Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Deer Hunter

"Did you ever think life would turn out like this?" asks one of the characters in Michael Cimino's 1978 signature film The Deer Hunter. It's a key line in the story of three Pennsylvanian steelworkers whose lives are drastically changed by their experiences in the Vietnam war...

Cimino's masterstroke was to make The Deer Hunter a long form work, and the film greatly benefits from the time and space awarded to the characters. In fact, this 3-hour film is in no great hurry to get done - its only after the first 40min or so that the main protagonists come into focus and we begin to learn about their personalities. This early part of the film is the most leisurely paced - the lengthy wedding sequence prompted one commentator of the film to express embarrassment for not turning up with a gift; but The Deer Hunter never feels long - as the grand sweep of the film takes us from the monolithic steel works, along the drab streets of the town, to the hunting grounds of the mountains, the killing fields of South East Asia and the turbulent swirl of Saigon. Worth mentioning the terrific moment where the familiar life of the steel workers is swept away to a mournful Chopin piano refrain, played by George Dzunda's character, as the film abruptly cuts to the second act set in Vietnam.

Cimino's direction for the most part is subtle and unobtrusive and captures well the nuances of blue collar town life, with its 24-hour bars full of shift workers, its deeply religious traditions and the rough treatment of the women by their men. It's a tough film, not alone for the bloody Russian Roulette sequence (which earned the film much controversy and accusations of racism) but the film is full of interactions and relationships punctuated by awkward moments, and characters trying and failing to fit and connect. Also the look of the film is uncompromising, austere in its use of color, with cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond desaturating the frame, creating a sombre mood. Even the Vietnam sequences are spare in their color, an aesthetic borrowed from the 16mm news footage that Americans came to know the war by, the very opposite of the lush, jungle exotica of Apocalypse Now.

Of course the film has one of the more celebrated ensemble casts in American film. Robert De Niro1, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage, John Cazale and George Dzundza deliver career best performances, even non-actor Chuck Aspegrenall who was Cimino's access into the world of the steel industry when scouting locations for the film, equips himself well amid all the heavyweights, in his role of Axel.

Admittedly the film has its flaws - Cimino's use of insert stock footage of Vietnam scenes is simply clumsy, and that the three marines would end up together as prisoners of war by sheer coincidence feels a little contrived. But more seriously, Christopher Walken disappears for virtually the second half of the film only to reappear for the finale where his character has gone through such a radical shift in personality, that the emotional pay-off of the climax doesn't quite work as it should. Nevertheless The Deer Hunter is a magnificent, ballsy film and one of the last great movies of the 70's.

My copy of The Deer Hunter is the Studio Canal UK 2-disc edition from 2003. It's hardly worth mentioning this particular edition as the Optimum Blu-Ray is superior in every way. The extras from the DVD have been ported over to the BR and they're well worth the time. Cimino turns in an excellent, engaging and very thorough commentary track, no mean feat for a three-hour film. Cimino returns for the first of three features on the making of the film. The director repeats some information from the commentary track but expands on other subjects including Jane Fonda's2 reaction to the film. The 2nd feature has Vilmos Zsigmond discussing the shooting conditions and his lighting choices, while the 3rd segment features John Savage and his relationship to the film, which at one point causes Savage to become emotionally upset when recalling how he reconnected with the film some years later when he heard Cavatina, John Williams's stirring theme music. It's unlikely I'm sure anyone reading this has not seen The Deer Hunter but if it's been a few years I would highly recommend a revisit.

1. Robert De Niro has appeared in 4 films playing Vietnam veterans. In addition to The Deer Hunter, he played a vet in De Palma's Hi Mom! (1970), an unstable vet in Taxi Driver (1976), and finally in Jacknife in 1989

2. Jane Fonda apparently disliked the film for it's portayal of the Vietnamese, and no doubt the coda of the film where the surviving cast sing "God Bless America". Fonda herself stared in Coming Home made the same year as The Deer Hunter, which took a more caustic view of the Vietman veteran experience. Cimino, not one to mince words refers to Fonda as "Hanoi Jane", the name Fonda was given after her trip to Hanoi in 1972 where she criticized the American campaign in Vietnam.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Under Pressure - Making The Abyss

It seems we're still a while away from seeing James Cameron's 1989 film The Abyss surface on Blu-Ray. Rumour has it that the film will get a HD release in December 2011. Until then Fox's DVD should suffice, if only for the inclusion of Under Pressure - Making the Abyss, a superb hour long chronicle of the making of Cameron's epic sci-fi.

When it comes to special effects films I normally shy away from "making of" features - I prefer that the magician's secrets remain just that, but Under Pressure makes for fascinating, compelling viewing, detailing the enormous engineering challenges the film makers had to overcome to realise Cameron's vision, as well as the considerable demands the film placed on the actors. The set was an abandoned nuclear power plant in South Carolina which housed a reactor containment vessel big enough to create the 7 million gallon underwater world of The Abyss.

For years Cameron has had a reputation for being some sort of latter day Otto Preminger, a film maker whose temper is often let loose on his cast and crew. The film largely avoids such drama, but there are some candid moments where Cameron's patience is tested when faced with cast and crew griping. Cameron makes for excellent, intelligent company and is honest enough to admit that at times the production was out of it's depth, as it faced unforeseen bad weather (which led to the production switching to night shoots), and more seriously, huge plumbing problems with the tank.

Interestingly Cameron mentions the scene in the film where a rat is made to breathe "liquid oxygen" and points out that the scene was cut in the UK over concerns of animal cruelty. Actually, the British Board of Film Classification had the scene re-framed (and awkwardly so), with the rat appearing mostly out of shot. It still remains one of the Board's more controversial decisions. This modification still exists today on the UK DVD.

Unseen on British Home Video, the sequence of the rat breathing fluid

Admittedly Cameron soft pedals some of the tougher moments the actors were subjected to, but thankfully the cast who still seem bruised by the film's difficult shoot, rarely hold back. Ed Harris painfully reveals at one point that he had a brush with death as he found himself at the bottom of the tank with no oxygen, while Michael Biehn remembers an occasion where the submerged cast were plunged into total darkness when the lights in the tank lost power.
Yet another story from the shoot involves Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio storming off the set during the filming of her scene where she is resuscitated after drowning - a particularly intense take had to be abandoned when the camera ran out of film, which enraged the actress and caused her leave that day's filming. Tellingly Mastrantonio is the only cast member who didn't participate in the documentary. Perhaps some memories are too painful to share...
An intense Ed Harris reflects on a hard day's work

Under Pressure - Making The Abyss is available on the 2-disc DVD edition of The Abyss, and can also be viewed in 6 parts on youtube...
On a personal note, The Abyss has a special place in my heart as it was my first taste of a phenomenon known as the "Director's Cut", when Fox released the long 3 hour version of the film in the early 90's on VHS. Not only that, it was my first time seeing a "Widescreen" film, a concept that left people utterly bewildered back in the day...

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Black Christmas

My final post for the Christmas holiday (which officially ends today!) and we go out with a classic. Bob Clark's 1974 film Black Christmas never quite gets a shout out in the roll call of Essential 70's Horror movies, despite its sheer brilliance, and its importance in the evolution of the genre, but more of that in a moment... It's Christmastime at a women's sorority house and celebrations are being routinely interrupted by a creepy prank phone caller. Initially shrugged off, the calls become increasingly crazed and obscene and one of the sorority sisters has gone missing, while the caller himself seems to be dangerously close...

As the title suggests, this not only turns the traditional Christmas film on its head but chops it clean off, a movie that can still generate some real scares nearly 40 years on. The abusive phone calls are genuinely shocking and disturbing (no doubt an influence on When A Stranger Calls) and while the violence may not wash the screen in red, it's suitably grim and ugly. I'm reluctant to reveal too much detail about the plot as the film quite brazenly refuses to tow the line of the traditional thriller but be warned about the deeply subversive ending, which will delight and infuriate in equal measure.

Nowadays it's de rigueur to discuss Halloween in the same breath as Black Christmas and while John Carpenter's film may be the archetype of the modern slasher film, Bob Clark's film is the archetype of the archetype. Halloween may well be a superior, more streamlined (and better behaved) horror film, but Black Christmas casts a long shadow over Carpenter's film. It's difficult to appreciate the achievement of the film after 30 years of slasher cinema, but the distorted point-of-view shots through the killer's eyes, the unsettling score (by the brilliant Carl Zittrer), the use of darkness and eerie empty spaces were ground-breaking in it's day, and John Carpenter wisely employed Bob Clark's great style when designing his own classic scare show.

Aided by the director's very fine screenplay, performances are strong throughout - the gorgeous Olivia Hussey as the long-suffering heroine, 2001's Kier Dullea, whose sensitive musician is somehow not quite right; John Saxon, playing the cop investigating the sinister goings-on (his lieutenant Fuller could have easily walked straight into A Nightmare on Elm Street), and best of all, Margot Kidder, fresh from de Palma's Sisters, playing a foul-mouted, boozed-up party girl and providing some crass humour to dispel some of the darker undercurrents in the film.

Black Christmas has had quite a complicated history on home video, as well as DVD where it was issued in differing transfers on both sides of the Atlantic. The film was released on Blu-Ray in 2008 courtesy of Critical Mass. This disc copped some heat for its underwhelming picture, but I must say that this is the best Black Christmas has ever looked, far superior to any previous release. The 1.78 image is sharp and relatively clean and copes very well with the film's copious amounts of dark photography. On the whole very watchable. The mono track is fine and robust - I've heard talk of the stereo track having minor sync problems so stick with the mono option. Finally, the extras from the previous special edition DVD have been ported over for the Blu-Ray. An ill-advised Black Christmas remake came and went in 2006.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Peter Cushing - Past Forgetting

Back in print again and for the first time in digital, Peter Cushing's reading of his second autobiography, Past Forgetting, subtitled A Memoir of the Hammer Years. Cushing was compelled to write a second book on his life, after fans petitioned him, wanting to hear more about his work as an actor, his first book, simply called An Autobiography, concentrated on his life with his beloved wife Helen. In Past Forgetting, Cushing admits that the life of an actor is rarely as exciting as people imagine it to be, but nevertheless gives a very fine whistle-stop account of his long career on stage, television and Cinema.

Cushing reads from his book with impeccable tone and diction and is a joy to listen to. A dapper old school Englishman with impeccable manners, Cushing's reminiscences of his career is full of kindnesses toward his fellow artists and reveals a fondness and respect for his work in Cinema, especially the Horror films he made. At one point he amusingly recalls some of his screen deaths including Ken Wiederhorn's 1977 Shock Waves: "The next merry little prank took place in Miami's Palm Beach, Florida in a film called Death Corps when some rather unpleasant gentleman drowned me by holding my head under the stagnant waters of the Everglades and left me there as crocodile bait. I was playing a Nazi officer so I deserved all that I had to swallow...

It's worth noting however that the subtitle of the audio book is something of a stretch - fans expecting a comprehensive overview of his days at Hammer will be disappointed as Cushing rarely dwells on any one film he made at the studio but he does impart some fascinating tidbits, like suggesting to Terence Fisher that there should be a scene in The Mummy to explain the hole in the Mummy's torso as seen in Bill Wiggin's poster art, which was already finished before the the production of the film wrapped. Hammer fans will definitely be disappointed about omissions - I wish Cushing had spoke about one of his finest films for the studio Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and he only mentions in passing his role in the Nigel Kneale scripted BBC adaption of Nineteen Eighty-Four filmed live for the BBC in 1954.

These minor complaints aside, Past Forgetting is an excellent, engaging listen and Cushing has a wonderful sense of humour and playfulness, as well as a great modesty for his enormous talents. Originally the audio book was released in 1988 as 3 cassettes and has been difficult to find over the years until audio book specialists Cosmic Hobo Productions remastered the tapes for CD in 2010. The same label also has a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories read by Cushing. An if that wasn't enough, you can download a copy of Cushing reading an adaptation of Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, from the original Warners vinyl LP from 1974.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Haunted Air

If you're one of those people who get a frisson from the sequence in The Wicker Man where the islanders don animal masks for the May Day sacrifice, then this book is for you. Haunted Air - A Collection of Anonymous Halloween Photographs America c. 1875 - 1955, is a wonderful compendium of found photographs of people dressing up to celebrate Halloween. That the photographs are from a bygone era of early 20th century rural America, lends the book a very special quality - the masks and costumes seen throughout the book are almost entirely homemade, with children, adults and whole families appearing as ghosts and ghouls, witches and warlocks, horned devils, sad faced Lon Chaney style harlequins, scary monsters and the odd figure in the then traditional blackface.

Leafing through the pictures in the book, one gets the impression that Halloween for these people had far more significance than it does in today's over commercialized culture, that for these Southern farming-belt communities, it was an important festival to remember the dead, ward off bad luck, and the signifying of the arrival of the hard winter chill. The photographs are faithfully reproduced throughout with no discernible digital manipulation. Some of the photographs are fresh, while others show the ravages of time, and the book is all the better for it - one imagines this collection was culled from the dark recesses of wardrobes and cupboards, and dusty photo albums; forgotten, neglected, the identity of the masked and anonymous participants having long since drifted into the ether like the spirits of the dead they are depicting.

Haunted Air opens with a forward by David Lynch, a poetic afterword by Geoff Cox and a short historical note by the book's author and curator Ossian Brown. The book comes as a sturdy cloth cover hard back and is available from Amazon and the usual places. Essential viewing for lovers of weird and macabre Americana.

Monday, 3 January 2011

A Chuck Norris / Joseph Zito Double-Bill

It always seemed an absurd notion to me that the Vietnamese government would maintain POW camps holding American soldiers after the war had ended, but who am I to argue with such an idea considering it gave us Rambo: First Blood Part II and 1984's Missing In Action, starring Chuck Norris and directed by Joseph Zito. In the film, Norris plays Braddock, a Vietnam vet who travels with a diplomatic party to Saigon to finally settle the matter of American soldiers still held by the Vietnamese government. Convinced the governement is lying, Braddock heads back into the jungle to finally bring the last of his fellow brothers in arms home...

Cast aside any ideas about Missing In Action being a guilty pleasure, the film simply does what it says on the tin, that being a rollicking good action film. Directed with fizz, energy and economy by Joseph Zito (who directed the gory slasher The Prowler and the best of the Friday the 13th sequels, Part 4: The Final Chapter), the film wastes precious time hurtling from one explosive set piece to another. The central sequence of the film is perhaps the best, when Braddock prepares his mission from Bangkok, featuring some good South East Asian color (a la The Deer Hunter), an excellent dockside car chase and some nifty beatbox music injecting some life into Jay Chattaway's otherwise typical action movie score.

Calling the shots - director Joseph Zito
Chuck Norris turns in a good performance as Braddock - in fairness, the character is a man of few words and Norris at least knows how to run around with machine gun and make it look convincing. Sterling support too from M. Emmet Walsh, and the go-to-guy for Asian villainy James Wong. The film would prove to be a big hit for Cannon, and would birth two sequels of varying quality 1. Still, the original film is a well deserved minor classic of 80's Exploitation Cinema, although in hindsight Missing In Action now looks increasingly like a dry run for the next Norris/Zito collaboration, the epic undertakings of 1985's Invasion USA 2.

For Invasion USA, Cannon brought the war back home with a bang. Christmas has been cancelled in Miami as an army of terrorists, led by some nefarious Russians (naturally) are cutting a swathe of destruction across the Southern state in an effort to engulf the US in a state of chaos and the eventual destruction of the American way of life. Fear not as Chuck Norris is back, playing Matt Hunter, a hard-ass ex. CIA operative who doesn't take this kind of messing lying down, especially with a few scores to settle and some unfinished business involving the terrorist leader...

Invasion USA was a big Cannon production and it looks it - with an impressive array of extras, copious amounts of military hardware, vehicles of all description, usually meeting a sticky demise and large elaborate sets that are riddled with bullets and blown to bits with wild abandon. Joseph Zito, back in the director's chair again does a fine job orchestrating the non-stop carnage and the film is well paced (just under 2 hours no less!) and looks good, especially the opening sequences set in the Florida everglades. Chuck Norris' performance is pitched at the same level as Missing In Action, his character here interchangeable from Braddock, and is best described, to borrow from Blade Runner as "a goddamn one-man slaughterhouse". Still, as a laconic gunslinger wielding two uzis, it works just fine. Good stuff too from Richard Lynch, always reliable as a low-rent Rutger Hauer, making a formidable nemesis for Chuck Norris as the terrorist mastermind leading the invasion.

Missing In Action and Invasion USA are available on DVD, both MGM catalogue titles meaning they're serviceable looking discs, and at least are inexpensive, so if you can drag yourself away from your Yasujirô Ozu DVDs for a few hours both films are highly recommended touchstones of 80's action cinema.

1. The subject of Missing In Action's sequels is a curious one. Cannon actually had the Part 2 of the series in production alongside Part 1. Originally, "Part 2", directed by Lance Hool was to be released first (the film set chronologically before Part 1) but when both films were in post production Cannon realised that the Joseph Zito lensed film was the stronger of the two so the studio wisely chose to release the Zito film first, and what would become Part 2 was promoted as a prequel to the original and was released as Missing In Action 2: The Beginning. The final installment of the series, Braddock: Missing in Action III was released in 1988

2. As titles go Invasion USA is one of the better ones, but an obscure 1952 film was the first to use the title. The 1952 film was about a Communist invasion of America, as too was Red Dawn John Milius' 1984 film about an invasion of the United States by Soviet Union and Cuban forces.