Tag Archives: 1974

Top 100 Films #32 – A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

 

a-woman-under-the-influence#32. A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Directed by: John Cassavetes
Written by: John Cassavetes
Starring: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk

John Cassavetes’ film A Woman Under the Influence features what very well may be one of the all-time greatest performances in Gena Rowlands’ portrayal of Mabel Longhetti.  Mabel is happily married to Nick (Peter Falk), whom she aims to please at all times.  Nick becomes perturbed when he notices Mabel’s behaviour around others is becoming erratic.  Eventually he decides to hospitalize Mabel for her safety, and takes on the task of raising their kids alone for six months until their mother is well. When Mabel returns from the hospital, neither party are mentally or emotionally prepared for the strains that have been put on their relationship.  John Cassavetes’ film is an absolute showcase of the skills of both Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk, letting the two great actors play two very unique characters and really be able to sink their teeth into them.  Rowlands’ Mabel is easily one of my favorite screen characters, because her presence is constantly electric, unpredictable, and incredibly sympathetic in a real world way. Mabel is clearly tortured by whatever is affecting her mental health, and it’s both terrifying and heartbreaking to watch it unfold, especially when it begins to affect her family.  Peter Falk’s Nick is kindhearted and frustrated, wanting his wife to be well again so things can go back to normal, but also quickly growing tired of taking care of her and ensuring she doesn’t embarrass or harm herself or others. Together, Rowlands and Falk are unstoppable in their incredible chemistry – it’s too bad the pair did not collaborate more frequently. Cassavetes’ direction is especially inspired throughout A Woman Under the Influence, making the best of the limits of independent filmmaking in the 1970’s – he manages to get incredible performances from most of the cast, and keeps the story rolling.  A Woman Under the Influence clocks in at a little over 2 ½ hours long, which may be seen as a problem for some.  Cassavetes’ writing is never stilted or meandering, instead the director uses the bloated runtime to paint a rich portrait of two very compelling characters, and allows the story to flow naturally.  His screenplay takes a respectful look at mental illness and the effects on all parties surrounding it – a rarity for the era.  Today, A Woman Under the Influence still feels relevant and respectful, never delving into exploitative territory, which often harms older films in the eyes of modern viewers.  It’s clear to me that John Cassavetes was genuinely interested in the subject matter, because his camera and screenplay very clear show this.  Despite this, he’s never afraid to inject dark humor where it’s needed, nor does he wander away from some of the more melodramatic aspects of the story – everything comes together perfectly.  A Woman Under the Influence is the best John Cassavetes film I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, and one of film’s best looks at the tough subject that is mental illness.

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Top 100 Films #85 – Blazing Saddles (1974)

 

blazingsaddles_source#85. Blazing Saddles (1974)
Directed by: Mel Brooks
Written by: Andrew Bergman, Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, Al Uger
Starring: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens, Madeline Kahn, Mel Brooks, Dom DeLuise, Alex Karras

Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder are one of the most successful comedic pairings in Hollywood history, collaborating on several bonafide comedy classics together. Blazing Saddles is without a doubt my favorite of their films together, as it represents everything I adore about the combined work of the two.  It’s funnier and more energetic than The Producers, and runs at a faster pace than Young Frankenstein, but combines their most hilarious elements into one perfect package.  Brooks’ film is special in that it’s something that could only have been made in the loose auteur-driven studio system of the 1970’s – using controversial and politically incorrect language and subject matter to push the envelope. You’ve probably heard it said many times in the past, but in this case they truly don’t make ‘em like they used to.  Blazing Saddles sees a newly freed black railroad worker named Bart (Cleavon Little) who is appointed sheriff of a raucous frontier town.  Along the way he meets the alcoholic Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), the fastest gun in the west.  The two men come up against fierce resistance, including an army of Ku Klux Klansmen, Nazi soldiers, and a man named Mongo.  Blazing Saddles is hilarious and brilliant throughout its brief 92 minute run-time, but it shines in its more meta, self-aware moments – which help to set it apart from the pack, and become more than just another comedy.  Mel Brooks’ brand of humor is unlike anybody else’s, and he and company truly struck gold with Blazing Saddles – a foul-mouthed, progressive, trailblazing film for the ages.

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Doctober II #3 – Hearts and Minds (1974)

heartsandmindsdvdHearts and Minds (1974)
Directed by: Peter Davis
Written by: n/a
Starring: n/a

The Vietnam War has been said to be one of the United States’ most fatal mistakes in modern history, and no matter what your politics are, it’s likely that you agree with this notion.  Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds takes a good hard look at how America got into this mess of a war, how it affected their soldiers and the people of Vietnam, and points fingers at the people responsible.  We travel to Vietnam to view the destruction of villages, to speak to wounded and mourning Vietnamese, and get up close and person with US soldiers still on the ground. Back home in the United States, Davis manages to capture revealing interviews with high-ranking officials who either supported or opposed the war, with soldiers whose lives have been drastically altered from their time in the jungle, and anti-war protesters who knew it was a mistake from the word go.

Hearts and Minds undoubtedly has a bias, but it’s hard not to when dealing with one of the darkest, most pointless wastes of human life in modern history.  Peter Davis captures a great deal of anger, confusion, and disenfranchisement, felt by everybody from politicians to civilians.  It’s tragic to see such a large number of people lose faith and patriotism due to something that could have been so easily avoided.  It’s a feeling that has persisted in American people ever since the Vietnam War, and one that was exacerbated by later wars in the Middle East. Many of those interviewed attempt to frame the war in different ways that fit their personal narrative, and yet none of them manage to justify the horrific actions and decisions that took place over a period of nearly two decades.  This is the brilliance of Hearts and Minds, nobody makes it out looking saintly or evil – everybody realizes that mistakes were made and corrective measures should have been taken.

Peter Davis captures many intimate and heartbreaking moments throughout Hearts and Minds that it’s difficult to pick out highlights.  Some of the moments that touched me the most were an interview with a Vietnamese man building coffins for young children killed in bombing runs, a scene in an American classroom where an army official explains to young students that they will most likely have to go to war someday, and an interview with an American soldier who was accidentally hit by a US napalm run, burning his pants clean off.  He remarks about how hard it is to fight a battle when you’re not wearing drawers, almost making the viewer forget about the horrific loss of human life going around all around him.  Memorable moments like these would lead to Hearts and Minds winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1975.  My only substantive complaint about the film is that it can at times be very heavy-handed, trading subtlety and honesty for something that comes off as less genuine, but included in the film only to get a point across.  These heavy-handed moments just aren’t necessary, as anybody viewing the film is intelligent enough to put two and two together themselves.
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What I Liked:

  • Interviews with Vietnamese and American soldiers are very well-balanced, both of whom are given a great deal of respect.
  • People from all walks of life are featured: Vietnamese farmers, soldiers, prostitutes, US soldiers and protesters, high-ranking politicians and military officials.  
  • The film is edited to be told in a completely non-linear way, which works very well for what is effectively a look back at a period of nearly two decades.  We’re not burdened with dull stories of the politics that led to the war, we just dive in head-first.  
  • Some of the footage captured is horrifying, including US soldiers burning down Vietnamese villages, children and civilians retreating from napalm and bombing runs, soldiers in the middle of firefights defending their positions, etc.  We’re thrown right into numerous battle scenes and left wondering how the footage was obtained.
  • Both Democratic and Republican politicians are heavily criticised, with nobody escaping from the line of fire.  Even the US President’s involved in the two decades are heavily implicated.
  • Peter Davis goes a great length to human the Vietnamese people after two decades of blatant hatred and racism against them.  When soldiers refer to them using racial slurs or about how inhuman they are, Davis makes you feel guilty because you know that things aren’t black and white, and that these soldiers have essentially been brainwashed to hate something they don’t understand.

What I Didn’t:

  • The film becomes unironically heavy-handed and sentimental in its last act, the most notorious example being: overlapping the words of General William Westmoreland talking about how life is not important to the Vietnamese, coming immediately after a scene in a Vietnamese cemetery, featuring grieving children and parents.  Instead of being touching and genuine, it feels like too much, and that Davis is going too far to push his viewpoint – which is already shared by the majority of viewers.
  • I would have appreciated the use of subtitles for the Vietnamese instead of narrated translation, as certain things can be lost in translation or skipped over in this manner.

Overall, Hearts and Minds is an incredibly effective anti-war documentary, and perhaps one of the most all-encompassing and important views of how so many Americans became disenfranchised with their own society and government.  It’s a difficult look at one of the most regretful periods in modern American history, and doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to pointing fingers and showing the audience why it was such a tragic period.  It’s expertly crafted and edited, capturing many memorable and heartbreaking moments that never would have been witnessed otherwise.  Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds is recommended, but may not be for the faint of heart.

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