Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Deer Hunter: Masculinity Against All Odds

By Steve Evans
Finishing up my mini-festival of John Cazale films today with an evening screening of The Deer Hunter, that epic, heartbreaking and long (but not too long) exploration of Vietnam-era Americana and small-town values. Oh. And it also took the Oscar for Best Picture of 1978.

Unlike most critics and film historians, I never thought The Deer Hunter was “about” the Vietnam War. Rather, it is about three men of identical working-class backgrounds but markedly different personalities, and how they each cope with horrific, life-altering circumstances as a consequence of going to war. It is a study of masculinity, of what it means to be a man and how a man responds to seemingly impossible situations.

John Cazale’s character Stan is peripheral to this theme. He represents the weak male, the ineffectual hanger-on whose identity depends on the men he can surround himself with. The central characters are played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken (in an Oscar-winning performance) and John Savage (a last minute replacement for Roy Scheider, who quit the production and opted, instead, to star in Jaws 2).

While the film itself remains a devastating emotional experience, it also has the distinction of containing the single greatest sequence of unbearable intensity and suspense in the history of motion pictures. Period. I refer, of course, to the infamous sequence where De Niro, Walken and Savage are held in a Vietcong POW encampment, forced to play Russian roulette for the gambling amusement of their captors, along the most desolate stretch of rat-infested river ever seen in film.

I should mention now that I have probably seen close to 15,000 motion pictures during my lifelong love affair with the cinema. Never have I seen a more terrifying and emotionally exhausting sequence than the Russian roulette tortures endured by the protagonists of this film. It ranks among the most brilliantly constructed 15 minutes of film in the history of the medium.

I saw this picture when I was 15 years old and it haunted me for days afterwards. I watched it again this afternoon and found myself in the same vise-grip of total involvement that I first experienced more than 36 years ago.

Every time I view The Deer Hunter I challenge myself to a different question. Three decades ago, I wondered how I would handle myself in the same circumstances. Today the film gave me reason to consider just what I am prepared to do to ensure the well-being of my children and my own self-preservation in the face of ungodly obstacles.

These are provocative thoughts to consider, my friends. Be glad you are seldom faced with such choices.

But if it should ever come down to it, I now know unequivocally that I will follow De Niro’s lead and bring the situation to its inevitable conclusion.


Yeah? Just try me.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Remembering John Cazale (1935-1978)

By Steve Evans

I am this week revisiting the amazing career of character actor John Cazale, who made precisely five films – all of them either nominees or winners for the Best Picture Academy Award: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter, which was released posthumously, as Cazale died of lung cancer mere months before that film opened in 1978.

Most people will remember Cazale as Fredo, the weak brother in the first two Godfather films. He was engaged to Meryl Streep at the time of his death and was reportedly the love of her life.

I watched Dog Day Afternoon (1975) earlier today and recall the conversation I had with the film’s Oscar-winning screenwriter, Frank Pierson, during the Virginia Film Festival a decade ago. Pierson gave a clinic on dramatic writing – and he was imminently qualified to do so – a much of Dog Day is set inside the branch office of a Brooklyn bank during the course of a robbery, with only dialog to propel the plot.

Cazale has maybe 20 lines in the entire film. His work is all the more chilling for the scarcity of his verbosity. Al Pacino got all the attention (and an Oscar nomination), but it is Cazale's brooding performance that haunts and ultimately rewards repeat viewings.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that the 1970s were the last truly great decade of American cinema. For seven fleeting years, Cazale was an integral part of that.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Paid to See 'Planes' Sequel; Found Nemo, Instead

By Steve Evans

Taking three kids to the movies turns out to be more interesting than the movie itself, in this case, Disney's sequel to Planes.

After the picture finally started, the two oldest kids made two trips each to the restroom, which in practical terms means we ALL went to the restroom four times. The youngest ate more than half of an $8 sack of popcorn and talked merrily throughout the film while giving me non-stop High Fives. Then she removed and tossed one of her shoes down the aisle. I do not see well in the dark, but always bring a pocket flashlight with me for these special occasions. Middle child took his shoes off as the credits rolled, then went running and leaping up and down the theater aisles. Oldest child offered to share her Skittles with every kid leaving the theater. She and her brother danced until the house lights came up, then we looked for their shoes.

And once we got to the car, loaded up and locked in with seat belts, my three-year-old son screams, "Daddy! I left Nemo inside the movie house!" Nemo is a beloved stuffed toy, a Clown fish from the Disney/Pixar film Finding Nemo. Whereever my son goes, Nemo goes.

Nothing to do but unload everyone, bang on the Exit door of the theater until a kind soul let us in, then pick our way through the theater in our quest for Finding Nemo.

Alas, the stuffed fish was not in Theater #8. But the nice folks at Lost & Found had indeed found Nemo, no worse for the wear and tear except for a few pieces of buttered popcorn stuck to his gills.

Half an hour later, we were back in the car and on the road. Youngest had both her shoes. Mr. Elephant was in the possession of my oldest. And middle child clutched Nemo to his chest -- a clear sign that going back into the theater was the right thing to do. Hell, the only thing to do.

Over ice cream the kids talked happily about how much fun they have going to the movies. And I thought quietly that the tale of a Talking Plane and his adventures with firefighters in the Pacific Northwest could scarcely compare to the real-world excitement of lost shoes, finding Nemo, and making so many trips to the potty I am thinking of equipping everyone with a colostomy bag.

Fatherhood: the most challenging job I ever loved.

(For those of you on the fence about the Planes sequel, truth be told it's better than the original. The computer animation is a wow. For kids and their parents -- at least the parts we managed to see.)

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Summer cinema: talking monkeys, giant robots, dumb comedies & superhero sequels = dismal box office

By Steve Evans

The summer movie blockbuster season hits the midway mark this week and box office results show audiences are saying, "meh."

The top three films in America, as of this writing, are a Planet of the Apes sequel, a Transformers sequel, and "Tammy" starring Melissa McCarthy, the vastly overrated comedienne whose sell-by date soured almost a year ago.

Variety reports a shrinking domestic box office this year, as raunchy R-rated comedies fill theaters bereft of family films and provocative adult dramas that might give more people a reason to go to the movies. At this point, there's no way Hollywood will top the record $4.76 billion box office from last year.

Hollywood, of course, skews product toward teenage boys and occasionally their dates. As a result, superhero movies dominate screens and sequels rule the summer. Except this summer, it ain't necessarily so. Lackluster results for Spiderman 2, Michael Bay's execrable Transformers series and other summer 2014 sequels pale in comparison to last year's record movie attendance. Why?

Analysts and studio execs are tripping over themselves to explain away these dismal results. They claim irregular production schedules and competing entertainment such as the World Cup peel off potential ticket buyers.

These are smoke screens.

The reality is that the slate of summer 2014 films is of such poor quality and ticket prices have grown so exorbitant that people exercise more caution with their entertainment dollars. Social media plays a big role in advancing word-of -mouth about the merits of a movie. Low social engagement with a film on Facebook can cost a production millions in revenues.

Film critics fancy themselves an indispensable part of the dialog on contemporary cinema, but their influence is negligible compared to the power of a social media post gone viral.

So here's a post:

This year's summer blockbusters just aren't very good. And irritated ticket buyers are quick to post their dissatisfaction. Films that might surge on opening weekend lose 60-70 percent of their business the following week. It's a numbers game: you cannot recover a $200 million budget on a film that makes $75 million on opening weekend and gets bad-mouthed on the Internet to the point of extinction in the following weeks before the picture is pulled from screens to await a Blu-ray release and possibly a second life on Netflix.

Video on demand and streaming services like Hulu catch a lot of the blame for poor ticket sales at theaters, but that doesn't tell the whole story.

America excels at a great many things, none moreso that the creation of popular entertainment. As much as I love world cinema, the simple truth is that when it comes to making movies, Hollywood is the center of the universe. Until the Hollywood studios curb their desire to repeat past successes with formulaic films and endless sequels, people will remain wary of the noisy product on sale at multiplexes throughout the country. The harder the marketing push, the more reluctant the buyer.

It's simple, really. People crave strong narrative; it is inherent in all of us from childhood. Please. Tell me a story.

Present a story fundamentally well-told, both original and with characters worth caring about, and people will pay to hear it. Or watch it with sticky 3-D glasses at the theater.

For now, studio executives are content to engage in a high-stakes crapshoot with loaded dice. Even then, they still roll snake eyes. The results are boring. Predictable. And we deserve better.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.