At one point during the mid-1980s, Roland Joffe was considered one of the world’s best film directors. His first two films: “The Killing Fields” (1984) and “The Mission” were nominated for multiple Academy Awards, with a “work-in-progress” version of “The Mission” winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986.
Nowadays, Ennio Morricone’s stellar soundtrack for “The Mission” is better remembered than the film itself. Mainly because Joffe’s post “Mission” film career has not lived up to the promise of his first two films. I have mixed feelings about “The Mission,” but this scene never ceases to bring me to tears.
Robert DeNiro’s character is a South American slave-trader who kills his brother in a duel after he catches him in bed with his fiance. While DeNiro’s character is acquitted of legal wrong-doing, his guilt overwhelms him. A priest, played by Jeremy Irons, challenges him to undertake a suitable penance. The penance is to carry a heavy bundle, including his armor and sword, across many miles into the territory where he captured slaves. The people who he used to enslave recognize him, are ready to kill him, but under the guidance of Irons’ priest, cut him loose. DeNiro’s character’s acknowledgement of the grace of a people who were ready to slit his throat is heartbreaking.
You may recognize a young Liam Neeson in the background … approximately 20 years before he became our generation’s version of Charles Bronson.
When director Martin Scorsese signed a deal with Universal Pictures in the late 1980s to release his passion project “The Last Temptation of Christ,” I’m fairly certain he was required to deliver a commercial film in exchange for Universal releasing such a polarizing personal film. Well, in 1991, Scorsese delivered in spades.
Forget “Boxcar Bertha” (the exploitation film Scorsese made for Roger Corman in the early 1970s), “Cape Fear” is Scorsese’s ultimate balls-to-the-wall exploitation film. Granted, it wasn’t seen that way given the large budget and stellar acting cast (Robert DeNiro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis), but make no mistake, Scorsese’s remake of the 1962 shocker with Robert Mitchum is the ultimate Freddy-Jason stalker/slasher film.
Many Scorsese purists detest this film. To whom I say, f–k you! Scorsese loves ALL films, including the sleazy ones that used to play Forty Deuce. Legend has it that he got into a fight with one of his girlfriends, studio executive Dawn Steel, over the merits of the classic 1982 exploitation film “Vice Squad” (Scorsese angrily argued that it should have been up for Best Picture at that year’s Oscars).
Despite its disreputable pedigree, it did win Oscar nominations for DeNiro and Lewis. And it was Scorsese’s biggest box-office success until the release of “The Aviator” in 2004. I’m docking the accompanying trailer MAJOR points for NOT including the music from “Cape Fear” and substituting generic music instead. The music from Cape Fear (originally composed by Bernard Herrmann, but adapted for the remake by Elmer Bernstein) is one of the scariest scores ever composed for a motion picture. I’ve included a link to this score here:
Scorsese has always used music … especially pop music … effectively in his films. I wish I had a clip I could link to, but the use of Guns N’ Roses “Patience” during a vicious verbal fight between Nolte and Lange, while their daughter played by Lewis tearfully locks herself into her room, is brilliantly edited and shot.
Michael Cimino is one of the greatest crash-and-burn tales in Hollywood history. Cimino was someone who had bounced around Hollywood for years until he wrote and directed a Clint Eastwood hit (“Thunderbolt and Lightfoot”) in 1974. Based off that, he got the opportunity to make a more personal project … in this case, “The Deer Hunter.”
“The Deer Hunter” was based on a script that originally had nothing to do with the Vietnam War called “The Man Who Came to Play” (written by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker) which was about Vegas and Russian Roulette. Cimino had the script rewritten and placed the setting in Vietnam (the final screenplay was credited to Deric Washburn).
While “The Deer Hunter” went overschedule and overbudget, it still beat Francis Ford Coppola’s troubled and long-gestating Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now” to the screen by approximately 9 months. So “The Deer Hunter,” by default, became THE first major studio film about the Vietnam War, post-Vietnam War. As a result, everyone expected (and treated) this film as a definitive statement on the Vietnam War, if only because there were no other films out there at the time about the subject.
If you see “The Deer Hunter” as a statement about the Vietnam War, the film will sadly come up short. I don’t see “The Deer Hunter” making ANY statement about the Vietnam War … at all. Now that there have been several films about the Vietnam War that have since been released, I think “The Deer Hunter” can be seen more objectively as a film about three friends who suffer a collective traumatic event and come back changed in irreparable ways.
There may be nothing to document that the infamous Russian Roulette scenes that took place in the film actually happend. But I don’t think the inclusion of these scenes says anything about the Vietnamese people or the Vietnam war. War in general is a messy, messy thing. Atrocities are committed on all sides in a war and not everyone plays fair or according to the rules of the Geneva Convention, Were all Vietcong soldiers sadistic, evil bastards who committed atrocities on American soldiers? No. Were all American soldiers sadistic, evil bastards who committed atrocities on the Vietnamese? No. Were there bad elements on both sides that committed atrocities who saw the war as an excuse to express their darkest sides? Absolutely.
Which is why, in retrospect, I can view “The Deer Hunter” less a statement about Vietnam, than what happens to three friends who suffer through a horrible tragedy and how it affects them. In my mind, the film could have removed the Vietnam element entirely and focused on another traumatic event (i.e. the one in “Deliverance”) and still have packed the same emotional and visceral punch. The use of Vietnam may have (arguably) been a cynical use of a real event for dramatic purposes. But to criticize Cimino for using Vietnam in his story is like criticizing Shakespeare for exploiting real events in several of his plays (“Julius Ceasar,” “Henry IV”). Not that I’m comparing Cimino to Shakespeare …
“The Deer Hunter” is, admittedly, a difficult film. It’s very long, has several disturbing and upsetting scenes, and is not what we conventionally see as a coherent text. But even 35 years later, it’s still an amazingly powerful film that is gut-wrenching to watch. The performances by Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep, and John Cazale are amazing. The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is stunning. It’s still incredible that a film like this would have won a Best Picture Oscar, but it is truly deserving.
This film might still be celebrated today … if not for the fact that Cimino’s next film, “Heaven’s Gate,” was such a colossal critical and commercial flop. While many cineastes (including myself) can argue the virtues of “Heaven’s Gate,” it’s failure tainted the success of “The Deer Hunter” … to the point where several critics reversed their own opinions on “The Deer Hunter” to say that the emperor wore no clothes (Vincent Canby of the New York Times being the most notorious example). Which asks the question: “Did the critics really even love ‘The Deer Hunter’ or did they just jump on the bandwagon of praise? And by the same token, did they jump off when people turned against Cimino?”
To figure out this quandary is a useless party trick, in my opinion. While there are many parts of “Heaven’s Gate” that I admire, I still find the film severely flawed. Having said that, this doesn’t negate my appreciation of “The Deer Hunter” at all. It’s a film that never ceases to shock, amaze, and move me and is one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
I remember seeing this film for the first time on an independent over-the-air TV station uncut around 1982 or so. The film was sold to the CBS network for $5 million. But allegedly, when they discovered that they couldn’t edit this film in an adequate way, they gave up on trying to show it. The studio (Universal Pictures in the U.S.) sold the film to independent stations who showed the film uncut in two parts. All of the language, nudity, and violence was on full-display. And to best of my knowledge, there were no FCC complaints. Compare that to the ABC network’s decision to show Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” uncut in the early 2000s and not only did complaints flood into the FCC, but ABC was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for showing it this way. I like “Saving Private Ryan” a lot, but even though it’s more graphically violent than “The Deer Hunter,” it’s arguably much less controversial. The times have indeed changed.
Sometimes, one minute of careful editing, brilliant acting, and music tells you everything you need to know about a character in a film. This is the infamous entrance of Robert DeNiro’s character Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese’s breakout film from 1973 “Mean Streets.” The scene is cut to the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and Johnny Boy enters the club, two girls on his arm, acting like a cocky jackass with a stupid hat and suit. His friend, played by Harvey Keitel, eyes him with the most in-control “Oh s–t! This a–hole better not start anything tonight” look I’ve ever seen.
Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film “Raging Bull” is considered by many to be his masterpiece. While I would argue that “Taxi Driver” or “Goodfellas” earn that distinction more, “Bull” is a great film and genuine cinema classic. On its surface, “Bull” is a biopic about former middleweight champion boxer Jake LaMotta. However, it’s also a biopic of Scorsese himself.
Where this story really begins is in 1976. After the critical and popular success of his film “Taxi Driver,” Scorsese directed an ambitious big-budget musical called “New York, New York,” which was released in the summer of 1977. The film did not fare well with critics or with the public, who flocked to a little film called “Star Wars” instead. Scorsese had his first flop and his drug intake grew increasingly worse. While he kept busy making two documentaries (“The Last Waltz” and “American Prince”), his personal life grew more dark and chaotic.
From Peter Biskind’s fantastic book about 1970s Hollywood “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”: “Scorsese knew he was acting badly, driving people away from him, but he couldn’t help it. He says, ‘I was always angry, throwing glasses, provoking people, really unpleasant to be around. I always found, no matter what anyone said, something to take offense at. I’d be the host, but at some point during the evening, I’d flip out, just like when I’m shooting.'”
Robert DeNiro really wanted to make “Raging Bull” and Scorsese half-heartedly agreed to direct it, more as a favor to his longtime friend and collaborator. However, he couldn’t find the hook that made him really want to make it. Scorsese’s friend and collaborator Mardik Martin started a screenplay, but Scorsese was no longer listening to Martin’s suggestions and wanted Martin to add a lot of things to the script that had nothing to do with the story. When Scorsese suggested having Paul Schrader (the writer of “Taxi Driver”) come in for a polish, Martin seemed relieved to finally be done with it.
Schrader grudgingly agreed to work on the script, but advised that the script needed a rewrite, not a polish. Schrader had trouble adding depth to a character who he saw as a Neanderthal. Schrader and DeNiro pushed each other in terms of how unpleasant a character could be and have people still care about him. Schrader added a lot of raw, powerful scenes … some of which made it into the final film.
It was at that point that Scorsese got hold of some bad cocaine, which made him cough up blood and black out. He eventually started bleeding out of every part of his body and went to the hospital. He was told he had no platelets, that he was bleeding internally everywhere. The doctor made him stop all drugs and pumped him full of cortisone. Scorsese was in the hospital several days recovering. At that stage, Scorsese had dropped to 109 pounds. Eventually, he got better, but his doctor told him that he would die if he did not change his lifestyle. It was at that stage that Scorsese finally found the hook for “Bull” … the self-destructiveness, the emotional damage to his friends and family for no other reason that some sick desire to bottom out. He realized he was LaMotta.
Scorsese got clean and directed “Bull.” The film did well with critics and at many of the year-end awards (DeNiro won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of LaMotta), but did only so-so at the box office. The film was just too brutal and depressing for most people, and still is. “Bull” is not exactly a film you want to watch after a hard day at work. But it is one hell of a film and keeps growing in esteem over the years. It is roundly considered the best film of the 1980s and many consider it one of the best films ever made.
The attached clip is one of the best scenes in the film. It’s where LaMotta challenges his brother Joey (played by Joe Pesci) to punch him in the face repeatedly and it’s a clear illustration of the depths LaMotta’s self-destructiveness can sink. The scene has elements of dark humor, but it’s incredibly disturbing and depressing at its core. Due to some very rough and beyond politically incorrect language and violence, the scene is absolutely not safe for work or little ones.
Slammin’, concussion-producing, metallic blues one year before Led Zeppelin’s debut. It’s songs like this that make you lament the direction Rod Stewart went from the mid-1970s until today. Until that time, Stewart was one of the finest (if not THE finest) rock vocalist of the era. This cover of Willie Dixon’s blues classic was also put to great use in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” when the casino boss played by Robert DeNiro and his crew zero in on a scam taking place out at the tables.
“The King of Comedy” was Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to his legendary Jake LaMotta biopic “Raging Bull.” “King” flopped with audiences and got mixed reviews from critics. However, I think it’s one of Scorsese’s best films and as I much as I admire “Raging Bull,” I would watch “King” before “Bull” any day.
This movie seriously rubbed many the wrong way, because “King” did not resemble the typical Scorsese film. (There’s no gangsters, rat-a-tat dialogue and editing, or violence.) And star Robert DeNiro, as obnoxious autograph hound and wanna-be comedian Rupert Pupkin, likely really repulsed people. Granted, Jake LaMotta and Travis Bickle were scary characters, but let’s be honest, people love scary characters. Pupkin is the delusional loudmouth that most people go out of their way to avoid, let alone avoid seeing a movie about. But DeNiro really brings it in this role, as well as Jerry Lewis as talk show host Jerry Langford and Sandra Bernhard as DeNiro’s arguably more demented cohort Masha. Berhnard’s “seduction” of Lewis’s character is absolutely hilarious and frightening.
But I think time has been really kind to “King.” Uncomfortable, queasy comedy (i.e. “Curb Your Enthusiam,” “Louis”) has attained a certain kind of cache and if you like Larry David and Louis C.K., you should really give “King” a chance. “King” is one of the most brutal critiques of celebrity culture / worship ever created. It’s extremely uncomfortable to watch, but also very darkly funny.
Not many people remember the late actor John Cazale by name. But you would instantly recognize him by the amazing characters he played (Fredo in the first two “Godfather” films; Sal, the quiet, but scary bank robber in “Dog Day Afternoon”; and Stan, the loudmouth macho-wannabe ne’er do well in “The Deer Hunter”). He was only in five feature films, before he died tragically of bone cancer in 1978. But every one of the films he was in (“The Godfather,” “The Godfather Part II,” “The Conversation,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” and “The Deer Hunter”) was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, three of which actually won the top award.
“I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale” is an-all-too-brief, but great documentary about one of the best character actors in film history. The fact that so many great actors (Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, etc.) made it a point to be interviewed for this film is a testament to Cazale’s legacy.
Trivia note: the film was released by the late Adam Yauch’s (MCA of the Beastie Boys) fantastic indie studio Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Number 7 on Dave’s Strange World’s list of all-time favorite films is Martin Scorsese’s vicious, profane, and hilarious gangster classic “Goodfellas.” Since I tried limiting myself to just one film by each director, it was hard picking my favorite Scorsese film. “Taxi Driver” and “Hugo” almost made the cut on all my time Top 10, but “Taxi Driver” is a really heavy, painful film that I don’t watch that often these days and “Hugo,” while being emotionally uplifting, is heavy in its own way too. These aren’t criticisms, it’s just that if I’m picking a Scorsese film to watch at the end of a long, hard day at work, “Goodfellas” never disappoints. Even at 2.5 hours long, it feels like it’s half that length. Everything about this film, from the script to the acting to the editing to the music is a pure adrenalin rush. And while you may feel exhausted at the end of this, it’s a good exhaustion.
The scene I included here is where Liotta’s, DeNiro’s, and Pesci’s characters need to borrow a shovel from Pesci’s mother’s house to bury the body of a gangster they just killed. Playing Pesci’s mother is Scorsese’s mother Catherine, who is totally sweet and funny in this scene. There is some pixelation during the first 11 seconds of this clip, but everything else is fine after that. Favorite line: “Looks like someone we know.”
Number 8 on Dave’s Strange World’s list of 10 favorite films comes Richard Rush’s bats–t crazy masterpiece from 1980, “The Stunt Man.” I saw this when it was in theaters in the fall of 1980, thanks to my Dad. Back in the day, my Dad was an avid “New Yorker” reader and likely wanted to see this based on Pauline Kael’s rave review of this film. Granted, this film was grossly inappropriate for a 10-year old to see, but I respect my Dad for trusting my intelligence and good taste in letting me see this.
Like “Pulp Fiction,” this is quite possibly the perfect film: action, suspense, comedy, violence, sex, and plot twists that seriously f–k with your brain and make you question reality. It’s cerebral, but ridiculously entertaining at the lowest common denominator as well. It’s what every Hollywood film should be like, but isn’t. Richly deserving of its 3 Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor for Peter O’Toole’s turn as the Satanic director. O’Toole could have easily walked off with the Best Actor Oscar that year, had it not been for DeNiro’s turn in “Raging Bull.” (Shaking fist in the air, Stephen Colbert-style: “DENIRO!!!!!!!”)
I think this is still available on Netflix instant and if you haven’t seen it, you’re in for one of the greatest treats of your life.