Saturday, November 26, 2011

Platoon

A long time ago, Charlie Sheen was once considered a promising young actor with serious potential. After all, his first starring roles were two of Oliver Stone's most highly acclaimed films, Platoon and Wall Street. Watching Platoon, it's amazing to consider how clean-cut he once was compared to the tabloid creature he's become, but it's probably more impressive to see just how well the movie has held up.

Released in 1986, Platoon was Stone's first masterpiece, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and director and being nominated for a host of others (including best supporting actor for Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe). More significantly, it entered American culture as the definitive depiction of ground combat in Vietnam. While there have been a number of films before and since this film about the Vietnam War (many great in their own right), Platoon is widely regarded as the first to show the war on the ground level, at the nitty-gritty, mud-soaked viewpoint. Stone, not one to shy away from political statements and polemic arguments, refrains from making doing so here, content to show us what it was like. The result is one of the greatest films ever made.

In 1968, Private Chris Taylor (Sheen) arrives in Vietnam to serve a tour duty. A middle-class college drop-out who enlisted, he's out out of place with the various members of his unit, most of them working-class poor who were drafted. Life in Vietnam is brutal and miserable, whether in combat or marching through the jungle. After a while, Chris finds himself caught between two sergeants: Barnes (Berenger), a scarred psychotic with no compassion, and Elias (Dafoe), who's trying to hold on to his humanity. After an incident in a village, the platoon becomes divided between the two men and begins to fall apart.

World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle famously liked depicting the "worm's eye view" in his articles. Had he survived that war to see Platoon, Pyle might have recognized this approach by Stone. War is no adventure. The marches are long and exhausting, the loads heavy and painful, fire ants crawl on your neck, leaves and brush cut as you walk by, water contains malaria, and there never seems to be any end or goal in mind. Just walk around until the enemy is found.

The combat scenes, while not as gory as Saving Private Ryan and other later war films, are brutal, violent, intense, and chaotic. Instead of showing the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese, Stone reveals them in shadows and half-seen glimpses. There's no front line or reserve. Death can come from anywhere. We're reminded of this when one man goes missing and is later found tied up with his throat cut. Meanwhile, booby traps pick their numbers off further. Instead of a band of brothers unified by a common cause, the men of Chris's platoon are scared, angry, drugged-out, confused, and/or divided amongst themselves.

Acting-wise, a lot of other familiar faces turn up in small roles: John C. McGinley, Kevin Dillon, Keith David, Johnny Depp, and Forest Whitaker. There's no weak link. While Sheen is good as the rookie gradually absorbed by the insanity around him, it is Berenger and Dafoe who dominate the screen. Berenger is terrifying, a cold-blooded killer who will do whatever it takes. Dafoe, in a quasi-spiritual role, seeks to protect decency and survive.

Chris is initially drawn to Barnes' straightforward, no-time-for-bull attitude but is eventually converted over to Elias' dignity. In narration, Chris describes himself as being "born of those fathers" who fought for the possession of his soul. Curiously, Stone would transcribe a similar conflict to the corporate business world of Wall Street with the character of Bud Fox (also played by Sheen) torn between the values of his working-class, union father and the riches and excesses of the slick tycoon Gordon Gecko.

Stone himself was a Vietnam vet who dropped out of college to enlist, and this is without a doubt his most personal film. He has no agenda other than to illustrate how he remembers the war. It's also, I feel, his greatest achievement.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Good Burger

The main problem with Good Burger (1997), based off the sketch from the Nickelodeon series All That, isn't the thinness of the story, the cheapness of its production values, or the hypocrisy of a corporate entity such as Nickelodeon to glorify the virtues of a small-town burger joint while vilifying a national chain. No, the biggest problem is its main character, Ed (Kel Mitchell).

Between his fake dreadlocks, grating voice, and idiotic behavior, Ed is one of the most un-endearing, painfully unfunny "wacky" characters I've ever seen in a movie. Everything he does or says is painfully telegraphed to the most moronic of punchlines and slapstick. By the end, I was begging for a movie of more substance and maturity, like the latest Rob Schneider vehicle.

Everything involving Ed is painfully unfunny or horribly contrived. What conclusion would you draw about someone whose idea to fix a milkshake machine is to climb into the milk and ice cream only for someone to tell him it wasn't turned on? Or that he showers with clothes on? Or the first thing he does after being told not to tell anyone the ingredients of his secret, best-selling sauce is begin to tell the ingredients of his secret, best-selling sauce?After all the trouble he causes and the damage that's resulted, Ed is never fired. Ed may be well-meaning, but he's so inept and clumsy, there's no justification why anyone would put up him, let alone his boss. Ed's antics drive customers away, and yet he's the only one at Good Burger apparently that can work the front counter.

Sorry for the rant. On with the plot. Ed is employed by Good Burger, a local burger chain now threatened by the corporate chain Mondo Burger, which opened up across the street and is offering bigger burgers. Meanwhile, Dexter (Kenan Thompson, another All That alumnus and current SNL cast member) has taken a job at Good Burger to pay for the damage of a car crash involving his Blaxploitation teacher, Mr. Wheat (Sinbad!), not realizing Ed caused the accident. Good Burger looks finished, but a new secret sauce developed by Ed catches on.

Even if the rest of the movie was charming, funny, or endearing, Ed would still be a yawning black hole sucking the enjoyment out of anything remotely entertaining, but the rest of the movie is a write-off regardless. There's nothing here that really constitutes a joke. It's all weird, stupid behavior for the most undiscriminating of children to giggle at (and I should know, I saw this in theaters when I was 9 for a birthday party).

There are few things worthy of a smile or chuckle. Kenan Thompson isn't bad playing the straight man to Ed (although why he never strangles him, I'll never know). Sinbad's 70s' behavior and wardrobe is way out of place, but he's amusing on occasion. And the always reliable Abe Vigoda is good as Otis, an elderly Good Burger employee, although I think they missed an opportunity by not implying he's his same character from The Godfather now in hiding from the Corleone family.

I know some people will say this is for kids and that I shouldn't be so hard on it. I say, there's better children's entertainment out there, even from Nickelodeon. Give children some credit. At least Spongebob can competently cook a Krabby patty.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Masters of Horror: The Fair Haired Child

Masters of Horror: Season 1, Episode 9
The Fair Haired Child
Director: William Malone
Notable Films: House on Haunted Hill, FeardotCom, Parasomnia
Director Trademarks Present: Foreboding Atmosphere, Influence of German Expressionism
Plot Summary: Tara (Lindsay Pulshiper), a teenage outcast at school, is kidnapped by Judith (Lori Petty) and Anton (William Samples), a couple mourning the death of their son many years ago. The pair lock her in the basement of their country mansion, along with a mute boy named Johnny (Jessee Haddock). Soon, Tara finds carvings on the walls warning her to "Get Out Before It Wakes Up" and "Beware the Fair Haired Child," and it becomes apparent Judith and Anton selected her to be the final sacrifice in an arcane ritual that will resurrect their son.

It might be dubious to label William Malone a Master of Horror given his track record, but it's hard to deny he crafted one of the better episodes of the first season. While the plot is a little hokey, Malone makes up for it with a creepy, foreboding Gothic atmosphere and a rather unique and effective monster while simultaneously paying tribute to the forefathers of the genre. If nothing else, it's certainly one of the best-looking episodes.

Horrors roots can be traced back to the Silent Era, with such black-and-white masterpieces as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. Those filmmakers were free to play in a less realistic. German Expressionism is a visual representation of a character's inner emotional state, and these early classics played that up with deep, dark shadows, slanted camera angles, and production design not entirely reflective of reality to suggest a terrifying , chaotic world. That influence is felt in Fair Haired Child.Malone utilizes a number of stark, black-and-white flashbacks to depcit how Judith and Anton lost their son as well as how they formed a pact with the supernatural being that would restore him to life, at a price. These sequences have the atmosphere of a nightmare, a place in which logic has no place. I really liked the shot of Anton, wearing a birthday hat like a dunce cap, as he appeared to almost stand on water as he passively stood by as his son drowned, unable to swim to his rescue. While they are the "villains" of the piece, the probing of their background, guilt, and desperation generates a fair amount of sympathy.

The narrative unfolds fairly slowly, accumulating dread along the way. The carved messages on the wall really go a long way toward building anticipation for the monster, as do the collection of corpses Tara discovers. When we see the titular creature in motion, it moves in a distorted way that resembles stop-motion animation. Combined with the deep shadows and grungy basement, it's an unsettling effect. Watching it, you do feel like you're trapped down there with Tara.

As I alluded to earlier, the plot is a bit silly (One wonders how easy demonic bargains are given the film's resolution), but story is almost secondary to this type of film. It's about experiencing a dark atmosphere, feeling dread, and finding yourself facing death in the face, unable to get away. Very effective stuff.