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From the DVD Shelf: Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

I’ve picked up a few of the Universal 100th Anniversary blu-rays that they’ve been releasing this year, highlighting films from the studio’s 100 year history.  Two that I’ve watched recently are Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.  I’ll be back soon to write about Jaws, today I want to write about Born on the Fourth of July.

After re-watching Platoon a few months ago (click here for my review), I knew I wanted to re-watch Born on the Fourth of July soon.  I’d only seen the film once, in college.  My friends and I set about to watch a number of films that we hadn’t ever seen but that we felt were important for us to see, and that brought us to Born on the Fourth of July. My recollection was really enjoying the film, though feeling that it was very intense and difficult to watch in places.  It wasn’t a film I was rushing to see again, because it was a tough story.

Well, there’s no question that Born on the Fourth of July is tough to watch in places, but I’m glad to have re-watched it.  I think it’s a terribly effective film, and one of the greatest anti-war films I’ve ever seen.

Whereas Platoon focused exclusively on the events of a soldier’s one-year tour of duty in Vietnam (based largely upon Mr. Stone’s own experiences), Born on the Fourth of July’s focus is at once more expansive and also far more focused.  Based on the true-life story of Vietnam vet Ron Kovic (and the book he wrote about his experiences), the film follows Ron from his childhood through adulthood.  We see him as a young boy and as an idealistic high school student, fervently accepting the lesson his family, teachers and community taught him about the importance of doing one’s patriotic duty to serve in the military.  We follow Ron through two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he is confronted by the horrors of war and is eventually shot and paralyzed.  We stay with Ron during his horrific experiences in a veterans hospital, his attempt to return to his home and family, his terrible depression about his paralyzation and his feelings of isolation from the world that drive him to drinking and drugs, and eventually down to a brothel in Mexico.  We see how his anger at the anti-war protesters eventually transforms him into an anti-war protester himself.

The power of Born on the Fourth of July is that it is an epic film, but also a profoundly intimate one, focused with laser-sharpness on the experiences of this one young man throughout the fifties, sixties, and … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Platoon (1986)

After watching The Deer Hunter (click here for my review), I decided to move on to another famous Vietnam war movie that I’d never seen: Platoon.

Oliver Stone wrote and directed the film, based on his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam in 1967-68.  Oliver Stone is an interesting director to me.  I respect his work as a writer and as a director, though I haven’t really seen many of his films.  Maybe one of these days I should do a re-watching project (like my De Palma series which, by the way, I will be getting back to eventually…), but for whatever reason there aren’t that many films in Mr. Stone’s filmography that really interest me.  But Platoon is a movie I have long wanted to see, and the film didn’t disappoint.

Platoon has an interesting structure.  It depicts the one year posting in Vietnam of a young infantryman, Chris (Charlie Sheen), the Oliver Stone stand-in character.  Most of these war movies tend to begin with a sequence in basic training to introduce us to all the characters before they get to the war.  But Platoon skips over all of that.  The film begins the moment the plane carrying Chris and his fellow soldiers touches down in Vietnam, and it ends a year later when Chris steps back onto a plane to take him away.

The film is basically divided into two halves.  The first half is a series of vignettes of Chris’ experiences in ‘Nam: suffering on long marches through the jungle, struggling to stay awake on watch in the pouring rain, being in combat, and dealing with incredible stress and fatigue, not to mention the brutal heat, the disease-carried mosquitoes, the red ants, and many more terribly unpleasant experiences.  As we watch these events unfold, we, like Chris, learn about the experience of the war from the perspective of the infantrymen.  Because these scenes were all based on Oliver Stone’s real experiences, the movie has a powerful verisimilitude.  I  understand, of course, that this is still a Hollywood version of the Vietnam experience, but the events I was watching felt honest and real to me, which I enjoyed and appreciated.  I think it’s why the first half of the film works so well.

We also gradually meet many of the other members of Chris’ platoon, most notably the two very different leaders: the kindly Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) and the vicious, scarred Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger).  Willem Dafoe often plays the villain or the weirdo, so it’s delightful to see him playing the tough but fair Elias, a good man trying to do his best in a tough situation.  Tom Berenger, meanwhile, is a nightmare come … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 5): Scarface (1983)

And so at last we arrive, in my journey through the films of Brian De Palma, to one of his films which I had already seen: Scarface. I watched this film several times back when I was in college, though I don’t think I’ve seen it much, if at all, in the last decade.

Just as I felt that Blow Out (click here for my review) was a large leap forward for Mr. De Palma from his earlier films, Scarface represents another huge jump in his prowess as a filmmaker.  Of all the De Palma films which I have seen so far, Scarface is the one that has aged the best.  There are a few moments when the somewhat over-wrought soundtrack dates the film, for me, but otherwise this movie feels just as vital and dynamic as a film made this year, rather than one that is almost three decades old.

Scarface is a live-wire of a film — a visceral, go-for-the-gut primal scream of a movie, filled with all the passion and excesses of it’s main characters.  But for a film that was shocking at the time of its release for its graphic violence, I must say I found Scarface to be the most restrained of all the De Palma movies I have watched so far, at least until the lunatic orgy of violence at the film’s climax.

Scarface, restrained?  OK, I realize that might seem to be an absurd comment, but hear me out.  Yes, Scarface is incredibly violent.  But my major complaint about Mr. De Palma’s films so far in my viewing project has been that there has been so much extreme content (mostly of the sexual/nudity variety) that seemed totally gratuitous to me.  I think those films would have been stronger films had some of the gauzy shower scenes, for example, been cut out, because those scenes just make me laugh or shake my head, pulling me out of the movie I was watching.

But in Scarface, I don’t feel the violence is gratuitous, at least not until the very end.  Let’s take one of the film’s most shocking scenes: Tony Montana’s botched money-for-dope exchange in a Miami hotel room which results in a bloodbath.  When I think of Scarface, I think of this scene even more than the “say hello to my little friend” climax.  It made an enormous impact on me when I first saw the film, and even knowing exactly what’s coming when I watch it now, I still find it to be incredibly gripping — tense and horrifying.  It’s terribly violent, but let me make two points.  One, the scene is not actually as on-the-screen gruesome as you might remember.  … [continued]