Sunday, May 24, 2020

Michael Cimino's Oscar-winning THE DEER HUNTER gets Blu-ray/4K Ultra HD treatment

With the new release of both Blu-ray and 4K ultra high-def transfers of THE DEER HUNTER, yet another Best Picture "Oscar" winner joins the ranks of the embarrassingly over-rated. While certainly better than movies such as Crash, Around the World in 80 Days or The Greatest Show on Earth (to name but three of many), this film, directed by another Oscar winner Michael Cimino, with a screenplay (dialog as utterly prosaic as you could ask for) by Deric Washburn, who was Oscar-nominated, does have attributes still apparent enough for us to understand why it so impressed critics and movie-goers at the time of its 1978 release.

The war in Vietnam had ended but three years previous, and here was a movie that tackled that subject, seemingly in spades. The late director Cimino (shown at right) did a brave thing by tossing his audience into a day and night in the life of small-town Pennsylvania, using a Russian Orthodox wedding and its after-party as the way to introduce us to the film's large array of characters. Unfortunately almost all those characters prove to be unrelentingly dumb and drunk.

The exception is Michael, played by Robert De Niro, with a partial exception of another, Linda, played by Meryl Streep -- both of these, shown below, actors whose intelligence is difficult to keep under wraps.

Washburn's script underscores Michael's separation from the pack too obviously and heavily, with the uber-symbolic deer hunting sequence(s) set to embarrassingly awful music that tries to make the killing of a deer somehow a religious experience. Sorry: Even if the killing is done, as the movie would have it, via a single shot -- no dice. Instead it offers a look at Cimino's sentimentality in full swing.

The entire first hour of this three-hour-plus film is devoted to that pre-wedding, wedding and post-wedding party, and then the movie plops us into Vietnam, again with none of the usual basic-training or explanatory scenes we usually get in our war films. We're just suddenly thrust into post-battle, as the massacre of women and children, followed by a bit of vengeance, takes place. Soon our three heroes, Michael, along with his pals Nick (Christopher Walken, below)

and Steven (John Savage, below), are conveniently reunited, only to be, next moment, imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese, in a scene featuring a form of Russian Roulette that was controversial at the time of theatrical release and remains so today. It works quite well, however, as a trigger for melodrama, the easy psychologising of Nick's character, revenge and a full-circle finale -- while providing a nifty action set-piece midway through the film.

Post-Vietnam-War we're back in Pennsylvania again, as our boys Michael and Steven pick up the very damaged pieces until, for the finale, Michael returns to Vietnam to "rescue" Nick. A lot of coincidence dots the movie, which, to my mind, prevents it from being taken nearly as seriously as a lot of critics did and do. As does the film's embrace of somewhat schlocky sentimentality posing as stark drama. (Plus, the scene at the wedding between our boys and that Green Beret at the bar seems cribbed from a class in Foreshadowing 101.)

The movie's view of the Vietnam War is utterly ahistorical in that it looks at the whole thing from the viewpoint of a small American town completely in thrall to both religion and patriotism. This is certainly true-to-life and it is also a valid viewpoint for a writer and director to take, should they choose it. Forty years on, this part of the film holds up, I would say, as well as it did upon original release. Even if you were dead set against this war, as I was , I think you must somewhat bow to the viewpoint here -- even if you might also wish that the filmmakers had included maybe one single atrocity by us Americans. But, hey, nobody so in thrall to religion and patriotism could ever see -- let alone admit to -- something like that.

What does not hold up, if it ever did, is the idea of The Deer Hunter as movie art. Even the performances struggle to rise above the obvious, with Ms Streep giving what may be the least interesting one of her entire career. Characters are mostly one- (very occasionally two-) note -- the men dumb and drunk, the women present to serve and/or be abused -- and the prosaic script gives them little chance to do much about this. Among supporting performances, the most interesting comes from George Dzundza, above, the least interesting from John Cazale, shown below, left.

Scene after scene endures past the point it should, adding to the huge length, so that by the film's finale, we can mostly sigh and shrug, Yeah, yeah: We get it. And then there's that final "deer" epiphany, accompanied by some more crappy, inspirational music. The Blu-ray transfer looks good but not great (TrustMovies does not have the equipment to view the 4K ultra HD disc), and among the bonus features, the interview with critic and film historian David Thompson is the most enjoyable. Even when I disagree with Thompson, I find this guy a delight.

From Shout! Factory/Shout Select, the two-disc boxed set of The Deer Hunter (Collector's Edition) will hit the street this coming Tuesday, May 26 -- for purchase (and, I would hope, rental). 

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