Category Archives: 1980

Stryker’s War (1980, Josh Becker)

Stryker’s War runs just over forty-five minutes. The first fifteen to twenty minutes are all about how twenty-two year-old lead Bruce Campbell can both do anything and make everything feel legit. The film opens in Vietnam (as shot in East Michigan) with Campbell taking his squad out on a mission after being promoted to lieutenant. It shouldn’t work at all. But it does, because Campbell. When Campbell gets wounded and shipped back home where he lives in a remote cabin trying to drink himself to death, it also works. Director Becker has a nice style with the actors, so when Campbell’s bantering with the kindly grocery store owner—played by Campbell’s dad, Charlie—it maintains a certain bit of seriousness, but also a lot of appreciation for the scene being able to work. War never does victory laps, but it’s full of confidence in itself (knowingly thanks to Campbell).

Turns out the kindly grocery store owner—who delivers microwave dinners and liquor to Campbell—has a pretty granddaughter who just might give Campbell the will to live. When she shows up–played by Cheryl Guttridge—the short leans heavy on the absurd; it’s love at first sight, complete with accompanying, sweeping melodramatic music and longing gazes from the lovebirds. She’ll be back the next day with more food for Campbell, giving him an excuse to shave and get dressed up.

Concurrent to Campbell’s burgeoning romance are radio reports of Manson Family-style killings in the Detroit area. They’ll be important in a bit, but first the short’s got to introduce Campbell’s Marine buddies—Scott Spiegel, David M. Goodman, and Don Campbell. None of them are good, occasionally they’re kind of bad, but Becker directs their scenes so well it doesn’t matter. That extended suspension of disbelief he’s set up with the romance carries over to the Marines being on a weekend pass from Japan to… East Michigan. They’re looking for something to do so they decide to visit Campbell in his remote cabin. They find him waiting for Guttridge, who hasn’t shown up, so like any red-blooded American males they get really drunk at nine in the morning and go outside to shoot things.

That night, when Campbell’s dog goes missing and they go out looking for him, they discover the Manson-esque cult is in the nearby woods and they’ve got Guttridge.

Sam Raimi plays the cult leader.

The last fifteen or so minutes of War is Campbell and his pals taking on the cult in the woods, set to familiar music borrowed from other films. There’s some great Bernard Herrmann in there for Campbell and Raimi—the film pairs off the good guys and the bad guys—and I wish I could recall the main chase theme for the rest of them. There’s a lot of running through the woods, some great action gore money shots, and an excellent pace.

War doesn’t aim too high—it’s ever conscious of its limitations—but it’s a great showcase for Campbell and a decent one for Becker. Becker seems like he’d rather get more stylized with the direction but doesn’t have the opportunity, but every once in a while there’s an excellent, complex shot.

It’s very impressive. Especially whoever cut all the music together; the editing’s quite good, but the music editing is outstanding.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Josh Becker; produced by Bruce Campbell and Becker.

Starring Bruce Campbell (Stryker), Scott Spiegel (Marine #1), David M. Goodman (Marine #2), Don Campbell (Marine #3), Cheryl Guttridge (Sally), Charlie Campbell (Otis), and Sam Raimi (Head Crazy).


The Big Red One (1980, Samuel Fuller)

The Big Red One is a fairly even split between action and conversation. The film tracks a single squad as they start fighting in North Africa, follow the war into the Mediterranean, participate in D-Day, then go east. The film skips to each event. There’s usually some epilogue to the event, something like character development or character revelation, then it’s on to the next event, starting with the time and place in the war. Squad member Robert Carradine narrates the film, which includes bridging the gaps between the events. He’ll occasionally have something to say about his fellow squad members, something to further reveal their character, but he doesn’t have much opinion of that new reveal. Even if it’s something bad. Even though the film’s about these five men, it’s not about their relationship. We’re not invited. Carradine fills in some details, very occasionally contextualizes, but there’s something going on in One away from the viewer. Director Fuller is telling the audience a story, which is somehow different from telling a story. How he’s telling the story is very important.

Fuller centers the film around the sergeant, played by Lee Marvin. He’s not just the center of the movie, he’s the hero of Carradine’s narration, which is more important; Carradine’s not the hero of his own narration. It’s not his story he’s telling, it’s Marvin’s, even though Marvin’s an intentional mystery. And not a mystery Fuller’s inviting the audience to solve. Or even attempt to solve. Marvin’s the hero. He’s the older, gruff sergeant with a heart of gold. A World War I vet too (the film opens in a flashback to it; good de-aging makeup). But Marvin’s never a stereotype. Neither are Carradine, Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, or Kelly Ward. Because Fuller doesn’t even give them that much character in the script. All the personality to the characters comes from the actors, which is an exceptionally odd choice for Fuller to make. And a completely successful one. That open space where Fuller could’ve written character—remember the movie’s half conversation, so these guys are always talking, sometimes about themselves, but nothing about anything to do with themselves. Hamill’s an artist. We find out nothing about it, he’s just drawing all the time. Carradine’s a writer, we find out a bunch about it… but he’s never actually writing. Di Cicco and Ward imply these complicated characters in their deliveries of one-liners. It’s a very strange, very good way to… get out of doing the character work but not let it go to caricature.

Fuller does something similar with Marvin, but gives him more backstory and experience because he’s older and has more experience and backstory. But Fuller’s still relying on Marvin for all the action reactions and processing of the events he’s experiencing.

Because in many ways, the four younger guys—they’re all privates—the four privates, they’re interchangeable. During the action scenes, anyway. When one of them does something significant, sure, then they’re different—usually Fuller forecasts the character’s taking center stage—but some of the point is how everyone in the squad except Marvin is interchangeable. Fuller sets the leads apart from the other four squad members (you usually only know one other squad member at a time, the other two or three are screen filler), but not in any way to make them exemplars. They’re just the guys who hang around Marvin the most and have some unrevealed history together. It’s none of our business, they’re just our protagonists.

And, incredibly, Fuller gets away with it. Di Cicco’s charming enough, Carradine’s funny enough, Ward’s surprisingly alpha enough, Hamill’s sufficiently sad enough. See, Hamill’s the movie’s second-is lead. It’s really Carradine but the movie pretends it’s Hamill because Ukelay Ywalkerskay. And Hamill gets a fairly intense arc all to himself and Fuller makes him do it all on his face. The film charts Hamill’s abilities at emoting improving until they’re finally successful enough they cover the absence of exposition on Hamill’s subplot. Fuller avoids it, then leaves it up to Hamill to make it all right to avoid it.

It’s so well-directed. Fuller’s so thoughtful about it all. He rarely lets the film go off on tangents and usually they’re only because he’s interested in something separate from the main cast, their concerns, their needs. Fuller occasionally checks in with German sergeant Siegfried Rauch, who’s basically evil Lee Marvin. He’s got similar experiences; not just the last war, but also taking on these wet-behind-the-ears new recruits; he’s just really evil. Fuller likes using Rauch to distract from what he’s not doing with the main cast, like developing their characters. Rauch isn’t like the other main characters; Rauch never gets to mug his way through a scene. He doesn’t get free rein to do whatever on his character between his lines. He’s different.

Because, you know, he’s the Nazi.

Good photography from Adam Greenberg, great editing from Morton Tubor, very strong, very often disquieting score from Dana Kaproff. It’s a somewhat traditional war movie score, but Kaproff takes it in different directions, which help to reveal (presumably accurately) more about the lead characters.

Performances—Marvin’s great, Carradine’s great, Hamill’s good, Di Cicco and Ward are great. Marvin’s really great. He gets some great material and makes it even better.

The Big Red One is superb.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Samuel Fuller; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Morton Tubor; music by Dana Kaproff; produced by Gene Corman; released by United Artists.

Starring Lee Marvin (The Sergeant), Mark Hamill (Griff), Robert Carradine (Zab), Bobby Di Cicco (Vinci), Kelly Ward (Johnson), Joseph Clark (Shep), Ken Campbell (Lemchek), Doug Werner (Switolski), Perry Lang (Kaiser), Howard Delman (Smitty), and Siegfried Rauch (The German Sergeant).



Gregory’s Girl (1980, Bill Forsyth)

At no point in Gregory’s Girl does writer and director Forsyth wait for the audience. He’s not hurried, he’s not hostile, he’s just not repeating himself. Ever. The result is a whimsical but grounded film, not exploring much more than its characters could handle and often trying to make space to find some everyday magic. Forsyth doesn’t establish the limits of this magic until he goes rather far with it, which sort of retroactively makes earlier scenes more in the same category. The film doesn’t have a jumpy narrative pace but it does have a speedy one. The pace is key to the film’s particular charm and second only in importance to leading man John Gordon Sinclair.

Sinclair is disarming, sincere, and awkward. His closest confidante, the film goes on to reveal (after the first “act”), is little sister Allison Forster. Sinclair’s home situation, which does get covered at the beginning, appears to be one of ships passing the night. The film introduces his father (Dave Anderson) and mentions his mother, but they’re not part of Sinclair’s regular day and the film is all about the regular days of its cast. When Forster comes in, she helps explain why Sinclair’s so awkward. It’s not just because he grew five inches over the last year to tower over everyone else at school, teachers included, but because instead of having teenage boys as his primary social influence, it’s soulful ten year-old Forster. She’s already got a beau of her own, in what might be the film’s most mature onscreen relationship; the tweens understand dating, the teenage girls understand dating, the teenage boys not so much.

Forsyth gets a lot of quiet humor out of Forster’s beau, Denis Criman. He’s a similarly soulful ten year-old. He and Sinclair have a great scene together.

Albeit one where Forsyth’s limited composition techniques gets in the way—Forsyth relies way too heavily on close-ups, which could be a budgetary thing, but it’d be nice to have a two shot for some of the banter; the two shots do eventually come in, at the end of the film for the… action-packed (at least from Sinclair’s perspective) finale. Their arrival isn’t just welcome, it’s noticeable. Gregory’s Girl never amps up the pace or drama. Forsyth never changes the gentle, lyrical, detached narrative distance.

Including when Forster comes in—sorry, there’s something else to talk about with that sequence. Forsyth juxtaposes soulful Forster, with her wise-beyond-her-years (or just appropriately pre-hormonal) understanding of coupling, with already graduated Douglas Sannachan coming back to visit his pals. While Sannachan is explaining the sexual conquests being a window cleaner allows, Forster is hanging back, waiting to give Sinclair better advice. Forsyth constantly plays with the idea of mutual exclusivities in the film. Boarish bullshitter versus sweet and sincere, for instance.

But then there’s also the whole football thing.

Soccer football.

In addition to all the boys getting interest in the girls—though the film doesn’t discount the possibility they could be interested in boys (Gregory’s Girl, which doesn’t have homophobia or bullying, is a decidedly un-American teen movie)—they’re interested in footy. One of the main plot lines involves football coach Jake D’Arcy demoting former star striker Sinclair (he grew, it’s not his fault, he’s got too much height now to walk properly) to goalie and getting a new striker. Turns out the best striker in the school is a girl, Dee Hepburn. Sinclair immediately falls for Hepburn, watching how she can control the ball, while D’Arcy goes on this “girls can’t play boys sports but wait she’s better” arc. Only it’s a really quiet arc. Meanwhile Hepburn’s got to fight the preconceived notions. For the first two “acts” (quotation marks because it’s pointless to think about the film epically), Forsyth splits the narrative between Sinclair, D’Arcy, and Hepburn. Once the football ends—once Sinclair outgrows it—he’s ready for romance.

Even if he doesn’t understand it.

The only other subplot to last until the finish is Robert Buchanan and Graham Thompson’s. They’re comic relief; the boys even more inept at the romance than Sinclair. They’re a lot of fun. Thompson’s the silent one, Buchanan’s the motormouth. Their subplot is mostly aside from Sinclair’s main one, but the threads intersect early on to lay the groundwork for a pay-off in the finale. It’s another of the lovely, deliberate moves in Forsyth’s script. If only he liked two shots more.

Nice photography from Michael Coulter, fun smooth jazz score from Colin Tully. John How’s cuts are always a little too rushed, especially with the lack of coverage, but maybe the lack of coverage is why the cuts are a little too rushed.

Forsyth’s got some big moves he saves for the end (might be nice if they’d been foreshadowed) and they’re more than worth the wait. Gregory’s Girl is a delightful peculiarity.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth; director of photography, Michael Coulter; edited by John Gow; music by Colin Tully; produced by Davina Belling and Clive Parsons; released by ITC.

Starring John Gordon Sinclair (Gregory), Allison Forster (Madeline), Dee Hepburn (Dorothy), Jake D’Arcy (Phil Menzies), Clare Grogan (Susan), Billy Greenlees (Steve), Robert Buchanan (Andy), Denis Criman (Richard), Graham Thompson (Charlie), Douglas Sannachan (Billy), and Chic Murray (Headmaster).



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Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)

Most of Raging Bull is about boxer Jake La Motta’s quest for the middleweight championship belt and takes place in the forties. The film opens with La Motta (Robert De Niro) in the sixties–out-of-shape, nose disfigured from the boxing; it’s a brief introduction then a fast cut to De Niro in shape and boxing in the early forties. The opening titles establish the film’s black and white photography, but those titles are over an ethereal shot of De Niro in the ring. That shot doesn’t hint at the vibrant contrast director Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman use in the regular action. The image is sharp, the blood and sweat glistening on the fighters, who box in the ring surrounded by darkness. Nothing is important–visually-except the fight. Thelma Schoonmaker’s glorious editing gets its start with that transition from the sixties to the forties, then there’s the fight itself. There’s the fight editing style, then there’s going to be the dramatic style. The latter is far more measured. There are still precise and sharp cuts, but the drama is more about listening. The fights are about doing. Or about what’s happening, because even though De Niro’s in almost every scene of the movie, it’s not until the third act the audience gets any insight into what he’s doing.

Because for most of the film there’s Joe Pesci, as De Niro’s younger brother and manager. Pesci hangs out with connected guy but not full mobster Frank Vincent, who wants De Niro to box for the mob. De Niro doesn’t want to box for the mob, so he’s having trouble getting his shot. Even though he wins his fights, even though he can take an infinite level of beating–his style is letting the other guy expend all his energy (usually through a good pummelling on De Niro’s face) then getting in a bunch of points and maybe a knockdown at the very end–De Niro’s not getting title shots, which ostensibly pisses him off.

He takes out that anger on wife Lori Anne Flax, who waits on him hand and foot, which he repays by bringing neighborhood teenage beauty Cathy Moriarty home for a roll in the hay while Flax is out shopping. Moriarty’s fifteen and has Pesci and Vincent and a bunch of other guys after her. But she goes for De Niro. Presumably they wait until she’s eighteen to get married (though who knows because New York state still lets fourteen year-olds get married with approval). The breakup from Flax is offscreen and only implied–there’s a montage sequence of most of the forties, De Niro winning fight after fight, home movie footage (in color) of his domestic bliss with Moriarty and Pesci, then with Theresa Saldana coming in as Pesci’s wife. By the time the action slows down again, both couples have kids and have moved into the ’burbs. Or at least into houses.

It’s been six years of trying to get a shot at the title and De Niro finally agrees to let mobster Nicholas Colasanto’s help him. At the same time, he’s become convinced Moriarty is cheating on him, possibly with Vincent (who De Niro’s always despised because he’s a tool).

Scorsese and screenwriters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin present the situations and characters (slash people–there’s one moment when the actual La Motta’s pictures get used in the film, which ought to draw undue attention to the film being a dramatization but instead just makes it work even better) objectively, but they leave out a lot. De Niro’s frustrated with first wife Flax at the beginning because–as he complains to Pesci–he can’t beat her any more than he already does and she still doesn’t treat him as he wants. Same goes for Moriarty; there’s implied physical abuse (it’s an open secret) but Bull is holding off on showing it. Moriarty’s not likable, but she’s sympathetic. She’s been socialized into a terrible situation, she’s been psychologically abused, then physically. Then again, the film doesn’t give her enough to do away from De Niro to even be reduced to a victim role. Raging Bull is full of objects for De Niro to break (or try to break).

It’s also not like Pesci is sympathetic or likable. The film goes out of its way to characterize almost everyone–except De Niro–as racist. Everyone, including De Niro, is violently homophobic. The younger men–not Colasanto or Mario Gallo (as one of De Niro’s ring men)–are all strutting to prove something and covering for their various deficiencies. Something De Niro sees and resents them for.

When he finally does get the championship, instead of fulfilling a dream, it just gives De Niro more time to be abusive and jealous. Bull isn’t interested in the boxing. It’s interested in the fights for their visual and symbolic possibilities, but there aren’t any training montages. It’s guaranteed De Niro’s not going down. He can’t. Even after he’s beaten into hamburger, he can’t go down. It’s a mix of stubbornness, stupidity, and cruelty. A lot of the film–as far as the boxing goes–is about his rivalry with Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes). They keep having matches. Barnes doesn’t even get a line. He’s great, because he gets to watch and see De Niro, and the audience gets to see his reaction, but Bull’s not about the boxing.

Even though the boxing sequences are brilliantly executed.

Phenomenal acting from the three leads. When De Niro finally does drive everyone away–for their own safety, basically–and breaks down, he does so alone and in old age makeup (though La Motta would’ve barely been forty) and with a bunch of extra weight on. He doesn’t make the loathsome sympathetic–Bull isn’t a redemption story at all–but he does humanize it, which is probably worse.

Pesci’s great. He’s got these listening scenes, where he’s waiting to react to De Niro and it’s all about the thoughts going through his head. That patient dramatic editing from Schoonmaker makes it happen. Moriarty’s great. After they’re married with children, Bull becomes a hostage situation. De Niro is constantly threatening Moriarty, Pesci, and the audience with unknowable violence. Because even if he doesn’t see the potential, everyone else does. It’s captivating and horrifying.

Especially since Scorsese doesn’t do anything to emphasize it. He maintains that same objective narrative distance. It’s just the reality of the situation. His direction is spectacular, loud but quiet–there’s lots of symbolism but it never breaks the film’s reality (helps they’re Catholics for the imagery, for example)–and so deliberate, so patient.

Bull’s astoundingly great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, based on the book by Jake LaMotta, Joseph Carter, and Peter Savage; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert De Niro (Jake La Motta), Cathy Moriarty (Vickie La Motta), Joe Pesci (Joey), Frank Vincent (Salvy), Theresa Saldana (Lenore), Mario Gallo (Mario), Lori Anne Flax (Irma), and Nicholas Colasanto (Tommy Como).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE YEAR AFTER YEAR BLOGATHON HOSTED BY STEVE OF MOVIE MOVIE BLOG BLOG.


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