Platoon (1986)

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The first casualty of war is innocence.

Charlie Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is a green, fresh to arrive recruit in Vietnam.  Platoon follows Taylor and his company as they cope with the hardships of war, and the film brings back the reality of what went on over there to the big screen for the first time since Apocalypse Now (1979).

The unit breaks into two contrasting camps: one with Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), who believes in total war and winning at any cost, and Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe), who is battle-tested but gracious in contrast to Barnes.  Each side as plenty of support, and they battle over,  as Taylor puts it, “for possession of my soul.”

As with Attack!Platoon features a whole slew of familiar faces (Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Keith David, Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, John C. McGinley, Tony Todd, Mark Moses), many of which were at the beginning of their careers.

A couple of things added to the authenticity of this film.  Oliver Stone’s experience in Vietnam, woven throughout the characters Taylor encounters, and the preparation the actors went through in making this film.  They trained for two weeks before filming began, building camaraderie as a unit, digging foxholes, encountering “night attacks” to get used to the special effects that would be used.  The familiarity these actors had with their weapons made the actions and emotion seem genuine.

The acting in this film is top-notch.  The characters evoke strong emotions in the audience: you either really like or really hate what a person says or does.  I found myself completely disgusted with some of the men in the Barnes camp as they abused and mistreated both Vietnamese peasants and their fellow soldiers.  An interesting commentary on this came from Taylor as he was airlifted out at the end of the film.  He describes that the Vietnamese weren’t the enemy, instead we were out own enemy.  There is a lot of killing, granted, but more of it being American killing American than one would expect.

I believe I’ve said it before, but Willem Dafoe is probably one of my favorite actors.  This film is one of the reasons for that opinion.  He is a strong, committed character whose performance I felt stood above all the others. I also found it interesting that he never wear a helmet.  Ever.  Tom Berenger, though I don’t agree with his characters outlook and way of carrying himself, brings that type of soldier to life and it fully committed to his character.

Charlie Sheen does very well in this movie as well.  The contrast and how quickly his idealized or unaware outlook at the beginning of the film is quickly shredded and almost gone by the end of the film.  He quickly loses the label of ‘new meat’ and becomes one of the guys.  His judgement and discernment remain, though, which is refreshing and relieving.

It’s interesting seeing John C. McGinley in a role like this after watching him at Dr. Cox on Scrubs, but hey that might just be me.

Platoon is considered one of the best films of the 1980s, it won the Best Picture Oscar in 1987.  It’s authenticity and superb acting both contribute largely to its success.  It’s one I enjoyed, and will probably watch a couple more times sometime in the future.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Attack! (1956)

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Attack!

During the Battle of the Bulge, an incompetent Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert), has daddy issues and feels he needs to prove himself, even if it goes again conventional, and better, judgement.  His buddy, Lt. Colonol Bartlett (Lee Marvin), manipulates Cooney for his own gain.  Caught in the middle is Lt. Joe Costa (Jack Palance), his second in command Sfc. Tolliver (Buddy Ebsen), and their battalion, with Pfc. Bernstein (Robert Strauss).

Holy cow there’s a lot of name recognition in this film.  Most of these men made a bigger name for themselves in the years following Attack!’s release, but here we have a film where each character plays their part and they all mesh and work well together.

Shot in the 1950s, this film did not receive the cooperation of the US Defense Department, in large part because of its portrayal of certain officers in World War II.  Even though it’s an ugly side of the war: soldiers being used as pawns by incompetent commanders, it’s still a side of war that exists.  It certainly is not something that should be overlooked.

I was disappointed that Lee Marvin was an all-talk character, not going to the front lines, but he was a manipulator, and higher up, so it makes sense.

The real star of this film without any doubt is Jack Palance.  Though he would have to wait another 35 years to receive his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in City Slickers, Palance shows his versatility and strong stage presence in Attack! 

robertstrauss Robert Strauss, a familiar face from Stalag 17.

epsen  Oh hey it’s Buddy Ebsen, aka Jed Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies.

This film was enjoyable, but one of the unfortunate pitfalls about this project is that a lot of films set in the same time period all tend to mesh together and seem the same.  Each one has its own merits, and I know the reviews stay pretty spread out, but they seem to deal with very similar conflicts, and in the case of this film, I’ve seen a number of the actors in other films like this.  Perhaps I’m just impatient or getting bored seeing such similar stories.

Attack! benefits from a cast that is familiar and talented with this type of film.  However, having this type of ensemble cast can make it seems very similar to many other films in the genre.  I’m glad I watched it, but probably won’t watch it again.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

In Which We Serve (1942)

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This is a review about a ship, and the movie that brought its audience to the front lines of what that ship and its crew went through.

The HMS Torrin is a British Destroyer that saw more than its fair share of battles in World War II.  In the Battle of Crete, though, it is sunk by the German Air Force.  As a dozen crew members including the captain wait with a life raft to be rescued, each person has a flashback related to the ship.  From its commissioning to numerous battles, the evacuation of Dunkirk, and eventual demise, In Which We Serve follows the crew through the years of the Torrin’s service.  It also goes through a number of the crew members home life and how it evolves through time.

A strength of this film, which was no doubt a bit of British propaganda (with good purpose), is that it allows the audience to get into the life and thought process of the British Royal Navy crewman.  At the time of its release, it is relate-able to the common citizen, and offers hope as the films epilogue reassures that they are not done fighting, they will press on, and they will win.

I must admit I really struggled with this one at first.  I watched the first 30 minutes at the end of a long day, and battled with staying awake through it.  Having had a night’s sleep, watching the rest of the film was much easier.

A movie like In Which We Serve, which was filmed and released during World War II, makes for some interesting contextual considerations.  The story is based on the HMS Kelly, which had been sunk in the Battle of Crete in 1941.  Joel Coward, one of the film’s directors, screenwriter, and producer, was very good friends with the captain of the Kelly Lord Louis Mountbatten.  Coward based his performance largely on Mountbatten, even quoting from Mountbatten’s addresses to his men.  This kind of realism and faithfulness to the source material makes for an engaging, enjoyable, realistic film.

In Which We Serve is a film where brute honesty and a unifying symbol both inform and inspire the audience.  In a time where World War II hadn’t quite turned in the Allied Forces favor, this patriotic biopic gave the people something to look to with hope.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Tremors (1990)

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Tremors, where do I begin?

While this movie is listed in the ‘horror’ category, I find that very difficult to believe.  Yes, it’s about man-eating monsters that hunt their prey underground, but it’s so over the top that it’s more comical than anything else.  It’s also rather dated special effects-wise, much like another ‘horror’ film, Gremlins.

Tremors seems like more of a mock-horror film because it’s so over the top.  Therein lies its charm. “There’s no intention to scare, classic genre stereotypes are gently mocked for viewers’ amusement, without the film ever trying to be too clever.  Charming and unpretentious fun.”

Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward make this movie.  They come across as two guys that have known each other for years, they act like brothers, and they’ve known each other so long that they’re more or less stuck with one another whether they like it or not.

As I write this I think of a few of my oldest friends and could see any combination of us ending up like Valentine and Earl.  The banter between the two provides most of the comic relief, and that’s one of the more charming aspects of this movie.  Each of them stays true to character   I can think of a few people that are like Burt (Michael Gross), but I won’t go any further than that.

Tremors is entertaining no doubt, but is more of a comical than a scary way.  That’s why I like it.  I’m not much into horror films: to date there are only 4 of the 50 that I have or would like to see.  I think the two direct-to-video sequels and additional prequel have dumbed down and lessened the impact of this film (I vaguely remember the sequels and haven’t seen Tremors 4 and probably won’t).  This film has just enough to scare but more than enough content to entertain.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

The Departed (2006)

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“Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream,” and they both end up getting shot.

Wrong movie, but given the fact that there are two rats in this one, it seems appropriate.

The Departed is a film I’ve seen numerous times.  It has been quite some time since I saw it last, and I have to say I still remember a lot of the memorable lines, and it still surprises me with the way this one turns out.  Martin Scorsese thinks way outside the box, and while it seems like he mostly does crime-related films, he’s good at it, so he’s sticking with his strength as a filmmaker.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon both give outstanding performances in this movie.  I almost get the sense that it was at this point that people started taking DiCaprio more seriously as an adult-type actor as compared to his roles in Romeo + JulietTitanic, and to a lesser extent Catch Me If You Can.  These guys are both convincing in taking on the roles that are opposite from their character’s nature.  Jack Nicholson does a good job in the role he’s given, and Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin deliver many of the memorable lines.

Scorsese uses a lot of throwbacks and references to old crime movies.  Whenever a person is about to die, there is an “X” in some form: the X on the truck right before Sullivan (Damon) stabs the restaurant worker, as Queenan (Martin Sheen) is thrown out the window, when Sullivan shoots Costello (Nicholson), and the Xs on the floor in Sullivan’s apartment hallway at the end of the film.  Another one was with the red lens filter as Costello was at the opera.

Something I’ve always thought was interesting is how the opening title doesn’t appear for the first 20 minutes or so.  Scorsese is also very good as keeping the audience on their toes.  The first time I saw this movie in the theater, I remember thinking at the very end, “Oh my gosh what in the world just happened?”  Part of me was thinking, “no way did that just happen, it isn’t possible.”  I’m talking about the final elevator scene.

When you look at the other films up for Best Picture, it’s one of those times where one rises far and away above the rest.  I have nothing against Babel, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen, and Letters from Iwo Jima, but to me it seemed like The Departed was in a class all its own.  For the record I’ve seen all those films except The Queen, in fact I’ve reviewed Letters for this project: https://501mustseemoviesproject.wordpress.com/2012/11/30/letters-from-iwo-jima-2006/iwojima/

I noticed something this time in the scene where Costello and Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) are discussing the rat in the organization.  I never saw that Costello was drawing rats on his piece of paper.

Overall The Departed is an engaging, entertaining film.  It does go way over the top on violence and language, but given the circumstances, setting, and type of movie this is, that can be expected.  I can enjoy this one still today in moderation, and it’s essential for any Scorsese fan.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

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Filmmaker Martin Di Bergi (Rob Reiner) does a documentary about Spinal Tap, a fictional British band, as they embark on their first U.S. tour in 6 years promoting a new album.  What follows is 80 minutes of brutally honest, unforgiving, improvised genius.

This film seems longer than 80 minutes, but it works and at the end I enjoy the fact that I haven’t had to sit watch and wait through 2 to 3 hours.  Taking away or adding anything to this film would probably hurt the overall performance.

As he hosted the cast of The Simpsons for an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio, James Lipton mentioned that This is Spinal Tap was one of the funniest movies he had ever seen when he addressed Harry Shearer.  This is a movie that seems timeless and great because it’s etched in this time period and truly reflective of music and the ups and downs of touring and promoting for big-name bands.  Also since many of the lines were ad-libs from the cast, there’s an element of realism that just can’t happen with a specific script.

There are too many great lines and scenes in this film to nail down just one as a favorite.  The airport security scene and Nigel (Christopher Guest) with his amp that goes to 11 are two of them that have always stuck out a little more than the others for me.  The fun and over-the-topness of this movie is one of the things that makes it great.

I did a little research online and found that a number of band members from heavy metal and rock bands had thought This is Spinal Tap was more or less a tribute to them.  Many of the antics: getting lost backstage, issues with the catering and whatnot, had happened to them.

This is Spinal Tap works great as a mock-rockumentary that touches on many common themes for bands in this time period, and entertains its specific audience.  It’s enjoyable to watch, but I always try to put a good chunk of time between viewings.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Blues Brothers (1980)

 

I’ll start by saying it’s a sad day for film today with the passing of Roger Ebert.  I’ve always found his reviews refreshingly honest.  Whenever I’ve looked to professional critics for more information or analysis for a film, Ebert has been at the top of the list.  Now, on with the review.

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This is my second time watching this movie.  After watching this the first time I knew I had to own it.  While I don’t consider myself an expert of film, music, and the sort, I thoroughly enjoy good (and at times bad) films and music.  You could say I’m an appreciator of the arts.

What started as an Saturday Night Live skit in the late 70s became one of the only SNL skits-turned-films that should have been made.  Most of the rest of them are a joke, this one is great.  I haven’t taken the time to watch the original sketches or do a whole lot of background information, and perhaps that’d help me appreciate and understand this movie better and on more levels.   However, I enjoy the music, comedy, and acting chemistry between John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.

My only complaints about this film have to do with a couple of scenes that I felt dragged on a little too long.  The church scene with James Brown and the first car chase scene through the mall could have been shorted up a bit in my opinion.  I was watching the extended version, so that may have played a part in it.

While this film was a little over the top throughout: the growing group of people chasing the Blues Brothers specifically.  But it’s a sketch-comedy skit turned movie, so over the top works here.

Belushi and Aykroyd work well together.  One of my favorite lines was at the beginning of the film when Elwood (Aykroyd) tells Jake (Belushi) he traded their old car for a microphone.  Jake, under the impression that Elwood had traded their old car for the current police cruiser, more or less has a “that makes sense” moment and he’s not mad at his brother about it.

There is a tremendous string of cameos and major musical artists in The Blues Brothers: Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Charles Napier, Frank Oz, Steven Spielberg to name a few.

This time around Carrie Fisher’s character was a little less of a surprise since I know she’s Jake’s estranged ex-fiance.  She adds a “What in the world” element to the movie, another person keeping the Blues brothers on their toes.

The Blues Brothers is a movie that works for those who like good blues music and comedy.  John Landis has a slam dunk in this story of redemption, and I’d recommend seeing at least once.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.