Saturday, June 25, 2011

No. 83: Platoon

Readers, think back to the movies of your childhood. Most kids my age remember, you know, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Aladdin. I definitely saw those movies, but unlike most kids, a good chunk of my younger years were spent watching World War Two films. For this, I can thank my Dad. He introduced me to the strange magic of Cary Grant leading a doomed bombing raid over Tokyo, Robert Montgomery piloting a plummeting aircraft, stoic John Wayne leading his platoon into combat. Not typical kid movies, but they fueled my love for the classics, and left me enjoying war films today.

Still, I didn’t know a ton about today’s film: AFI No. 83, Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986). I knew it was a bloody Vietnam War epic, and that it had Johnny Depp in a cameo role. And that was about it. After a little pre-viewing research, I became intrigued by both the cast (Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger) and the subject matter: the physical and psychological effects of Vietnam.

Chris Taylor (Sheen), a naïve college dropout, arrives in Vietnam and is shocked by the senseless violence. Taylor befriends the men in his platoon - including compassionate Sgt. Elias (Dafoe) - but is quickly hardened by constant combat and excessive drugs and alcohol. When the platoon discovers a village suspected of aiding Vietnamese soldiers, platoon leader Sgt. Barnes (Berenger) shoots a female villager in the head. Elias reports the killing to military authorities, leading Barnes to murder Elias. Taylor suspects Barnes, and seeks revenge. The platoon is ambushed, and during the battle, Barnes tries to kill Taylor, but an explosion knocks them both unconscious; Taylor, of course, has the strength to stand and shoot Barnes. The wounded Taylor is allowed to return home, and as he leaves the jungle, he weeps.

To my surprise, I really enjoyed Platoon. Not a perfect film – but it definitely has good and bad points. As always, let’s start with the good.

First: fantastic characters. Most of the actors are great, but Willem Dafoe’s performance - pre-Green-Goblin smirk, bright red bandana, dramatic death - was probably my favorite part of the film. Tom Berenger makes his character a hard-to-forget psychotic, and the aforementioned Johnny Depp is great in a supporting role - and also quite attractive. The location shooting - the whole movie was shot in the Philippines - adds yet another layer of depth to the film (especially when you’re watching it on a laptop four inches away from your face.)

I really did like most of the movie. I liked the plot; the actors; the artistic direction - what could be left?

Charlie Sheen. Mr. I-have-tiger-blood’s performance didn’t impress me, and in fact, felt almost - fake? Just a personal opinion, but that’s how I saw it.

So, if you like..

* Long, painfully drawn-out death scenes
* Willem Dafoe: officially the coolest soldier to ever to hit Vietnam
* Pre-winning Charlie Sheen
* A supporting cast filled with great actors: Forest Whitaker, Johnny Depp, etc.
* War-torn jungles filled with guerrilla ambushes and poisonous scorpions
* A fantastic 60’s-music soundtrack, featuring artists like The Rascals and Smokey Robinson

..then you’ll love Platoon.

Next up: Giant (1956.) Not one of my favorites, but I do love me some Liz Taylor and James Dean - stick around and read about it!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Blogpostless in D.C.

So, as most of you know, this week I'm in Washington D.C., competing in the finals of National History Day. Which means, uhhh.. I didn't finish my blog post before I left. Shameful, right? I swear - I watched Platoon - I really did!

Obviously, no blog post, so here's the next best thing: my ten-minute-documentary on Elia Kazan and the Hollywood Blacklist. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

No. 84: Fargo

Official confession time. I call myself a movie buff, but of the Coen Brothers’ many great films, I’ve only seen Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Pretty lame, right? I haven’t seen The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men, Miller’s Crossing, True Grit, or any of the rest. Until recently, I hadn’t even seen Fargo (1996) - today’s movie, and AFI film No. 84. Even worse? Fargo has been sitting in its original packaging on our family movie shelf. For at least a year. Oops.

I wholeheartedly enjoyed Fargo, and I regret not seeing it sooner. It was honestly one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time, and that’s saying a lot. Any movie directed by the Coen Brothers featuring William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, and Steve Buscemi, a movie with lots of heavy Minnesotan accents and splattering blood, has to be good. I mean, it just has to be.

Fargo begins in snow-covered 1980’s-era Fargo, North Dakota. Cash-strapped Jerry Lundegaard (Macy) pays two petty criminals - Carl (Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) - to kidnap his wife so he can collect ransom money from his wealthy father-in-law. They do the deed, but on the road back to Minneapolis, things go wrong, bullets fly, and people get killed. Heavily pregnant - and highly intelligent - police chief Marge Gunderson (McDormand) must investigate the triple homicide. A few more murders later, Marge is just a step behind the criminals. She finally catches up with them – in a gruesomely famous scene involving a woodchipper. Fun! And justice. A surprisingly happy ending to a very gory movie.

Since I loved Fargo, I only have good points to discuss. First things first - the casting is brilliant. Steve Buscemi’s bug-eyed face enhances his character’s craziness, William H. Macy’s Lundegaard is simmering and scary, and Frances McDormand is simply fabulous. I also loved how the sets and locations felt real. The dingy bar, the cramped office, the ice-packed Minnesota highways – I felt like I could walk straight into the movie. The Coen Brothers are known for black comedy, and this script was brilliantly dark and witty. It won only two Oscars (Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay), but in my opinion, it should have won several more.

I couldn’t review this movie without discussing the look. One of the best things about Fargo was how, in some parts of the movie, the Coens chose to downplay all the spurting blood – and in other parts, when they wanted to fully show the gore, they used bright Minnesota snow to highlight the blood’s vivid red. The art direction, down to every gory detail, is amazing.

So, in all, if you like:

* Cartoonish Minnesotan accents (I’m sorry. They’re real!)
* Steve Buscemi discussing hookers and Waffle House pancakes.
* Steve Buscemi wearing a fur coat.
* Steve Buscemi getting shoved in a woodchipper.
* Intelligent, independent female heroines
* The Coen Brothers’ dark and witty dialogue

...then you’ll love Fargo. And I mean, you’ll love it. Would I lie?

Next up: No. 83, Platoon (1986.) The Oliver-Stone-directed epic about the Vietnam War is supposed to be a good one, and I’ve never seen it. Stick around and read about it!