The Deerhunter (1978)

When I saw the clips from Robert DeNiro's films at The Golden Globes as he received the lifetime achievement award, I was curious to see this one again.

The story took place about ten years before the film opened as three buddies in a small Pennsylvania steel town were preparing to head off to Vietnam--Mike (DeNiro), Steven (John Savage), Nick (Christopher Walken). The film opens with Steven and Angela's wedding. Linda (Meryl Streep) is the maid of honor who Nick proposes to by the end of the night. The men go off on one last deer hunting expedition before they say their goodbyes.

The three friends arrive fully into the grimness of that war. Somehow they all end up prisoners at the same riverside camp where they are forced to play Russian Roulette. This experience begins to drive Steven mad, but Nick and Mike endure to outsmart the prison guards long enough to shoot them and escape.

They are floating dowstream when a helicopter is able to rescue Nick only. Mike and Steven run into trouble when Steven falls and breaks both legs. Mike manages to rescue him through the jungle to safety. Nick is psychologically damaged and lost in the Saigon red light district where he gambles at Russian Roulette. Mike spotted him one night, but was unable to track him down before his flight back to Pennsylvania.

Mike returns a decorated war hero in full uniform, eager to see Linda, who he pined for--even through he is Nick's girl. Both Nick and Mike were each shown during the war pulling out the same small high school photo of Linda to get them through the hard times. She is waiting for Nick, but seems equally wanting something more with Mike. Mike is unsettled back home without his buddies. He learns that Steven has been sent home a double amputee and remains hidden away in the veteran's hospital, ashamed to see his friends. Mike seeks him out and Steven has been receiving mysterious envelopes of money from Viet Nam. This moves Mike to return to Saigon to find Nick.

Mike arrives in Saigon as it has become occupied by the Viet Cong--people were being shipped out, fires from bombs burned in the streets. Mike found Nick an empty shell of his former self, but he managed to face him in a match at the Roulette table, hoping to wake him up from the nightmare. Mike failed to stop Nick from the suicidal game. Instead, he brought Nick's body home for a funeral. The friends mourn together at a cemetary next to the steel mill and go off deer hunting once again after the funeral--for Nick. I like the bookend effect, but I kept thinking that the landscape appears much more spectacular than my vision of Pennsylvania.

Michael Camino's film is mostly colorless except for intentional bright spots--the red bandannas worn by the men at the Russian Roulette table, red blood, the flowers on Nick's coffin. The cinematography is dark and under-lit and many of the scenes take place at night. The movie is clearly anti-gun, despite the guns of the hunt, war and roulette table. Over and over, they are proven to be evil. Mike is unable to kill a deer during the final deer hunt.

The community assemble for a gathering at the local bar to complete the mourning. As the cook is preparing eggs for the group, he begins singing "God Bless America." Linda joins him and eventually all the others join in the singing. Sounds corny, but it is quite moving-- real. A lot was broken during that time and the movie nails it. Seeing DeNiro, Streep and Walken in their younger days is like seeing old friends. They have become such fixtures of Amerian film. Although he is not an "A-list" celebrity, John Savage continues to act in many movies. He is amazing in this one. John Cazale was cast as Stanley, one of the local friends. He was romantically involved with Meryl Streep at the time of shooting, but sadly, he died of lung cancer soon after this film. Only forty-two, he had already been featured in The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon.


The Rabbit Hole (2010)

John Cameron Mitchell's film was a good choice for a cold snowy Buffalo sunday afternoon. Beware--this is not a light-hearted fun film, but if you have an appetite for difficult stories about real life situations, this one is thoroughly engaging. Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhard) are an attractive fortyish couple who appear to have a beautiful life in a large victorian home by a body of water. This perfect world is a wonderful contrast to the dark stillness in their life--a huge loss has hit them.

We discover that they are stuck in grief after the sudden death of their only child. Well-meaning family and friends are caught in the middle of the couple's drama. Becca, once an art professional for Sotheby's auction house, has been a stay-at-home mom who is now searching for a way to reconnect to her life beyond gardening and baking. Her mother, Nat (Diane Wiest), shares her nurturing between one daughter who is unmarried and pregnant--and Becca, who is pleased by nothing. Nat carries her own grief after losing an adult son to drug addiction. Gaby (Sandra Oh) is a caring support group friend who helps Howie through the growing marital difficulties between he and Becca. Becca finds some relief from her pain as she befriends Jason, a neighborhood high school boy who has created a comic book called Rabbit Hole.

The movie tagline is "The only way out is through." The comic book art adds a curious visual to the landscape of this story through the pain of these characters.


Seraphine (2009)

I saw this film when it was first released, but found myself watching it again and immersing myself in a simpler time and place. The Martin Provost film shows the life of a simple peasant woman during the early 20th century--living alone with no family or friends in the countryside of Senlis, France.

Seraphine (Yolande Moreau) spends her days working as a simple cleaning woman. She leaves her daily job to wander and sit among trees and flowers. We learn that she is a deeply spiritual person who has spent time with nuns and was called by a spiritual force to paint. She knows nothing of the modern art world of Picasso and Braque that was exploding just miles away in Paris, but Seraphine spends the little money she has on wood and pigments from a local merchant. While journeying through the countryside, she collects cooking oils, melted candlewax, blood, flowers and mud to concoct her paints. Seraphine lives on food offerings from her employer, crumbs of bread and "energy wine" she brews while working. She returns to her tiny room to paint all evening by candlelight.

The film takes us on a vivid journey with her as the gentleman she cleans for turns out to be Wilhelm Uhde, a Paris art collector. He eventually discovers her secret life as a painter and her vibrant pictures of foliage and flowers. Uhde is moved by her exceptional talent, as he had recently discovered the Primitive Moderne style of the painter, Rousseau and his good friend, Kahnweiler, was introducing the paintings of Picasso.

Uhde's attention and encouragement sparked Seraphine to work ossessively--even as the war breaks out and many flee, including Uhde. All the people of means leave town, but she remains and continues to paint as bombs sound in the distance. Udhe returns several years later and resumes his support of her career by offering a monthly stipend. The big show he promises is delayed due to the sinking economy of the late 1920s and Seraphine's fragile mental state deteriorates.

The encounter with Uhde saved her work from obscurity and Seraphine de Senlis has often been grouped with the naive primitive painters referred to as Sacred Heart Painters. The best part of this story is not her discovery by a powerful collector. More fascinating--her ability to express human creative nature, despite lack of education, money, class.

Paris Je T'aime (2006)

This is the film that inspired New York, I Love You (reviewed below).

Various neighborhoods of Paris are featured in short films directed by a dozen filmmakers, including Gus Van Sant, Wes Craven, Ethan and Joel Cohen. Again, the cast is huge, but several actors from theNew York film were in this original--Natalie Portman, Nick Nolte, Willem Dafoe. Some of the others are Bob Hoskins, Fanny Ardant, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazara, Juliette Binoche, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Elija Wood.

The Cohen Brothers' segment is especially good. Steve Buscemi is an American tourist interacting with a pair of lovers in The Metro. Any film shot in Paris is off to a good start. I would say the same of any film shot in New York. This collage style of stories with a huge cast of top actors has become more common for a good reason. Maybe we have all become accustomed to short bytes of input. However, this format offers more than just small digestible pieces. This style has a more intimate quality. Anyone watching closely will find patterns and threads woven throughout the entire film. Both movies are quite enjoyable.


New York, I Love You (2009)

Twelve directors and seventeen writers created a web of stories that follow the format of Paris Je T'aime, as each story takes place in a different area of the city. It is a valentine to New York.

I found this film in my quest for more Natalie Portman. She is listed here as director, writer and star of one segment about a Hasidic diamond trader about to be married and her dealings with a Jain Indian associate as the two discover their commonality.

Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman portray a married couple in Brighton Beach on their 63rd wedding anniversary.

Chris Cooper and Robin Wright Penn are a flirtatious couple smoking outside a restaurant.

Julie Christie is a former opera singer visiting a New York Hotel.

Another scenario involves a downtown artist who paints asian women on napkins using soy sauce in Chinatown restaurants.

A dancer who is mistaken for a "Manny" by a couple of women who observe him playing with his white daughter in Central Park.

Gus (Bradley Cooper) shows up in several scenes throughout and portrays a guy thinking through a one-night stand with a woman he may actually be falling for.

Ethan Hawk, Orlando Bloom, Eva Amuri, Andy Garcia are also featured along with many others in wonderfully unique tales.

The DVD extra features include two short films that are both lovely.

Vagabond Shoes is written and directed by Scarlett Johansson and stars Kevin Bacon as a man as he dresses and goes out to eat his bag lunch on a bench by the water. The five-minute gem has a very long list of credits attached.

Apocrypha, written and directed by Andrey Zuyagintsev, is about a boy who observes two lovers from afar.

Leon: The Professional (1994)

After seeing Natalie Portman's startling performance in Black Swan, I was eager to watch some of her previous films. I had enjoyed seeing her as the pregnant teen living in Walmart in Where the Heart Is (2000) and her more grown-up role in the love triangle romance, Closer (2004). Someone suggested I check out this one, her first role at age twelve.

Luc Bresson's film tells the story of Mathilda (Natalie Portman) who lives in a chaotic world of sex, violence and family drug dealers. She and her little brother create their own safe haven together until all are shot one day while she is out at the grocery store.

Mathilda begs her neighbor to take her in after the incident that leaves her alone in the world and a prime witness. The solitary immigrant, Leon (Jean Reno) lives a life when he is not out doing a job as "cleaner" (hitman). Mathilda finds her way into his heart and life as she impresses him with her toughness and determination to learn his trade so she can seek justice with her brother's killer.

Stansfield (Gary Oldman), is a wayward member of the police force searching for Mathilda. Tony (Danny Aiello) is Leon's Mafia-like boss. I found the first twenty minutes a bit difficult, as the film begins with a stretch of rough violence, but once it shifts to the relationship between Mathilda and Leon, Portman's talent shines and the film takes on a more quirky tone.

The two drink a lot of milk and teach each other things. There is once precious scene where she attempts to insert some playfulness and fun into their dreary existence by dressing up as celebrities and spoofing Madonna and Marilyn Monroe. and making him guess who, but his knowledge of American culture is so limited that he gets none of it. He takes a turn at stumping Mathilda when he does his impression of John Wayne.

The film requires some dispending of reality for a moment to accept that an adult would hide a child sought after by the police. After that, the film becomes a charming love story unlike anything else. She was already an amazing actress back then.


Howl (2010)

The film opens with a statement explaining that every word spoken in the film was once spoken by the actual people portrayed--it is both like a documentary and quite different. The story focuses on Allen Ginsberg and his famous poem, HOWL, first read in 1955 to a crowd at San Francisco's Six Gallery when he was 29. Ginsberg later refers to the poem as a bomb due to the impact it had on our culture.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman partnered with Gus Van Sant to create a film that is part conventional biopic/documentary and a psychedelic Fantasia. The film raises questions...Who has the right to free expression? What is art?

Ginsberg (James Franco) is shown in New York during while attending Columbia. He grew up with a poet/teacher for a father (Louis Ginsberg), but it was not until he met Jack Kerouc that he began to imitate his father's style of rhyming poetry. He fell in love and his muse was awakened. He wrote for Jack's attention. They were both influenced by William Carlos Williams and the imagination. The two moved to San Francisco, where Ginsberg worked as a copywriter for an advertising agency and. developed a philosophy of writing that was focused on speaking frankly as he did with his friends.

Key moments of Ginsberg's life are woven together with a reading of HOWL, various comments about the poem, the texture of life in mid-1950s America--a transitional time between the cold war and growing counter-culture years. The epic poem lambastes the consumerism and conformism of the era and opened the door to our post-modern world.

The film includes fantasy animations to reflect the imagery of the poem..."visionary indian angels chinamen of Oklahoma, angel-headed hipsters."

Also featured are courtroom scenes from infamous obscenity trial after Lawrence Ferlinghetti was accused of publishing and selling obcsene materials (HOWL) at his City Lights bookstore. Jon Hamm portrays the defense attorney and Mary-Louise Parker is a witness.

The film was surprisingly good. James Franco captures Ginsberg's speech inflections and important presence in the beat poetry scene of the mid-20th century.

The DVD includes extra features that add background to the making of HOWL and Ginsberg's life as a poet.