Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Coming Home (dir by Hal Ashby)


Well, here we are!  It’s January 1st.  In just a few days, the Oscar nominations will be announced and then, on February 9th, the winners will be revealed!  From now until the day of the ceremony, I will be taking a look at some of the films that were nominated for and won Oscars in the past.  As of this writing, 556 films have been nominated for best picture.  I hope that, some day, I will be able to say that I have seen and reviewed every single one of them.

Let’s start things off with the 1978 Best Picture nominee, Coming Home!

Coming Home takes place in California in 1968.  While hippies stand on street corners and flash peace signs, teenagers are being drafted and career military men are leaving for Vietnam and people continue to tell themselves that America is doing the right thing in Indochina, even though no one’s really sure just what exactly it is that’s going on over there.  At the local VA hospital, the wounded and the bitter try to recover from their wartime experiences while struggling with an often heartless bureaucracy and feelings of having been abandoned by their country.

When Marine Corps. Capt. Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern) is deployed to Vietnam, he leaves behind his wife, Sally (Jane Fonda).  Told that she can no longer live on the base while her husband is overseas, Sally gets an apartment, a new car, and eventually a new hairdo.  She also gets a new friend, Vi Munson (Penelope Milford).  Vi smokes weed and is critical of the war in Vietnam.  It doesn’t take long for Sally to start to enjoy the idea of being free and not having to cater to Bob’s every whim.  Sally even ends up volunteering at the local VA hospital.

That’s where she meets Luke (Jon Voight, looking youngish and incredibly sexy), a bitter but sensitive vet who, having gone to Vietnam and returned to the U.S. as a paraplegic, is now outspoken in his opposition to the war.  Luke is also friends with Billy (Robert Carradine), who is Vi’s shell-shocked brother.  When Luke and Sally first meet, they collide in a hallway and Sally gets a bag full of urine spilled on her.  It’s only later that Luke and Sally realize that they knew each other in high school and soon, they’re having an affair.  Luke, who is as gentle a lover as Bob is brutish, brings Sally to her first orgasm in a sensitively-directed scene that should be studied by any and all aspiring filmmakers.

Unfortunately, the problem with having an affair while your husband is away is that, eventually, your husband’s going to come back.  Bob returns from Vietnam and he’s no longer the confident and gung ho officer that he was at the start of the film.  He now walks with a pronounced limp and, like Luke, he’s angry.  However, whereas Luke has channeled his anger in to activism, Bob tries to keep his emotions bottled up.  (He does take the time to give the finger to a few protesters and, considering how obnoxious most of the protesters in this film are, you can’t help but feel that Bob may have had a point.)  When Bob discovers that Luke and Sally have been having an affair, he snaps….

Meanwhile, Billy is having a hard time readjusting to life, Vi is getting picked up by sleazy men in bars, and there’s a ventriloquist who shows up a few times.  There’s a lot going on in Coming Home and, at times, it feels like the film’s trying to cram in too much.  The film often seems a bit disjointed, with semi-documentary footage of Voight hanging out with real paraplegic vets awkwardly mixed in with didactic scenes of Sally turning against the war.

That the love story between Sally and Luke is so effective has far more to do with the performances of Jane Fonda and especially Jon Voight, than it does with anything in the film’s script.  Indeed, the script itself doesn’t seem to be too concerned with who Luke and Sally were before they collided in that hallway and it also doesn’t seem to be all that interested in who they’ll be after the end credits role.  As written, they’re just plot devices, specifically created and manipulated to express the film’s antiwar message.  But then you see Jon Voight’s haunted eyes while he’s listening to a group of vets discuss their experience or you hear the pain in his voice while he talks to a bunch of high school students and it’s those little moments and details that tell you who Luke is.  By that same token, Jane Fonda does a good job of showing each stage in Sally’s liberation, even if you can’t help but feel that the main reason Sally becomes an anti-war feminist is because she’s played by Jane Fonda.

Of course, in the end, the entire film is stolen by Bruce Dern.  You actually end up feeling very sorry for Bob Hyde (and, to the film’s credit, you’re meant to).  It would have been very easy to just portray Bob as being a close-minded pig but the film respects his pain just as much as it respects Luke’s anti-war activism and Sally’s need to be free.  In the end, you actually feel worse for Bob than you do for either Luke or Sally.  Bob is as much a victim of the war as anyone else in the film.

Coming Home was one of the first films about Vietnam to ever be nominated for best picture.  Jane Fonda and Jon Voight both won Oscars but the film itself lost to a far different look at the war in Vietnam, The Deer Hunter.

Cannes Film Review: Missing (dir by Costa-Gavras)


The 1982 film Missing takes place in Chile, shortly after the American-backed military coup that took out that country’s democratically elected President, Salvador Allende.

Of course, the film itself never specifically states this.  Instead, it opens with a narrator informing us that the story we’re about to see is true but that some names have been changed “to protect the innocent and the film.”  The film takes place in an unnamed in South America, where the military has just taken over the government.  Curfew is enforced by soldiers and the sound of gunfire is continually heard in the distance.  Throughout the film, dead bodies pile up in the streets.  Prisoners are held in the National Stadium, where they are tortured and eventually executed.  Women wearing pants are pulled out of crowds and told that, from now on, women will wear skirts.  The sky is full of helicopters and, when an earthquake hits, guests in a posh hotel are fired upon when they try to leave.  About the only people who seem to be happy about the coup is the collection of brash CIA agents and military men who randomly pop up throughout the film.

Again, the location is never specifically identified as Chile.  In fact, except for the picture of Richard Nixon hanging in the American embassy, the film never goes out of its way to point out that the film itself is taking place in the early 70s.  If you know history, of course, it’s obviously meant to be Chile after Allende but the film itself is set up to suggest that the story its telling is not limited to one specific place or time.

Charlie Horman (John Shea) is an American who lives in the country with his wife, Beth (Sissy Spacek).  Charlie is a writer who occasionally publishes articles in a local left-wing newspaper.  In the aftermath of the coup, Charlie is one of the many people who go missing.  All that’s known is that he was apparently arrested and then he vanished into the system.  The authorities and the American ambassador insist that Charlie probably just got lost in the confusion of the coup and that he’ll turn up any day.  Even though thousands have been executed, everyone assumes that Charlie’s status as an American would have kept him safe.  As brutal as the new government may be, they surely wouldn’t execute an American….

Or, at least, that’s what Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) believes.  Ed is Charlie’s father, a businessman from New York who simply cannot understand what’s going on.  He can’t understand why his son and his daughter-in-law went to South America in the first place.  He can’t understand why his government is not doing more to find his son.  And, when he eventually arrives in South America himself, Ed cannot understand the violence that he sees all around him.

Working with Beth, Ed investigates what happened to his son.  At first, Ed blames Beth for Charlie’s disappearance and Beth can barely hide her annoyance with her conservative father-in-law.  But, as their search progresses, Beth and Ed come to understand each other.  Beth starts to see that, in his way, Ed is just as determined an idealist as Charlie.  And Ed learns that Charlie and Beth had good reason to distrust the American government…

Costa-Gavras is not exactly a subtle director and it would be an understatement to say that Missing is a heavy-handed film.  The Embassy staff is so villainous that you’re shocked they don’t all have mustaches to twirl while considering their evil plans.  When, in a flashback, Charlie meets a shady American, it’s not enough for the man to be a CIA agent.  Instead, he has to be a CIA agent from Texas who heartily laughs after everything he says and who brags on himself in the thickest accent imaginable.  When Charlie talks to an American military officer, it’s not enough that the officer is happy about the coup.  Instead, he has to start talking about how JFK sold everyone out during the Bay of Pigs.

As the same time, the film’s lack of subtlety also leads to its best moments.  When Beth finds herself out after curfew, the city turns into a Hellish landscape of burning books and dead bodies.  As Beth huddles in a corner, she watches as a magnificent white horse runs down a dark street, followed by a group of gun-toting soldiers in a jeep.  When Ed and Beth explore a morgue, they walk through several rooms of the “identified” dead before they find themselves in a room containing the thousands of unidentified dead.  It’s overwhelming and heavy-handed but it’s also crudely effective.  While the film itself is a bit too heavy-handed to really be successful, those scenes do capture the horror of living under an authoritarian regime.

(Interestingly, Missing was a part of a mini-genre of films about Americans trapped in right-wing South American dictatorships.  While you can’t deny the good intentions of these films, it’s hard not to notice the lack of films about life in Chavez’s Venezuela or the political dissidents who were lobotomized in Castro’s Cuba.)

Missing won the Palme d’Or at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival (an award that it shared, that year, with the Turkish film Yol) and it also received an Oscar nomination for best picture of the year.  (It lost to Gandhi.)

A Movie A Day #305: Go Tell The Spartans (1978, directed by Ted Post)


One of the best films ever made about Vietnam is also one of the least known.

Go Tell The Spartans takes place in 1964, during the early days of the Vietnam War.  Though the Americans at home may not know just how hopeless the situation is in South Vietnam, Major Barker (Burt Lancaster, in one of his best performances) does.  Barker is a career military man.  He served in World War II and Korea and now he’s ending his career in Vietnam, taking orders from younger superiors who have no idea what they are talking about.  Barker has been ordered to occupy a deserted village, Muc Wa.  Barker knows that occupying Muc Wa will not make any difference but he is in the army and he follows orders.

Barker sends a small group to Muc Wa.  Led by the incompetent Lt. Hamilton (Joe Unger), the group also includes a drug-addicted medic (Dennis Howard), a sadistic South Vietnamese interrogator (Evan C. Kim) who claims that every civilian that the men meet is actually VC, a sergeant (Jonathan Goldsmith) who is so burned out that he would rather commit suicide than take command, and Cpl. Courcey (Craig Wasson).  Courcey is a college-educated idealist, who joined the army to do the right thing and is now about to discover how complicated that can be in South Vietnam.  At Muc Wa, the soldiers find a cemetery containing the graves of French soldiers who died defending the hamlet during the First Indochina War.  The inscription as the cemetery reads, “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”  

Because the film strives for realism over easy drama, Go Tell The Spartans has never gotten the same attention as some other Vietnam films.  Unlike The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Coming Home, and Born on the 4th of July, Go Tell The Spartans received no Oscar nominations.  It is still a brilliantly acted and powerful anti-war (but never anti-soldier) film.  It starts out as deceptively low-key but the tension quickly builds as the soldier arrive at Muc Wa and discover that their orders are both futile and impossible to carry out.  Vastly outnumbered, the Americans also find themselves dealing with a land and a culture that is so unlike their own that they are often not even sure who they are fighting.  Military discipline, as represented by Lt. Hamilton, is no match for the guerilla tactics of the VC.  By the film’s end, Vietnam is revealed to be a war that not even Burt Lancaster can win.

A Movie A Day #262: Downtown (1990, directed by Richard Benjamin)


Alex (Anthony Edwards) is a patrolman assigned to the nicest neighborhood in Philadelphia but, after he gets in trouble for pulling over a wealthy businessman (David Clennon), he is told that he can either be suspended or he can take a transfer downtown, to the Diamond Street precinct.  Alex takes the transfer, even though everyone on the force says that “not even the Terminator would go to Diamond Street.”  Alex gets assigned to work with seasoned Sgt. Dennis Curren (Forest Whitaker), who is still emotionally scarred by the death of his former partner and does not want to have to babysit a naive white cop from the suburbs, especially one who is obsessed with the Beach Boys.  At first, Alex struggles with his new assignment and his new partner but, when an old friend is murdered by a notorious hitman (Joe Pantoliano), Alex is determined to crack the case and bring the killer to justice.

Downtown is a combination of other, better cop films: Alex’s situation is Beverly Hills Cop in reverse and his partnership with Dennis is lifted straight from Lethal Weapon.  Art Evans is the captain who is always yelling at Alex and Dennis and telling them to drop the case and the character is so familiar that I had to check to make sure that Evans had not played the same role in Lethal Weapon.  As the bad guys, Clennon and Pantoliano could just have easily been replaced by Beverly Hills Cop‘s Steven Berkoff and Jonathan Banks and no one would have noticed.  The only real difference is that Downtown is neither as exciting nor as funny as those two films.  Downtown was directed by Richard Benjamin, who will never be known as a particularly versatile filmmaker and who struggles to balance the fish-out-of-water comedy with some surprisingly brutal violence.  Beverly Hills Cops had Eddie Murphy and Lethal Weapon had Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.  Downtown has Anthony Edwards and Forest Whitaker, who are both good actors but who both seem to be woefully miscast here.  (If Downtown were made today, Whitaker could play Dennis but, in 1990, he was too young to be the cop who was “too old for this shit.”)    Of the many Lethal Weapon ripoffs that came out in late 80s and early 90s, Downtown is one of the most forgettable.

 

A Movie A Day #15: Special Bulletin (1983, directed by Ed Zwick)


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“We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for a special report…”

Led by veteran anchor John Woodley, the RBS news team is providing continuing coverage of a developing crisis in Charleston, South Carolina, where terrorists are holding several members of the coast guard, a local new reporter, and his cameraman hostage on a small tugboat.  These are not typical terrorists, though.  Two of them are nuclear scientists.  One of them is a social worker.  Another one is a nationally-renowned poet.  The final terrorist is a former banker robber who was just recently released from prison.  This unlikely group has only two demands: that the U.S. government hand over every single nuclear trigger device at the U.S. Naval Base and that RBS give them a live television feed so that they can explain their actions to the nation.  If either of those demands are not met, a nuclear bomb will be detonated and will destroy Charleston.

This made-for-TV movie was shot on video tape, to specifically make it look like an actual news broadcast.  Though much of the movie seems dated when compared to today’s slick, 24-hour media circus, Special Bulletin was convincing enough that, when it was originally broadcast in 1983, it caused a mini-panic among viewers who missed the opening disclaimer:

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Because the movie deals with the threat of nuclear terrorism instead of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear war, it still feels relevant in a way that many of the atomic disaster films of the 1980s do not.  Beyond making an anti-nuclear statement, Special Bulletin is also a critical look at how the news media sensationalizes every crisis, with the RBS news team going from smug complacency to outright horror as the situation continues to deteriorate.  David Clennon and David Rasche are memorable as the two most outspoken of the terrorists and Ed Flanders is perfectly cast as a veteran news anchor struggling to maintain control in the middle of an uncontrollable situation.  Special Bulletin won an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Special and can be currently be found on YouTube.

Keep an eye out for Michael Madsen, who shows up 57 minutes in and gets the movie’s best line: “That guy’s a total psycho ward.”

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Shattered Politics #43: Being There (dir by Hal Ashby)


Original_movie_poster_for_Being_There

As a general rule, I don’t watch the news.  However, a few nights ago, I made an exception and I watched CNN.  The reason was because it was snowing in New York City and apparently, CNN anchorman Don Lemon was broadcasting from something called the Blizzardmobile.  I just had to see that!

Well, the Blizzardmobile turned out to be huge letdown.  I was hoping for something like the Snowpiercer train but instead, it just turned out to be a SUV with a camera crew and a pompous anchorman who hilariously kept insisting that he was knee-deep in a blizzard when even a Texas girl like me could tell that the Blizzardmobile was only encountering a few snow flurries.

So, I flipped around to see if any of the other news stations had anyone in a blizzardmobile.  What I discovered was that only CNN had a blizzardmobile but one thing that every news station did have was a panel of experts.  An anchorperson would say something like, “What does the future look like?” and the panel of experts would tell us what the future looked like to them.  What I found interesting was that I had no idea who these experts were but yet I was supposed to just believe that their opinions were worth considering.

I mean, for all I knew, those experts could have just been people who were spotted wandering around New York at night.  But, because they were introduced as experts and looked directly at the camera whenever they spoke, they were suddenly authoritative voices.

Oddly enough, the very next night, I watched a movie from 1979 that dealt with the exact same issue.

Being There tells the story of Chance (Peter Sellers), a dignified, middle-aged man who lives in Washington, D.C. and works as a gardener for a wealthy older man.  Chance cannot read.  Chance cannot write.  Chance goes through life with a blank smile on his face.  Chance has never experienced the outside world.  Instead, he spends all of his time working in the old man’s garden and obsessively watching TV.  When the old man dies, Chance finds himself exiled from the house.  Wandering around Washington D.C., Chance asks a random woman to make him dinner.  He politely speaks with a drug dealer who pulls a knife on him.  Finally, he finds himself entranced by a window display of televisions.  Backing away from the window, Chance stumbles into the street and is struck by a car.

Though he’s not seriously injured, the owner of the car, Eve Rand (Shirley MacClaine), insists that Chance come back to her mansion with him so that he can be checked out by her private physician (Richard Dysart).  As they drive back to the house, Eve asks Chance for his name.

“Chance the Gardner,” Chance replies.

“Chauncey Gardiner?” Eve asks.

Chance blankly nods.

Back the house, Chance meets Eve’s husband, Ben (Melvyn Douglas).  Ben is a wealthy industrialist who is dying of leukemia.  Ben takes an immediate liking to Chance.  Because Chance is wearing the old man’s suits, everyone assumes that Chance is a wealthy businessman.  When Chance says that he had to leave his home, they assume that his business must have failed due to government regulation.  When Chance talks about his garden, everyone assumes that he’s speaking in metaphors.

Soon, Ben is introducing Chance to his friend, Bobby (Jack Warden).  Bobby happens to be the President and when he quotes Chance in a speech, Chance the Gardner is suddenly the most famous man in the country.  When he appears on a TV talk show, the audience mistakes his emotionless comments for dry wit.  When he talks about how the garden reacts to different seasons, they assume that he’s an economic genius.  By the end of the film, Bobby has become so threatened by Chance’s popularity that he’s been rendered impotent while wealthy, rich men plot to make Chance the next President of the United States.

Chance and Neil

In many ways, Chauncey Gardiner was the Neil deGrasse Tyson of his era.

Being There is a one joke film and the idea of someone having no emotional skills beyond what he’s seen on television was probably a lot more mind-blowing back in 1979 than it is in 2015.  But I still enjoyed the film.  Peter Sellers gave a great performance as Chance, never sentimentalizing the character.  As well, the film’s point is still relevant.  If Being There were made today, Chance would be the subject of clickbait articles and Facebook memes.  (Chauncey Gardiner listed his ten top movies and number 8 will surprise you!  Or maybe This boy asked Chauncey Gardiner about his garden and his response was perfect.)

At its best, Being There is a film that will encourage you to question every expert you may see.  Especially if he’s just stepped out of a blizzardmobile…

 

Gone Girl – The 2nd Trailer


The 2nd trailer for Gone Girl was released recently. David Fincher’s and Gillian Flynn’s film adaptation of Flynn’s popular novel focuses on a writer dealing with the disappearance of his wife. While the trailer expands things a bit compared to the teaser (as any trailer would), there’s the strangest set of casting choices for this film. What I’m most excited about is Flynn handling her own screenplay. Movies are always different from books, but I’m hoping it works out. One fills in the blanks as they go through the story, and I read this before finding out anything concrete about the film. Additionally, I’m also curious about what Trent Reznor  and Atticus Ross are doing for the soundtrack, which also comes out around the same time.

Gone Girl premieres in cinemas on October 3rd.