Classic Movie Review: The Deer Hunter (1978) #AtoZChallenge


#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter D

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

TitleThe Deer Hunter
Release Date: December 8, 1978
Director: Michael Cimino
Production Company: EMI
Summary/Review:

The Deer Hunter is a movie I’ve long been aware of but only had a vague idea that it was about Vietnam, involved Russian Roulette, and starred Christopher Walken.  I had no idea that the lead actor is actually Robert De Niro, who seems to be in every prestige film of this era, or that it is prominently set in a steel mill town of Western Pennsylvania.  I kind of figured that this movie fit in with films like Coming Home, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon, which it kind of does, but it’s also very much its own thing.

The movie centers on a trio of young men who decide to enlist in the army to fight in the war in Vietnam – Mike (De Niro), Nick (Walken), and Steve (John Savage).  The cast also includes John Cazale in the last of his five films before dying of cancer (all of which were nominated for Best Picture) as their friend Stan, and Meryl Streep in one of her earliest films as Linda, a woman that Mike and Nick are both in love with.  The first part of the film focuses on the group of Russian-American friends who work together in the steel mill in a very busy 24-hour period where they work, go out for drinks, attend Steve’s wedding and reception, and then go hunting (except Steve, of course, who goes to his wedding night with his wife).  Like The Godfather, this film uses an extensive wedding reception setting to establish the characters and the culture they live in.

The first segment goes on so long, in fact, I thought maybe that the Vietnam War may be more of a theme of the movie than actually seeing them go to war. But suddenly the film transitions to battle scenes and we enter the second act.  I kind of wish the movie had focused entirely on that 24-hour period before Mike, Nick, and Steve left for Vietnam.  Not only is it the best part of the movie but it would also be considerably shorter than the 3+ hour slog Cimino gave us.  The movie descends into gratuitous violence, impossible leaks of logic, heavy-handed messaging, and a really racist depiction of Vietnamese as cruel and sadistic.  The Russian roulette sequences in this movie are not based on any reality of how the Vietnamese treated POWs nor were there Russian roulette gambling dens in Saigon. For Cimino it’s supposed to be a metaphor but it really strains credulity.

The third act of the movie brings Mike home with considerable PTSD and a need to “save” his friends, Steve from a facility for wounded veterans and Nick from the aforementioned Russian roulette gambling dens in Saigon as the city falls in April 1975. This part could’ve have been an affective look at the way the trauma of war changes people, a la The Best Years of Our Lives, but the heavy-handedness and ludicrousness of the plot twists just makes it a slog.  I honestly wonder if the people who decided that this movie deserved a lot of awards and accolades only based it on the first hour or so.  Because it started off so good and I really thought it was going to be a very different film than it ended up being.

Rating: **

Book Review: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Song of Solomon
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2009 [Originally published in 1977]
Other Books Read by Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Song of Solomon is a novel I read a couple of times in college and is my favorite of Toni Morrison’s many masterpieces.  I feel unqualified to write about it, since Morrison’s used of words, world building, characterization, and storytelling are so terrific they are to describe.

The novel tells the life story of Macon Dead III, known by the nickname “Milkman,” and his journey of self-discovery.  Milkman comes from a prosperous African American family in an unnamed Michigan city.  His father, Macon, owns lots of real estate, and his mother, Ruth, is the daughter of the city’s only African American doctor.

Milkman’s aunt Pilate lives on the other side of the tracks and is a bootlegger and something of a mysterious figure who was born without a navel. Despite Macon’s alienation from his sister, Milkman begins visiting Pilate and establishing more of a link with his family past.  He also begins a long-term sexual relationship with his cousin Hagar.  Milkman is also contrasted with his older, more world friend Guitar who is part of a secret organization of men who kill white people in retaliation for racial murders of blacks.

Milkman begins a southward journey, opposite of the Great Migration occurring at the same time the novel is set, ostensibly to follow the trail of some gold his father and Pilate once found. In reality, Milkman is finding connections to his past and his people. First, he visits the real town of Danville, Pennsylvania where his grandfather was murdered by white people and his father and Pilate had to flee for his safety. Then he continues to the fictional town of Shalimar, where Milkman pieces together his family history to enslaved Africans and Native Americans.

The ending of this book is both tragic and triumphant.  I was surprised that there were scenes in this book that stuck in my memory perfectly over 25 years.  Although there was also a lot of the book I’d forgotten. The novel remains one of my all time favorite books.

Favorite Passages:

“I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would of loved ‘em all. If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more.”

Rating: *****

Book Review: The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King


Author: Maxwell King
Title: The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers
Narrator: LeVar Burton
Publication Info: Oasis Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

I know a bit about the life of Fred Rogers from watching the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor and reading articles about him.  But I couldn’t resist listening to the first book-length biography of Mr. Rogers narrated by another PBS hero, LeVar Burton.  King does a good job of getting a clear picture of Rogers’ background, starting from childhood.

His family was wealthy, which allowed Rogers the opportunities to try his new ideas, but his parents’ philanthropy and noblesse oblige also contributed to his humility and simple lifestyle.  Rogers was also affected by instances of childhood bullying and the sense that he could find support in the neighborhood of his hometown of Latrobe, PA.

As a young man, Rogers learned television production and studied for the ministry, with the unorthodox plan of putting both callings toward educating children.  The big question of this book is whether the Mister Rogers we see on tv represents the real person, with the unanimous response of “yes” from people who know him.  So this book won’t expose any “dark secrets” but it is a very good glimpse into how a wonderful man formed his philosophy for teaching children.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Review: Night of the Living Dead (1968)


For Halloween week, I’m watching and reviewing highly-regarded horror films that I’ve never seen before.

Title: Night of the Living Dead
Release Date: October 1, 1968
Director: George Romero
Production Company: Night of the Living Dead
Summary/Review:

Watching this move for the first time means trying to forget all you know about it from the cultural soup that marinates us.  George Romero pretty much invents the rules for a zombie apocalypse story as well as kicking off the trend of graphically gory horror films of the 1970s and 1980s.  It’s also remarkable for having an African American actor Duane Jones in the lead role of Ben at a time when Black men were not appearing in movies as competent leaders.

Actually this movie has two lead characters with Judith O’Dea as Barbra being the point of view character for the first act of the movie.  Unfortunately, Barbra fades from significance in the narrative.  As disappointing as it that the female lead is stereotypically portrayed as helpless, O’Dea does put in compellingly authentic depiction of someone in a shock.  The other characters aren’t particularly well-acted or significant.  Karl Hardman plays Harry Cooper, the primary human antagonist who consistently challenges Duane (which also plays out as a racial divide regardless of whether it was scripted as one), but he’s a rather one-note character.

With a low budget, Night of the Living Dead shows some technical flaws (why are the live tv broadcasts from Washington in the daytime when it’s late at night in Pennsylvania?).  But Romero makes the best of these limitations with tight editing and dramatic lighting to heighten the suspense.  And even though I knew it was coming, that ending is a real kick in the gut.

Rating: ***1/2

Beer Review: Victory Hop Devil


Beer: Hop Devil IPA
Brewer:  Victory Brewing Company
Source: Draft
Rating:  * (5.6 of 10)
Comments:

This beer is copper-colored, and pours out with no head and kind of a flat appearance.  There’s a sweet toffee aroma and despite the name a rather malty and piney taste, before a mildly bitter aftertaste.  There’s light lacing and a medium mouthfeel.  Kind of a boring beer with no complexity.

Beer Review: Wayerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale


Beer: Imperial Pumpkin Ale
BrewerWeyerbacher Brewing Company
Source: Draft
Rating: **** (8.0 of 10)
Comments: Enjoyed a pint of this during prime pumpkin ale season and it is among the best of its type.  Pouring an amber orange, the beer gives off a sweet cinnamon scent.  The flavor is clearly pumpkin with ginger, and a strong taste of alcohol to boot (it is 8% ABV).  A yummy treat.

 

Beer Review: Yuengling Traditional Lager


Beer: Yuengling Traditional Lager
Brewer: Yuengling Brewery
Source: Draft
Rating: * (5.2 of 10)
Comments: Yuengling has long been a sentimental favorite.  First, the Yuengling Brewery is based in the same Pennsylvania county where by grandparents lived when I was a child.  Second, when I came of age in Virginia and began drinking beer regularly, Yuengling was a standard.  I’ve missed it since I moved to Massachusetts and was happy to see it reintroduced to the commonwealth this year.  So, recently when a friend and I went to a swanky bar in the South End, I saw that Yuengling was on tap (and furthermore was the only reasonably priced beer on tap).  And …. it wasn’t as good as I remembered.  The flavor isn’t strong and the aroma is tad skunky.  That being said, for the price it’s a decent quaff on a hot day.  So, I’ll add this back to my list of cheap beer standbys.

Movie Review: Slap Shot (1977)


Title: Slap Shot
Release Date: 25 February 1977
Director: George Roy Hill
Production Co: Kings Road Entertainment
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Comedy | Drama | Sport
Rating: ****

Another classic comedy that I never got around to seeing until now.  With the closing of the local factory, the Charlestown Chiefs are likely to fold at the end of the season.  Aging player-coach Reg Dunlop (Paul Newman) carries out a series of Machiavellian schemes to increase the teams value so that it will be sold to another owner.  This primarily involves having his team use goon tactics, which successfully draws in the crowds and helps them win games.  Concurrently, Reg also plots to reunite with his ex-wife and reconcile the strained relationship of the Chiefs’ top scorer and his alcoholic wife.

This movie exudes the 1970s in the clothing, music, sexual liberation, and a carefree attitude in a world falling apart.  There are a lot of great gags and lines with much of the humor coming from silly characters like the Quebecois goalkeeper and the uber-violent (and extremely dumb) Hanson brothers.  But there’s also a gravitas underlining the film that keeps it from being just a screwball comedy although not enough to turn it into a “dramedy.”  The ending of the film is utterly bizarre, but it it’s appropriate to the movie.