ends.
BELOW: Watch at 1080 and enjoy (keeping in mind it's a pop movie, so it's not perfect, but it's far far better than you expect)
Director: Steve Rash
Writer: Michael Swerdlick
Cinematographer: Peter Lyons Collister
by Jon Cvack
Can’t Buy Me Love is another film that probably seemed harmless enough when it came out and yet as women’s rights progress and their depiction in mass media follows, it’s only when you watch these 80s guy-geared Rom Coms that you really understand how far we’ve come. Similar to License to Drive ('88) and Animal House, the film contains an abundance of misogyny. The more I look at these films the more I realize that cinema’s liberalization during the Reagan era really allowed for dude-centric 80s films to objectify women in awful ways.
Nevertheless, as you accept what’s going on, you realize that 90s/early 00s Rom Coms were heavily inspired by these moments, except with the added caveat that they centered around strong women who, in the end, during a moment of epiphany, realize that what’s missing most from their life can be cured by having a guy (10 Things I Hate About You, She’s All That, etc…). I still give them an A for effort. At least they were moving the bar forward.
Can’t Buy Me Love revolves around a ‘nerd’ looking guy, Ronald Miller (Patrick Dempsey), who if the actor didn’t reveal it already, is actually really handsome once he takes off his glasses. Ronald has been in love with his Head Cheerleader neighbor, Cindy Mancini (Amanda Peterson), who of course hasn’t given him the time of day ever in her life. That all changes when Ronald is about to take all his $1500 of lawn cutting money to buy a state of the art telescope, then sees Cindy at the mall, distraught after having had wine spilled all over her mother’s $1000 satin dress that she stole (it was during this moment that the first element of misogynistic cringiness came into play when her single mom invited a date over and the man makes highly suggestive, if not completely obvious hints, about what he’d like to do to the daughter, while the camera acts as his POV, looking her up and down. The fact that a man who’s about 50ish is making no-so-subtle comments to a woman who is very likely underage [the movie takes place at the beginning of the school year, making Cindy at most 18], while the mother is forced to just accept his comments just goes to show sexist humor’s evolution). Her mom then leaves Cindy home alone who uses the opportunity to borrow the mom’s expensive dress. This all then leads to the another episode of archaic tropes where Cindy, who has no money, must rely on Ronald’s $1000 generosity, which he only offers in exchange for Cindy pretending to be his girlfriend for a month.
Not knowing anything about the movie, I was actually surprised that Ronald sufficiently integrates himself into the popular crowd, though I’m not really sure where the story would have gone if this didn’t happen. I just assumed it was going to center around him and his fellow ‘nerdy’ friends somehow working to get Cindy back. Instead the story does a pretty good job of exploring high school power structures. I recall my high school days, and how so many events felt so important when they were really insignificant, if not completely ridiculous. Ronald’s best friend, Kenneth Wurman (Courtney Gains) is jealous over his friend’s departure, especially after a particularly awkward scene where Ronald is egged on by the jocks during some late night mischief and throws a bag of shit at his best friend Kenneth’s door, which then leads Kenneth to really display his acting prowess by confronting Ronald about the incident.
When the month is finally up, Ronald and Cindy break up, both not knowing the other is actually into the other person (this was also unrealistic; Cindy should have known Ronald was into her after offering the $1000 when they’ve never really met, though I guess you could say she was embarrassed and the act he put on didn’t assist with the process). Any way - Ronald then gets acquainted with Cindy’s other two friends, who in classic 80s fashion - and thanks to Wet Hot American Summer - look about 32 years old. They have no substance whatsoever, motivated by nothing other than wanting to bone the most popular guy in school. In fact, as I’m writing this I can’t differentiate between the two, as they looked and acted so similar. This sets off a boiling kettle, which culminates in Cindy pounding vodka at a party, and in a drunken stupor, reveals that Ronald actually rented her as his girlfriend. Instantly, and I mean instantly, everyone hates Ronald again. Usually I can stomach some narrative embellishment (such as their break up), but this really made no sense. I’ve had experiences where people drunk out of their minds castigate another person and it always makes the drunk look far worse than the person they’re criticizing. More simply, I’m just not sure why anyone would believe Cindy. It seems like there could have been a better way for this classic High School Rom-Com trope - The Tipping Point - to have been carried out.
I was surprised that in the end Cindy so easily went back to Ronald. Then again, Ronald is an incredibly attractive guy. Nevertheless, it’s rare for those 80s power structures to merge between the two classes. Typically the nerd overcomes the jock, or the jock ends up getting the girl and a lesson in humility is learned. I suppose that the film needed some type of progressive, redeeming quality.
Special Note: One of the most cringey moments that 80s Rom Coms all have is the gratuitous women’s locker room scene, which typically serves no purpose other than to show fully or half high school girls, many who you can safely assume are underage, in their underwear. It’s no surprise that this has been ditched. The more I come across these in films I’ve never seen the more I feel voyeuristic and gross. I often wonder when these were unofficially ruled to be distasteful and left out. I’m guessing somewhere in the 80s.
BELOW: The classic teen rom-com party scene where the truth comes out (however unrealistic it is)
Thoughts on films, old and new
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