Coming Home (1978)

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Starring: Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, Penelope Milford, Robert Carradine

Director: Hal Ashby

Summary: While her husband serves in Vietnam, a young woman falls in love with a disabled veteran

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Voight)*, Actress (Fonda)*, Supporting Actor (Dern), Supporting Actress (Milford), Original Screenplay*, Film Editing

Positives

-Voight is the standout here, as he threads the needle between being too nice and overly-sympathetic and letting his rough edges make him too unlikeable. While playing a handicapped Vietnam vet is the height of Oscar bait, he fully deserved his award. Fonda generally isn’t my favorite and her having two Best Actress Oscars (this and Klute) feels undeserved, she’s good throughout the movie and carries her weight; I just think that her role could have probably been played equally well by a number of other actress. Finally, Dern, who mostly only shows up at the beginning and the end, is really good, especially at the end where he brings the kind intensity that the film previously lacked.

-This has one of the better sex scenes I’ve seen in a Hollywood movie, in that it’s both tasteful and it feels significant to the characters and the story.

Negatives

-The movie in general feels lacking in bite or real emotional power outside of a couple of scenes. It feels like the people making the film wanted to both make a statement on how Vietnam veterans were treated and their feelings about the war in general but at the same time it never left its comfort zone and feels very safe, to the movie’s detriment. Even if it never bored me, the whole movie story-wise felt lukewarm most of the time even if I liked the characters and performances quite a bit.

-The soundtrack on this movie must have cost huge money, as it’s basically a greatest hits collection of the time period from the movie (1968): among others, here’s Hey Jude & Strawberry Fields Forever from The Beatles, Born to Be Wild, White Rabbit, For What It’s Worth, a Bob Dylan song and no less than seven songs from The Rolling Stones. While this is right on my wheelhouse musically, the songs really don’t really fit well at all because of how they’re used-why have these kind of songs play over normal, dialogue heavy scenes? The obvious comparison is American Graffiti, which used tons of songs from the 50’s to evoke its period to great effect, but here it just feels like they had a scene and just slapped a famous song over it and it doesn’t work at all.

Overall

Solid movie during the first wave of movies about Vietnam with strong performances and characters even if the story feels a little lacking in oomph.

Rating: B-

*The Deer Hunter (1978)*

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Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, George Dzundza

Director: Michael Cimino

Summary: Three young men fight to survive the Vietnam War and its aftermath

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (De Niro), Supporting Actor (Walken)*, Supporting Actress (Streep), Original Screenplay, Sound Mixing*, Cinematography, Film Editing*

Positives

-The movie has some clear high and low points, but those highpoints really are excellent. The whole scene in the bar is done perfectly with the characters where the impact of them having to leave to go to war hits them suddenly and the cinematography and music choices are excellent. The final scene is a great coda to the entire film and encapsulates the tone of the era in regards to the country. I also really liked the early scenes that did a great job of establishing the small-town, steel-town feel and what the characters lives are like before they head off to Vietnam. I thought the jarring shift an hour in worked because it emphasizes how disorienting and jarring the change is for our characters. Of course, the most famous scenes are the “Russian Roulette” ones, and they are extremely tense and work as an effective metaphor for the senselessness and chaotic random nature of war and Vietnam in general even if nothing like it ever actually happened in Vietnam.

-The cast as a whole is really good. De Niro in his prime had a lot of range and here he plays a very sensitive character who feels real and the changes his character undergoes feel genuine. I’ve always liked Christopher Walken because he would do anything and everything movie-wise and give his all every time whether it was The Dead Zone (probably his best starring role) or The Country Bears; his scenes during and after the war are consistently highlights of the film and his eyes are extremely expressive and drive home where his mind is at any given point. The movie also marked the breakout role for Meryl Streep (who is very good) and the last film for her partner John Cazale (who doesn’t get to do all that much here unfortunately) because he died of lung cancer.

Negatives

-Oh god, the wedding scene-it goes on and on and on and on…seriously, it could have been done just as effectively in like 20 minutes and instead it takes up 51 minutes from start to finish. This feels like a bad omen for the kind of director Michael Cimino was, in that everything is absurdly drawn out in Heaven’s Gate as well. In particular, I though the “drop of wine hitting the guy’s tux” shot was way overdone and would have been better if they didn’t make such an obvious deal out of it with the cinematography and editing.

-There’s no arguing that the Vietcong did horrible things to American POWs and I didn’t really have a big problem with the Russian Roulette scenes with the POWs even if there’s nothing to indicate they outright killed people for fun. However, I didn’t like that when we go back to Vietnam, pretty much everybody there is a two-dimensional monster even out of the war setting. Midnight Express (another movie coming up soon) is even worse, but this is still pretty bad.

Overall

Even with its flaws, it’s still a very good movie about the horrors of war that still holds most of its impact with a lot of good performances and a number of memorable scenes.

Rating: B+

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

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Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, James Mason, Jack Warden, Charles Grodin, Dyan Cannon, Buck Henry

Directors: Warren Beatty & Buck Henry

Summary: When a football player dies early, he gets a second chance in the body of a crooked industrialist

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Beatty), Supporting Actor (Warden), Supporting Actress (Cannon), Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Art Direction*, Cinematography

Positives

-Considering this is a very close remake of a movie I reviewed earlier (Here Comes Mr. Jordan)-they changed the sport from boxing to football and the crooked businessman goes from stock scammer to polluting industrialist-side by side comparisons between the two will make up most of the review. So what did I think the remake did well, or even better than the original (which I gave a B+)? Both Grodin and Cannon are an improvement over the original actors, and have way more personality and slightly bigger roles in the movie. I liked Beatty more than I expected to, as I thought Robert Montgomery was a huge reason why that movie worked so well and I didn’t know Beatty could play a humble, low-key person as well as he did. Finally, the story is still creative, although seeing it for a second time lessened it for me as one would expect

Negatives

-None of the other actors were as good as those in the original: James Mason is a great actor, but he lacks the warmth Claude Rains had; Jack Warden isn’t as good as James Gleason and his tone is just slightly off like the whole movie is; and Buck Henry isn’t quite as good as Edward Everett Horton who was a character actor who specialized in the kind of high-strung character each plays. Christie is pretty much equal to the woman who played the love interest in the original, but that’s not saying much and neither added much to their movies.

-The tone feels a little less goofy overall and it failed to fully embrace how far out its premise is unlike the original. We see less of Mr. Jordan (Mason/Rains), which is a shame since Rains’ interactions with Montgomery were a highlight in the original, but then again, Mason’s portrayal isn’t the same as Rains so I don’t think it would have mattered.

Other Stuff

-The Super Bowl in the movie is a match-up of the LA Rams and the Pittsburgh Steelers; they were close, but a year too early, as this was the match-up for the Super Bowl after the 1979 season not the 1978 season (which was Pittsburgh-Dallas).

Overall

Beatty is fine in the lead, but it’s an inferior remake to the original and overall a somewhat baffling Best Picture nominee as nothing about it screams great or even really good.

Rating: C

Midnight Express (1978)

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Starring: Brad Davis (his feature film debut), Randy Quaid, John Hurt, Paul L. Smith, Paolo Bonacelli

Director: Alan Parker

Summary: A young man arrested for drug smuggling fights to survive the horrors of a Turkish prison

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Hurt), Adapted Screenplay*, Original Score*, Film Editing

Positives

-Consistently engaging throughout with good dramatic tension. The movie kicks right off with some outstanding, tense scenes with him trying to get through an airport and I always appreciate a movie that gets down to business immediately and hooks you right at the beginning. The rest of the movie is tightly focused on the main character, his plight and his attempts to get out of prison through legal methods or otherwise and plots out it’s peaks and valleys well so there’s never an extended lull. The screenplay earned Oliver Stone his first Oscar and I can see why even if the adaptation itself had some issues.

-The synth-heavy score feels very ahead of its time (and by that I mean like something from the 80s, or something from John Carpenter I guess) with “Chase Theme” being the highlight.

-I didn’t necessarily think there were any standout performances, but everybody is at least pretty good and Davis and Hurt do a great job of looking more and disheveled as the film progresses, through a combination of makeup and staying up for hours I would imagine (and apparently Hurt just stopped taking showers during the entire shoot).

Negatives

-The movie does for the Turks what The Deer Hunter did for the Vietnamese, except it’s honestly even worse because of how many types of Turkish people we see that are awful-prison guards, prisoners, police, judges, prosecutors and lawyers are all without exception either one-dimensional monsters or useless bums. When the guy who’s real-life experiences as an abused prisoner led to the book the movie was based on says the filmmakers went too far in how they depicted the Turks, that’s a problem.

-The film’s ending feels way more implausible than what actually happened in real life (even if the result was the same)-I don’t know why they made a new ending because what happened in real life was more than exciting and interesting enough.

Overall

Mostly well-written prison drama that’s consistently compelling even if I would have made some different script choices.

Rating: B

An Unmarried Woman (1978)

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Starring: Jill Clayburgh, Alan Bates, Michael Murphy, Lisa Lucas, Cliff Gorman, Patricia Quinn, Kelly Bishop, Linda Miller

Director: Paul Mazursky

Summary: A wealthy woman from Manhattan’s Upper East Side struggles to deal with her new identity and her sexuality after her husband leaves her for a younger woman

Other Nominations: Actress (Clayburgh), Original Screenplay

Positives

-Clayburgh is great here and has a lot to shoulder as the total focus of the movie (I’m pretty sure she’s in every scene). She has a good combination of fundamental strength yet a lot of vulnerability when she’s knocked off balance emotionally, mixed with some feistiness. I’m not that familiar with her other work, but I’m surprised her career didn’t get a bigger boost from this performance than it did. I would have given her the Oscar over Fonda (for Coming Home) just because it feels like more is asked of Clayburgh and she nails it.

-The movie definitely covered ground that you almost never saw before its time-how a divorce based on the husband cheating can affect a woman. You have a combination of anger, feelings of inadequacy and you can really fall into a deep depression for a while until you pick yourself back up and the movie does a pretty good job with all of this and treats it seriously. Credit has to be given for breaking some new ground and treating the subject with some maturity, even if it has been done better since.

-I have mixed feelings about the score by the great Bill Conti (most famous for the Rocky movies), as it’s incredibly dated by fits in with how 70s the rest of the film feels and is entertaining enough in its own right.

Negatives

-Straight romance films have never been my thing, and even on that note this isn’t a really great one from the genre. I never felt any real chemistry between Clayburgh and Bates-the dialogue between them (heck, the dialogue in general) isn’t great, I’m not a big fan of Bates in general and his character doesn’t have much of a personality. It also doesn’t help that he’s introduced late in the film and their romance feels rushed. Picking up on the dialogue being a problem, it’s remarkably crass in both language and content for the time period and feels like they were trying to hard to be “cutting edge” and it comes off as lame. The whole movie feels a bit dated in a lot of aspects.

-Random note-what mom just runs around the house in a t-shirt and panties with a 15 year old daughter around? It was kind of creepy with Clayburgh doing that a number of times in the movie.

Overall

While it was ahead of the curve in some ways for the time and the lead performance is really good, it feels dated and the male love interest is lacking.

Rating: C+

1978 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1978

Days of Heaven: This was Terrence Malick’s final film for 20 years before he came back in 1998 with The Thin Red Line (and now it feels like he makes a movie every year), and the breakout film for Richard Gere. Critics initially were no warm to it and thought it was nothing but pretty imagery (something that people have began to level against Malick with his more recent films), but it’s now considered a masterpiece. It was nominated for 4 Oscars, although no major ones. In the National Film Registry

Halloween: Without there really being a big follow-up to Psycho, this is the movie that was the real genesis of the slasher film and in some ways defined where horror was heading into the 1980s. Much like a lot of first films in a long series, this feels very different than its sequels or the films that tried to ride off its coattails, as it’s remarkably subdued and mostly relies on looming dread and tension than outright gore (although there are a couple of scenes that feel very at home in other slasher movies). In the National Film Registry.

Animal House: A lot of great talent involved, most of whom weren’t that big of a deal at the time-Director John Landis in his mainstream breakout movie, Producer Ivan Reitman (director/producer of Ghostbusters), Co-Writer Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters, Caddyshack) and starring comedic ball of pure energy John Belushi (in his first starring feature role). It has that great combination of incredibly crass yet still smartly written that is rare to find. In the National Film Registry.

Grease: It turned John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John into movie stars and despite having some really questionable underlying messages and a teenage pregnancy plot with no payoff whatsoever, nobody cares about any of that because it has one of the best musical soundtracks ever written.

Superman: The first and still the best Superman movie ever made, and really the first good superhero movie (no the 60’s Adam West Batman movie doesn’t count). As much as Gene Hackman clearly doesn’t care about anything, Christopher Reeves was one of the best casting decisions of all-time and is pure likability and perfectly plays both Superman and Clark Kent. It also was a landmark for special effects, as the whole thing would have fallen apart if the flying scenes didn’t look convincing.

Dawn of the Dead: One of the best sequels and one that pretty much everybody agrees is either as good or better than the original. While George Romero could sometimes be way to heavy-handed with his messages (see: Land of the Dead), this movie’s critique of consumer culture is excellent satire. Tom Savini’s effects still hold up extremely well and was one of the first really well-made over the top gore movies.

1978 Nominees in Review

The Deer Hunter: B+ (Won Best Picture)

Midnight Express: B

Coming Home: B-

An Unmarried Woman: C+

Heaven Can Wait: C

As we start to approach the 80s, the Best Picture nominee fields start declining a bit. The Deer Hunter was a deserving winner, but this is the first year since 1967 where I didn’t give any of the nominees an A- or higher rating. This was also one of the last years of the second “Golden Age of Hollywood” which ended right around 1981 where directors had started going off the deep end and studios started putting them on a much tighter leash after a series of notable passion projects where budgets got out of hand and the movies for the most part failed to connect with audiences.

Starting with 1979, I’m going to start doing a more traditional review style because I think it will save me some time and will be just as if not more effective.
Next up: A film inspired by the director’s simultaneous attempts to edit a 1974 Best Picture nominee and stage the Broadway debut of a musical that would later be adapted into the 2002 Best Picture winner: A movie that was originally intended to be directed by George Lucas and filmed in Vietnam while the war was still ongoing; #8 on both the AFI and Sports Illustrated lists for best sports movies: Justin Henry became (and still is) the youngest acting nominee ever at age 8; and a movie with an extremely difficult sound mix because there were constantly loud machines going on in the background as part of the film.