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Universal Studios Home Video presents
The Deer Hunter: LS (1978)

Nick: If anything happens, Mike, don't leave me over there. You gotta... Just don't leave me. You gotta promise me that, Mike. You gotta promise, definitely.
Michael: Hey, Nick. You got it, pal.

- Christopher Walken, Robert De Niro

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: February 09, 2006

Stars: Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken
Other Stars: George Dzundza, Rutanya Alda, Chuck Aspegren
Director: Michael Cimino

Manufacturer: Deluxe Digital Studios
MPAA Rating: R for (violence, adult themes, intense situations, gore)
Run Time: 03h:03m:27s
Release Date: September 06, 2005
UPC: 025192797620
Genre: war


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- A+A-B C+

DVD Review

The premiere of The Deer Hunter in 1978 heralded a rash of movies that confronted head-on the still festering national wound known as Vietnam. Before Michael Cimino's gut-wrenching epic, filmmakers shied away from depicting the chaos and horror of the controversial conflict, but The Deer Hunter proved America could handle the brutal imagery, raw emotion, and devastating psychological effects of the war—even if, as we later discovered, the agonizing Russian Roulette sequences (upon which much of the story hinges) were fictitious. Nevertheless, the film still delivers a potent body blow, but like its sister movie, Apocalypse Now, it employs myriad themes to skirt around the war and its politics, making Vietnam seem at times like little more than a psychedelic drug trip gone bad. Real men and women died in Southeast Asia, and though The Deer Hunter addresses the issue with warmth and poignancy, it remains very much a Hollywood treatment.

The passage of time, of course, allows us to more quickly flag the film's subtle flaws, but those of us who saw The Deer Hunter during its initial release will never forget its visceral impact. Back then, audiences had never seen war and its anguish depicted in such a frank manner, and it was a tough pill to swallow. The intervening years, however, have dulled our senses, so today The Deer Hunter more closely resembles a mainstream movie than the numbing "experience" we so clearly remember. The natural performances, though, endure, and keep the film relevant, involving, and powerful.

For a three-hour movie, the story is deceptively slight. After a festive Russian Orthodox wedding and last-hurrah hunting trip, three friends—Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage)—leave their families, friends, and steel mill jobs in western Pennsylvania for a tour of duty in Vietnam. By chance, they reunite during a bloody skirmish, but soon are captured by the North Vietnamese, thrown into a rat-infested pen, and subjected to a harrowing game of Russian Roulette. The ordeal and its aftermath shatters Nick and Steven, and it's up to the stalwart Michael—who's always pined for Nick's girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep), and must deal with his own assimilation issues when he returns home—to rescue them from despair.

Less than a third of the movie transpires in the war zone, but Deric Washburn's screenplay shows how battle boundaries extend far beyond the jungles of Southeast Asia to the sleazy slums of Saigon and even across the ocean to the U.S. homefront. After their horrific experiences, the characters believe they no longer "fit in," and feelings of guilt and inadequacy overwhelm them, effecting long-standing relationships and their own mental health. Though the images of violence, gore, and unspeakable cruelty may be what we most remember about The Deer Hunter, the film is more about picking up the pieces and coming to terms than fighting the enemy. It also painfully depicts how, after the war, the face of that enemy often becomes the face in the mirror for many tortured soldiers.

Cimino, who received an Oscar for his work, does an admirable job, but his epic viewpoint often harms the film. The first hour could be (and should have been) severely tightened. Although the wedding sequence provides plenty of atmosphere and moments of insightful character development, it goes on way too long (and foolishly tries to eclipse the equally languorous nuptials in The Godfather). Even the hunting trip and bar scene could be truncated to make the movie more taut. Yes, Cimino needs to immerse us in the simple, often humdrum lives of these blue-collar men and emphasize their camaraderie so he can later show how war irrevocably upsets the delicate balance of their universe, but he seems to intentionally draw out this first act. As an audience, we're antsy to get to Vietnam, but Cimino makes us wait…and wait…and wait. I'd like to believe it's because he wants to give us a taste of the dread Michael, Nick, and Steven feel before their foray into hell, but that may be cutting a shamelessly self-indulgent director too much slack.

Cimino also wields a heavy hand with foreshadowing—the spilling of red wine on the white wedding dress, the "one shot" deer-hunting theory, and the exchange between Michael and Nick reprinted at the top of this review. And although he possesses a pleasing visual style, Cimino's straightforward direction lacks the pizzazz one expects from an Academy Award winner. He and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) create some stunning images, but The Deer Hunter largely succeeds on its own merits, drawing energy from its story, themes, and acting.

De Niro anchors the film, and though his role isn't the showiest, his strength, compassion, and directness are mesmerizing. We can see the unexpressed emotion seething inside him, and his level-headed attitude under pressure is both admirable and heroic. In her first major role, Streep makes a solid impression with a natural, utterly believable performance, and Savage files a heartbreaking portrayal of a soldier unable to cope with the horrors of war. Walken, however, steals the show as the tormented Nick, who can never mentally recover from the traumas he endured. With his wide, bruised eyes, gaunt physique, and simmering intensity, Walken fully inhabits his character, and justly earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work.

The Deer Hunter is far from perfect, but it conveys acute emotions with clarity and power. Few movies present a more profound and moving portrait of male friendship, and it's that delicate theme, more than the disturbing images of war and violence, that remains timeless.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Thanks to incessant griping from fans over the inferior picture quality, I avoided the previous DVD edition of The Deer Hunter, choosing instead to wait patiently for an upgrade. It's been a long time coming, but Universal has finally gotten around to revamping this classic film, and the results are often stunning. The exterior hunting sequences look breathtakingly vibrant, with well-saturated hues and an image as crisp as the fresh mountain air, while interiors benefit from good shadow detail and the cozy warmth of light grain. Low light makes some scenes a bit murky (especially in Saigon), but the effect is often intentional, lending an aura of mystery and danger to the Asian settings. The drab, working class flavor of western Pennsylvania is well rendered, and the lengthy wedding sequence uses muted colors to subtly reflect the blue collar atmosphere. Fleshtones are natural and stable throughout, and little evidence of edge enhancement exists. A few print defects still can be spotted (and make the movie look its age), but the image remains largely free of annoying specks and scratches. All in all, this is a fine remaster from Universal, and should satisfy those unhappy with the previous release.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Spanishyes


Audio Transfer Review: This Legacy Series edition of The Deer Hunter contains both the original stereo track and a new remaster in something called Logic 7 surround, which simulates multi-channel audio on a 2.0 track. Unfortunately, neither option gives us a clue as to why Cimino's film brought home the Oscar for Best Sound. When not muffled, the overlapping dialogue becomes a cacophony, making it difficult to decipher distinct voices in many critical scenes. The atmospheric sounds of the steel mill and war zones come through nicely, with some ambient activity making its way to the rear speakers, but most of the audio is anchored in the center channel. Solid bass frequencies provide a few good rumbles, and the beautifully simple music score (performed by John Williams) enjoys good fidelity and tonal depth.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and film journalist Bob Fisher
Packaging: Book Gatefold
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:28m:00s

Extra Extras:
  1. Extended scenes and raw footage
Extras Review: Two-disc special editions should be packed with supplements, but Universal drops the ball here, skimping on extras and letting valuable disc space go unused. The Deer Hunter demands a full-scale, in-depth documentary featuring comments from Cimino, De Niro, Streep, Walken, and Savage, but sadly, such an essential retrospective is not included. Instead, all we get is an audio commentary; 17 minutes of extended scenes, alternate takes, and raw footage; the original theatrical trailer; and flimsy production notes. That's barely enough material to warrant a second disc, let alone fill one.

The commentary by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and film journalist Bob Fisher is really an interview, with Fisher jogging Zsigmond's memory with regard to details and themes. Talk of lighting, locations, and the minutia of day-to-day filming dominates the conversation, but Zsigmond does occasionally stray into other areas, and his insights are often interesting. He calls The Deer Hunter "one of my most favorite films," and remembers De Niro as "not only a superb actor, but a superb human being." He cites the influence of classic movies and film noir on the picture's cinematic style, and remembers Cimino as a very visual, collaborative director who "listened to everyone" and would often do 15 to 20 takes of a particular scene, waiting for an accident or flub that would add a spark of spontaneity. He discusses actor John Cazale's worsening cancer, and how Cazale's girlfriend, Meryl Streep, engineered his casting in The Deer Hunter despite the illness, and divulges Washington's Cascade Mountains substituted for the hills of western Pennsylvania. Zsigmond makes a couple of mistakes—incorrectly identifying actor Joe Grifasi as an amateur, and Pittsburgh as the capital of Pennsylvania (it's Harrisburg, guys!)—but he manages to sustain our interest throughout most of the movie's three-hour running time.

The extended scenes are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen and possess a rougher look. Most of the footage is culled from the prison camp and army hospital scenes, and off-camera direction can occasionally be heard during shooting. At one point, De Niro makes a suggestion in the middle of a take, which winds up in the finished film. Although intriguing, this sequence includes no substantive dramatic additions.

The production notes detail location shooting in the U.S. and Thailand, and contain quotes from Cimino and Walken, while the trailer combines film clips with laudatory excerpts from many newspaper and magazine reviews. Chaptering is criminally thin for a movie of this length.

Extras Grade: C+

 

Final Comments

Less about Vietnam itself than the indelible scars war—any war—leaves, The Deer Hunter remains a deeply affecting, provocative film, filled with superb performances. Although Universal's Legacy Series edition finally gives the movie's fans the fine transfer they have long craved, the paltry extras scream "missed opportunity," and diminish the luster of this attractively packaged set. Still, despite several flaws, it's impossible not to recommend this powerful, sensitive, and engrossing Best Picture winner.

 


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