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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest Forrest@moviecitynews.com

The Chocolate War (Dir. Keith Gordon)

This is something I’ll be doing fairly regularly on the blog, reviewing some older films.  Netflix Instant has been a savior for me, enabling me to fill in some of the gaps that all of us film lovers have.  And as I make my way through my very long queue, I will share with you my thoughts on the films I’m watching.  Some of them will be classics, some of them will be disasters, but most of them will fall somewhere in the middle.  And I’ll try to do my best to give you a sense of whether or not a particular film is worth your time.

Keith Gordon’s The Chocolate War is definitely worth your time.

I happen to be a big Keith Gordon fan.  If you don’t know that name, then you must seek out his brilliant WWII film A Midnight Clear, which is one of the most underrated and devastating war films ever made that nobody ever talks about.  Gordon was a teen actor in the 80s (you might remember him as Rodney Dangerfield’s son in the classic Back to School), but has become a much more accomplished filmmaker than he was an actor.  His first film, The Chocolate War, had been unseen by me for no good reason but boy am I glad I watched it today.

We’re immediately aware that the film was made in 1988 when Yaz’s “In My Room” plays over the credits and while the log-line might make the film seem like a typical prep-school hazing film at a corrupt institution, the look of the film is instantly different from the usual fare.  Shot mostly in dark rooms or against perpetually gray skies, the camera is fluid in a way that borders on clumsy.  Except, there is an artfulness to the clumsiness – something that Gordon utilizes well in A Midnight Clear and later in Mother Night.

I’m hesitant to give away too much of the plot because 1) it’s more complex than I can do justice to and 2) it’s so simple that writing about it could give it away.  If that seems contradictory, then good, because that’s what the character of Archie (Wallace Langham), the film’s villain, is.  He creates plans that are so complex just for the purpose of humiliating someone else and to gain power for him and his secret society, The Vigils.  When Brother Leon (a superb John Glover) asks for Archie’s help in selling boxes of chocolate so that the school can make money – and so that Brother Leon can become headmaster – Archie sees a wonderful opportunity for The Vigils to get away with whatever they want.

The fly in the ointment is young Jerry Renault (Ilan Mitchell-Smith, from Weird Science).  When The Vigils tells him to say, “no” to the option of selling chocolate (something that no other student would dare to do), Jerry goes them one further: he continues to say no even after The Vigils tells him to give it up.  Jerry dreams of being more of a rebel than he is – gazing languidly at some of the leather-jacket wearing oddballs at the bus stop – and winds up becoming something of a symbol for the kids at the school.  The school itself is set up to be something of a fascistic machine that Brother Leon and Archie are a part of and Jerry tries to defy.  This winds up angering the guys in charge, as they are scared that young Jerry will disrupt the whole system.

There are a lot of ways to look at the film metaphorically.  One could even point out allusions to Nazi Germany.  But the truth of the matter is that you can bring whatever you want to do it.  The film is deceptively complicated, though, in terms of the politics involved.  And every time you think you might have a handle on where the film might go, it goes somewhere else.  Jerry himself is something of a Gandhi-like figure for the majority of the film, using passive-resistant to incite his classmates to think about something as seemingly innocuous as selling chocolate.

The film I was most reminded of while watching The Chocolate War was Lindsay Anderson’s If.. except with a bit less of a reliance on surrealism.  Although, it must be said, Gordon does go to some surreal places and dream sequences from time to time (coffins in the football field).

The ending is fascinating and surprisingly dark.  In the end, it seems, we are all part of the system no matter how hard we try to rebel.  I urge you all the give this film a watch and then move on to A Midnight Clear.  If you do that, you’ll have a great day of movie-viewing, courtesy of the unheralded Keith Gordon.

10 Responses to “The Chocolate War (Dir. Keith Gordon)”

  1. John says:

    Yes! I was an extra in this movie when I was 14, so it’s always had a place in my heart. Interviewed Keith Gordon for our Sammamish HS newspaper in Bellevue WA. Some fun facts:

    – Most of the extras were starstruck by Adam Baldwin, who’d just been Animalmother in Full Metal Jacket a few months before. He was very nice and gracious to everyone.

    – Keith told us the director he learned most from was John Carpenter (who’d directed him in Christine).

    – Ilan Mitchell-Smith asked for a stunt double for his getting tackled in the football scene, but when others chuckled at the notion, he bagged it and took the hits. He was cool too. He’d walk up to extras and start conversations.

    – A good percentage of students at the final boxing ring scene at this “all boys” school were girls dressed as boys.

    – They picked Sammamish HS’s football field because it was in the worst shape in the area. After the movie was made, they had their excuse to throw some money at the football field. The interior locker-room shots were at a different school.

    – This was the first decent role for Doug Hutchison, who finally broke out a decade later in The Green Mile.

  2. cam4 says:

    The majority of people can easily do amazing things if they have got the self-belief or take the challenges.

  3. hcat says:

    I liked Midnight Clear even though I thought it was a little too earnest. Mother Night was probably the best Vonnegut adaption, but that is not a very high bar to clear and it is one of his more easily filmed novels. The Connely movie he did whose name escapes me and I am too lazy to look up left me underwhelmed. So while Gordon doesn’t excite me your enthusiasm for this film does, and any chance to see John Glover as an epitome of evil is always worth a sit. The man elevated Gremlins 2 from a cheap cash in to high satire.

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  5. gentry says:

    I am a huge fan of Gordon’s, and particularly the two films you most mention. They’ve stuck with me for years now. The Chocolate War is based (very closely) on a Robert Cormier book by the same name, which is almost required reading in grade school. The author of Midnight Clear is somewhat of an enigma. He uses pseudonyms and I think lives in France. Very nice review

  6. gentry says:

    Ahh, he went by William Wharton, and wrote several successful novels. He died in 2008:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Wharton_%28author%29

    seems like an awfully interesting guy.

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  9. Juliana says:

    where can i watch this movie

Quote Unquotesee all »

This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin