Skip to main content

Well, whatever he says, it's one hundred times worse than what he can tell you.

Coming Home
(1978)

(SPOILERS) Coming Home arrived at the tail end of a remarkably prolific decade for director Hal Ashby, one now better remembered for birthing the careers of renowned wunderkinds like Spielberg, Lucas and De Palma (like Robert Altman, Ashby was a good decade older than many of his ‘70s peers). The film received considerable Oscar attention, winning Jane Fonda her second Oscar and Jon Voight his first (unlikely to be repeated, unless he experiences some kind of political epiphany and recants his outspoken Republican ways). But, unlike competing and ultimately victorious fellow ‘Nam picture The Deer Hunter, it has sunk into relative obscurity. There’s actually rather good reason for that, as Coming Home is a highly schematic, calculated film beneath its progressive surface, delivering a rote, nuance-free “war is bad” message as it “performs” rather than inhabits the realities of the veteran experience.


You can see that it’s been enormously influential, though, occupying the status of one of the first pictures to really dig deep into the Vietnam experience while informing pretty much every PTSD depiction since (well, maybe not the miracle cure Bradley Cooper experiences in American Sniper). This trailblazing quality is surely the key to its Oscar representation, that and its status as an early example of voting for an actor playing a disability; Voight’s wheelchair-bound Luke borrows liberally from the experience of Ron Kovic, a friend of Fonda and, of course, later immortalised by Tom Cruise in OIiver Stone’s bombastic Born on the Fourth of July.


But, even though the events it depicts were relatively recent, and its performers were all fully-fledged adults at the time, Coming Home isn’t really that much more keyed in to 1968 than, say, the brat pack getting out their parents’ groovy old gear in costume piece 1969 a decade later. There’s something a little odd about seeing the trio of Fonda, Voight and Dern, all in the ballpark of 40, playing in a sandpit that was mostly affecting those much younger than them (this was something also levelled at The Deer Hunter, where two of the leads were in their mid-30s). In particular, Luke saying he joined up as a kid out of school creates a degree of dissonance over what we’re seeing.


Only a degree, though. The actors are all technically very good, and the Cuckoo’s Nest-influenced sequences in the veterans’ hospital are energised, enraged and well-observed. Fonda initiated the project, taking it to John Schlesinger before it passed to Ashby. Fonda’s Sally is the traditionally-minded wife of career captain Bob (Bruce Dern). When he departs for Vietnam, Sally volunteers at the local veterans’ hospital, slowly falling for angry but sensitive paraplegic Luke. You’ll know how this goes; both Sally and Luke experience respective awakenings, she becoming liberated, he rediscovering his compassion for his fellows, while Bob, Gung Ho about going to war, vanishes into the abyss.


If not for its cast, Coming Home really is that basically mapped out, and there’s far less nuance to the screenplay from Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy, Serpico) and Robert C Jones than you’d hope for or expect. I have to agree with Pauline Kael’s assessment that Dern’s character is particular problematic. It’s true to say that, like Nicholson in The Shining, you’re rather onto a loser if you’re casting Dern as someone who becomes unhinged, because he’s naturally eccentric anyway.


A bigger problem is that Ashby doesn’t seem to have any empathy for Bob, aided by a screenplay that piles on the reasons he’s a bit of a loser; Sally has never had an orgasm until Luke obliges, Bob is shipped back home after he tripped in the showers and shot himself in the calf – the implication being he might have done it on purpose – and his own anguish serves to distance him in the viewer’s mind (be it resignedly explaining how he witnessed his men chopping off heads, or threatening Luke and Sally with his service rifle).


Because there’s no component of immediate conflict, the reported experiences should be the more compelling; the screenplay needs to get the idea of horror and trauma across through non-visceral means. Instead, the picture slides into little more than Ashby’s greatest hits tape, whereby Beatles, Stones, Buffalo Springfield, Dylan, Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane accompany the drama with little regard for whether they’re germane to the scene. The effect is to smother the proceedings in a nostalgic fog.


Certain scenes in particular also come across as unearned grandstanding, be it Robert Carradine’s suicide (lacking any of the impact of the Brad Dourif’s in Cuckoo’s Nest) or Luke chaining himself to the gates of the army base gates, the latter incident already a nostalgic reverie for the days when protest meant something. Come the finale, Luke is lecturing a bunch of school kids about his experiences, getting them real to the pitfall of false bravado. It’s commendable as a sentiment but cumulatively as grating as one of those gushy heartfelt outpourings in a Robin Williams film. 


Maybe that’s what you should expect with Hanoi Jane (only four years from lycra reinvention in her Workout video) leading the charge. Coming Home comes over too much as if it’s been manufactured to say something important, despite its director’s laidback style, whereas The Deer Hunter – which Fonda disparaged – has the benefit of operating on a heightened level, for all its numerous imperfections. Nevertheless, Ashby’s film is noteworthy for bookending a Hollywood era; Voight would never be so liberal-minded again, Fonda’s activism would be channelled into even less layered. ‘80s-friendly material, such as 9 to 5’s (hugely popular) takedown of sexism in the workplace. And then she’d marry Ted Turner. Ashby’s considerable personal problems wouldn’t help his subsequent career any, but then his type of picture and approach to material didn’t really have much place in the subsequent decade either.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983)
(SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. That doesn’t mea…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

You can’t keep the whole world in the dark about what’s going on. Once they know that a five-mile hunk of rock is going to hit the world at 30,000 miles per hour, the people will want to know what the hell we intend to do about it.

Meteor (1979)
(SPOILERS) In which we find Sean Connery – or his agent, whom he got rid of subsequent to this and Cuba – showing how completely out of touch he was by the late 1970s. Hence hitching his cart to the moribund disaster movie genre just as movie entertainment was being rewritten and stolen from under him. He wasn’t alone, of course – pal Michael Caine would appear in both The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure during this period – but Meteor’s lack of commercial appeal was only accentuated by how functional and charmless its star is in it. Some have cited Meteor as the worst movie of his career (Christopher Bray in his book on the actor), but its sin is not one of being outright terrible, rather of being terminally dull.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I can't lie to you about your chances, but... you have my sympathies.

"Predalien" The Alien-Predator-verse ranked
Fox got in there with the shared universe thing long before the current trend. Fortunately for us, once they had their taste of it, they concluded it wasn’t for them. But still, the Predator and Alien franchises are now forever interconnected, and it better justifies a ranking if you have more than six entries on it. So please, enjoy this rundown of the “Predalien”-verse. SPOILERS ensue…
11. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
An almost wilfully wrongheaded desecration of both series’ legacies that attempts to make up for AVP’s relative prurience by being as transgressive as possible. Chestbursters explode from small children! Predaliens impregnate pregnant mothers! Maternity wards of babies are munched (off-screen admittedly)! It’s as bad taste as possible, and that’s without the aesthetic disconnect of the Predalien itself, the stupidest idea the series has seen (and that includes the newborn), one that was approved/encouraged by ra…

Well, it seems our Mr Steed is not such an efficient watchdog after all.

The Avengers 2.7: The Decapod
A title suggesting some variety of monstrous aquatic threat for Steed and Julie Stevens’ Venus Smith. Alas, the reality is much more mundane. The Decapod refers to a Mongo-esque masked wrestler, one who doesn’t even announce “I will destroy you!” at the top of his lungs. Still, there’s always Philip “Solon” Madoc looking very shifty to pass the time.

Madoc is Stepan, a Republic of the Balkans embassy official and the brother-in-law of President Yakob Borb (Paul Stassino). There’s no love lost between him and his ladies’ man bro, and dark deeds are taking place with the embassy confines, but who is responsible proves elusive. Steed is called in, or rather calls Venus in as a replacement, when Borb’s private secretary is murdered by Mongo. Steed isn’t buying that she slipped and broke her neck in the shower; “I shouldn’t like a similar accident to happen to you” he informs the President.

The trail leads to wrestling bouts at the public baths, where the Butcher…