‘The Wolf of Snow Hollow’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.

Good horror is hard to find these days in Hollywood. Between the endless number of sequels, remakes and jump scare flicks, it can be quite difficult to find a horror flick truly worth of your time.  However, the beauty with cinema are the little gems like “The Wolf of Snow Hollow.”  This film is also notable for being one of the last to feature the late, great Robert Forster.  It was written and directed by its star Jim Cummings.  Thankfully for the audience, he’s up to the task of being the lead, and he has terrific comedic timing.  He knows how to balance the quirky tone of the flick, which is why it’s such a beauty to watch from beginning to end.  The film is 80 minutes when you take out the credits, but it makes the most of each and every scene and character.

“The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is set in Snow Hollow, Utah where not much of anything happens on a day-to-day basis for local police officer John Marshall (Jim Cummings). In John’s personal life, there is a lot going on as he’s trying to raise a 17-year-old daughter on her way to college despite the fact he and his ex-wife don’t get along at all.  There is also the fact his father, played by the late Robert Forster, is having health issues and struggling to stay retired from his job as Sheriff.  It also doesn’t help that some of the individuals working with him aren’t the brightest and most ambitious bunch of police officers out there.  However, there is one bright spot in Officer Julia Robson (Riki Lindhome) as she takes her job seriously and is there to help out John Marshall whenever he needs her.

In addition to these issues, John is also struggling to stay sober. He’s three years sober after being in AA for six years, but the urge to drink starts to increase when local women are showing up dead left and right in Snow Hollow.  He’s having a hard time solving the case, which is causing increased stress and an inability to sleep until he finds the killer. He also wants to prove to himself, his daughter, his father, and everyone else that he is Sheriff material.  The longer this case goes on, the more blame he is facing from the locals. There are theories out there that it’s a werewolf because of the work of the killer, and he’s not sure if he believes in werewolves or if his mind is playing tricks on him.

However, with each full moon another woman is gruesomely torn to shreds.  The stress and anxiety of the job and John’s day-to-day life is getting to him.  On paper, this might not sound like the type of material which would produce a comedy or a solid horror film.  It’s all in the tone and delivery by the actors and what I would imagine was a very specific script. The deadpan comedic moments are executed flawlessly. The beauty comes in the little moments of the film where the characters are interacting with each other.  John also has an anger problem, which produces some clever and offbeat moments.  It reminded me a lot of “Fargo” if it had werewolves.

“The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is gorgeously shot as well, and this really stands out when taking the film in as an audience member.  There are a number of overhead shots which are breathtaking. Near the end, Cummings decides to switch tones a bit, and this is a smart move because he transitions to a heartfelt conclusion that is satisfying on many levels. This is a prime example of a film with a $2 million dollar which makes the most of its script, actors and scenery.  It was a film I was not familiar with until its Blu-ray release, but I was pleasantly surprised with it.

This is the perfect cult movie which is going to find an audience as it ages and more people check it out.  With its Blu-ray release, now is the perfect time for you to discover and enjoy it.  I enjoyed the hell out of it, and I look forward to more projects from Cummings in the future.  He has shown a lot of talent and ability here as a writer, director and actor.  I had never seen anything from him before, but I’m very curious to check out his feature film debut from 2018, “Thunder Road.” He’s the kind of talent who likes to do things on his own, but he has proven it is a task not too big for him.  I highly recommend you seek out “The Wolf of Snow Hollow.” You will not be disappointed.

* * * ½ out of * * * * __________________________________________________

Blu-Ray Info: “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is released on a single-disc Blu-ray with a digital code from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It has a running time of 85 minutes and is rated R for violence, bloody images, language throughoutand some drug use.

Video Info:  The film is presented in 1080p high definition. It looks outstanding, and I loved the snowy overhead shots.  For a $2 million dollar budget, as mentioned, it surely stands out on screen and there is a lot to enjoy from a visual perspective.

Audio Info: The Blu-Ray comes with a DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 audio track along with an English Descriptive Audio track. Subtitles are in English and Spanish.

Special Features:

·         The Story and the Genre

·         The Impetus

·         Working with Jim Cummings

·         The Design of the Werewolf

·         The Story and The Genre

Should You Buy It?

Yes! You need to support independent cinema which is daring, takes risks and has something unique to offer to the film world.  I have a feeling I’m going to be hearing a lot about Jim Cummings in the future.  The film also comes with some solid special features as well.  The Blu-ray looks outstanding and really adds to the atmosphere of the movie.  The more removed I was from this film and the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.  It’s also only $14.99 at most major retailers.  If you know someone who is a horror fan, this is the perfect Christmas gift to surprise them with this upcoming holiday season.  “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is a delightful surprise. I really enjoyed every minute of this film.

**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

‘Bill & Ted Face The Music’ Hits Just The Right Notes

After watching the trailers for “Bill & Ted Face The Music,” one question kept popping into my head: How can these two guys from San Dimas go from playing in front of the largest audience in the world to performing for a crowd of 40 in Barstow, most of whom were there for $2 taco night? At the end of “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” we saw news articles of them performing all over the place, and they even got to stage a concert on Mars of all places. Seriously, you cannot plummet from a height of fame like that, right?

Well, keep in mind that at the end of “Bogus Journey,” Bill and Ted did finally learn how to play their guitars, but they also performed a cover of “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” by KISS. We never did hear them play any original tunes. As “Face The Music” begins, we learn their debut song as writers opened big and then plummeted to the bottom of the charts in record time. Even worse, their follow up albums were ravaged by the critics, one who described their work as being “manure.” Taking this into account, it makes perfect sense they would end up performing in Barstow, a town in the middle of nowhere. Like Vanilla Ice, they shot up into the stratosphere and then saw their follow-up album being sold at a used record store for only 99 cents (and that’s on the day after it was released).

We first see Bill S. Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted Logan (Keanu Reeves) at the wedding of Missy (Amy Stoch). Yes, Missy is getting married, and just wait until you find out to who. The two use the occasion to present the world premiere of their latest work, and while they play instruments with more confidence than before, they are still unable to put together a cohesive song, and the response they get is much like the one Spinal Tap received when they told the audience they were going in a “new musical direction.”

Bill and Ted are still married to the princesses, Joanna (Jayma Mays) and Elizabeth (Erinn Hays), and they have two beautiful music-loving daughters in Theodora (Samara Weaving) and Wilhelmina (Brigette Lundy-Paine). Still, they have not yet written the song meant to unite the whole world, and it appears as if this destiny may have been misread. Furthermore, their daughters are in their 20’s and still living at home, and their wives are starting to tire of the lack of the direction in their husbands’ lives. Ted’s dad, Captain Jonathan Logan (Hal Landon Jr.), refuses to believe he and Bill could have traveled in time or gone to heaven and hell and begs them to get “real jobs.” Yes, middle age has hit Bill and Ted real hard to where they feel the need to reassess their goals.

Then into the picture comes Kelly (Kristen Schaal), daughter of the late Rufus, who takes Bill and Ted to the future to meet The Great Leader (played by Holland Taylor) who is not exactly happy with where they have ended up in life. From there, they are informed that the universe is unravelling and will be destroyed if they do not write the unifying song in the next 78 minutes. How about that? You are tasked with writing the song which will unite the world, and you have just over an hour to compose it. Talk about pressure! As we get older, 78 minutes doesn’t last as long as it used to.

Bill, however, comes up with a most excellent plan to travel with Ted into the future when they have already written the song and to take it from themselves. Ted considers this to be stealing, but Bill convinces him it isn’t as long as they are stealing from themselves. Hey, it worked for James Horner!

“Face the Music” comes to us more than 25 years after “Bogus Journey,” so it is hard to know what to expect. It reunites not only Reeves and Winter, but also screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon who penned the previous two films as well. I am thankful to say this sequel is no “Blues Brothers 2000” which relied on an overabundance of nostalgia to where I found myself wanting to watch the original. Instead, it does come with some good laughs and a lot of heart as everyone involved has worked their damndest to bring this last chapter of Bill and Ted to the silver screen and digital streaming for dozens of years. Regardless of what you may think, no one is out to simply repeat themselves here.

Both Reeves and Winter are clearly having a blast as Bill and Ted keep traveling to different parts of the future in an effort to talk to themselves and get the song. This allows the actors to portray them in various ways to where we see them as has beens, a duo ever so in love with English culture, and hard-core prisoners who have bulked far more than you would ever have expected (nice makeup work by the way). Regardless of the many years which have passed them by, both actors slip back into their roles as if they never left them, and they keep these characters from becoming mere caricatures throughout.

Also, believe it or not, there is some evolution to Bill and Ted. Granted, they are still pretty dense when it comes to things like couple’s therapy, but they also realize how their famous sayings of “be excellent to each other” and “party on dudes” do not have the same resonance as they once did. Before they go on their latest excellent adventure, they have to realize they are at a crossroads as things cannot keep going the way they have been as things have got to change. Still, it is worth it to see them playing air guitar here and there even as they approach middle age with inescapable apprehension.

Both Weaving and Lundy-Paine are fun to watch as the daughters, and this is even though the section where they search for famous musicians to create a band is the film’s weakest. It’s a bit of an anemic retread of when Bill and Ted, on their “Excellent Adventure,” went back in time to gather historical figures for their final history exam. Regardless, it is cool to see Jimi Hendrix jam with a bewildered Mozart who has no idea what he is hearing.

It is also great to see William Sadler return as the Grim Reaper as he stole every scene he had in “Bogus Journey.” He too slips back into this hilarious character as if he just played him yesterday, and not once does he have to struggle to get a laugh out of any of us. Seeing the Reaper attempt to make peace with Bill and Ted over the fallout they had with all those 40-minute bass solos is not just one of “Face the Music’s” funniest moments, but also one of its most heartfelt.

Each of the “Bill & Ted” films have had a different director: Stephen Herek directed “Excellent Adventure,” Pete Hewitt helmed “Bogus Journey,” and behind the camera for this installment is Dean Parisot. As a result, each one has a different feel to it despite having most of the same cast and the same screenwriters. Parisot is a perfect fit for this entry as he is terrific at mining material for both laughs and heart, and he proved this with “Galaxy Quest,” one of the greatest cult movies ever made. “Face the Music” doesn’t reach the same heights as “Galaxy Quest,” but Parisot does show a lot of respect for these characters and gives this sequel the heart it deserves. More importantly, he gives it a fulfilling conclusion which truly put a big smile on my face.

Upon first watching “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” I have to admit my feelings on it were mixed as I hoped it would be funnier. But after watching it a second time, I found myself appreciating it more as speaks to the values of friendship and music, both of which we need in these crazy times. Whether or not this sequel is all you ever hoped for, it is clear everyone involved put everything they had into it, and I do hope the fans are satisfied with what they see.

Could a fourth “Bill & Ted” movie ever happen? I don’t know, and frankly this one serves as good conclusion. Seeing them rock out at the conclusion reminds me of what Neil Young once said:

“Rock and roll can never die.”

Damn right! Party on dudes!

* * * out of * * * *

‘The Cotton Club Encore’ Gives This Movie The Version it Deserves

thecottonclubencore-keyart

For years, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 film “The Cotton Club” was upstaged by its behind the scenes drama which included the cold-blooded murder of one of its financiers, Roy Radin. With Coppola teaming up again with producer Robert Evans and writer Mario Puzo, audiences must have been expecting another “Godfather” movie, but what they got was something quite different. Despite some good reviews, the movie proved to be a commercial failure, and far more time has spent documenting all of what went into its nightmarish making to where I am truly surprised Eleanor Coppola has never given us a documentary on it like she did with “Apocalypse Now.”

Now it is 35 years later, and Coppola has given us another version entitled “The Cotton Club Encore.” This version came about after he discovered an old Betamax video copy of his original cut which ran 25 minutes longer. From there, Coppola spent $500,000 of his own money to restore this film, and in the process he added 24 minutes and deleted 13 minutes to give us this new cut which just arrived in select theaters. For the record, I have not seen the original 1984 version, but after watching “The Cotton Club Encore,” I am certain I do not even need to bother as this cut is outstanding and absolutely exhilarating to take in. What seemed deeply flawed in the past now seems almost perfect.

In essence, “The Cotton Club” is about two men trying to navigate the hurdles life keeps throwing at them. One is cornet player Dixie Dwyer (played by Richard Gere) who arrives back in Harlem to see his family which includes his mother Tish (Gwen Verdon in an inspired piece of casting) and his brother Vincent (Nicolas Cage) who looks to be all too enthusiastic about becoming a mobster. After saving the life of gangland kingpin Dutch Schultz (James Remar), Dixie finds himself getting involved in the criminal element which, despite his better judgment, succeeds in elevating his career as a musician to a whole new level. In the process, however, he does make the mistake of falling in love with Dutch’s girlfriend, Vera Cicero (Diane Lane). Suffice to say, romances like these come with bloody endings rather than happy ones.

The other main man in this story is Delbert “Sandman” Williams (Gregory Hines) who, along with his brother Clayton “Clay” Williams (Maurice Hines, Gregory’s brother), get hired to perform at The Cotton Club, a jazz club located in Harlem which featured a roster of black (or African American if you will) performers who sang and danced their hearts out. While there, Delbert becomes infatuated with a singer named Lila Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee) to where he cannot wait to sweep her off her feet. But it doesn’t take long for the cracks to show in his personal and professional life as he gets constantly berated by club management which is intent on reminding him where his place is, and he later makes a decision which threatens to tear him and his brother apart forever.

The Cotton Club was a real club in New York which was open from 1923 to 1940, and while it did feature mostly black performers, no one of color could patronize it and the clientele was white. This irony ended up lasting all the way up this film’s making as the financiers, worried about the long running time, gave Coppola the following notes:

“Film’s too long. Too many black stories. Too much tap dancing. Too many musical numbers.”

Coppola by then was so burned out emotionally from the movie’s production that he acquiesced to the financiers and cut down many of the African-American related scenes to where the focus was more on the gangsters and the Gere/Lane love story. No wonder he sounds so weary when talking today about the changes he made and of how regretful he was about compromising his vision. It also serves as a sad statement of how things in show business did not change much as, even in the 1980’s, African-Americans were still getting the short end of the stick.

With “The Cotton Club Encore,” Coppola has restored much of the African-American storyline, and this is really where the movie is at its best. Seeing these actors and singers perform their hearts out is endlessly thrilling as is the director’s success in transporting us back to the bygone era of the 1930’s. Coppola really does take us back in time to where I felt like I lived through this era which brought with it great music, good and bad times, violence and, among other things, a stock market crash. Heaven forbid we ever go through anything like that crash again, huh?

One of the big treats of all though is watching Gregory Hines and his brother Maurice dance the night away. Both are extraordinary tap dancers, and the love they had for performing is on display throughout as they make their moves look like a piece of cake. Seeing Gregory here serves as a strong reminder of what an incredibly talented and gifted artist he was, and it is also especially bittersweet as he has long since left the land of the living. He was only 57 years old when he passed away after a battle with liver cancer, and he is still missed.

Indeed, this bittersweet feeling threatened to overwhelm me at times as “The Cotton Club Encore” features a number of actors who have since died like Bob Hoskins who portrays the ruthless club owner Owney Madden, and Fred Gwynne as his right-hand man, Frenchy Demange. The scene these two actors have together following a hostage situation is classic, and is another reminder of the talent we have lost over the years.

Another tremendous performance to be found in “The Cotton Club” comes from Lonette McKee, an actress I first became familiar with in “Brewster’s Millions.” With this new cut, Coppola has gone out of his way to restore her showstopping number of “Stormy Weather,” and watching her belt it out left me speechless. She doesn’t just sing the song, she lives through it, and it is an emotionally draining moment I still think about. It is one thing for a singer to hit all the right notes, and it is another to really perform it to where you are giving the most vulnerable performance imaginable, and McKee pulls this off beautifully.

The movie’s other main story of an illicit love affair had me worried for a bit as this tale has been told countless times on stage and screen to where we feel like we know how it will go. Regardless, it still proves to be enthralling in its own way. While it is easily upstaged by the African-American story, it is still fun to see Richard Gere and Diane Lane mix up as they prove to have a palpable chemistry which they would build on years later when they starred in Adrian Lyne’s “Unfaithful.” While it is a little weird to hear Gere’s Bronx accent at first, he quickly reminds us why he is such a magnetic leading man, and he proves to be quite the coronet player as well.

The only real problem I had with “The Cotton Club,” and this is probably the case with either version, is there are too many plot threads which meander, some of which fail to reach a fulfilling conclusion. Despite his efforts, Coppola is unable to manage these various threads to where everything fits into a cohesive whole. At times, it almost made me wish he cut more out of this version as things might have flowed better as a result. And yes, there is that fake head (you will know it when you see it) which proves to be as fake as the baby in “American Sniper.” Perhaps some CGI magic could have helped with it.

Still, when all is said and done, “The Cotton Club Encore” proves to be a stunning achievement as Coppola has finally given this film the version it truly deserves. While he may have come onto this project as a hired hand at first, it is clear to me he really fell in love with the subject matter and took joy in recreating a historical period which deserves far more than a passing glance.

It has been a big year for Coppola as he has announced plans to make his dream project “Megalopolis” a cinematic reality, and he also gave us another version of one of his classics with “Apocalypse Now: Final Cut.” With “The Cotton Club Encore,” he has righted the wrongs he made in the past, and he can now pat himself on the back instead of moan over the mistakes he made over 30 years ago. More importantly, this movie is no longer upstaged by its production stories and can now be appreciated on its own terms.

Relax Francis, you did great!

* * * * out of * * * *

Why ‘Bull Durham’ Remains My Favorite Sports Movie

Bull Durham movie poster

This was one of the few R-rated movies my parents let me see long before I turned 17. Of course, I was already sneaking into R-rated movies before I reached that age. I’d buy a ticket to “Ghost” and instead walk into the theater showing “Marked for Death.” I guess my mom and dad decided, since I was watching all these movie review shows like “Siskel & Ebert” and “Sneak Previews,” and I had seen this movie’s trailer numerous times on the Movietime Channel (long before it turned into E! Entertainment Television), that the damage to my fragile little mind had already been done. Then again, it’s not like they were exposing my brother and I to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Had they done so, it would have scarred us for life!

When I first saw “Bull Durham” on VHS, I was already very used to the Hollywood sports movie formula where the hero suffers a crushing defeat and has to build themselves back up again to an audience-pleasing finish. When I was younger, I was far more comfortable knowing how a movie would end, and I wanted them all to end the same way. It feels like this with today’s generation of audiences as they thrive on repetition in stories and of the good guys beating the villains we are led to believe good will always triumph over evil. When you’re young, you have yet to learn that in reality the bad guys get away with a lot before anyone notices, especially if they have corporate and/or political connections.

“Bull Durham,” however, forever changed the way I looked at sports movies in general. It didn’t always have to be about training montages and the build up to the big game. Instead, it was about the reality of the game itself, and of the various personalities inhabiting it. Whether or not the characters get their big moment at the end, their victories and accomplishments were never about coming out on top or being the best. The real victory came from struggling through one important stage in your life, and surviving long enough to get to the next. Or, in other words, closing one chapter in your life and moving on to the future.

Most baseball movies focus on the major leagues, but what makes “Bull Durham” especially unique is it is about the minor leagues. Writer and director Ron Shelton based this film on his own experiences in the minors which he played in for several years, and he shows it to be a much looser environment and one which is far more fun and carefree. The baseball stadium may be smaller, but the connection between the players and the fans is more intimate and not engulfed in corporate greed or network contracts. Still, all these players see getting to the majors, which they refer to as “the show,” as their holy grail, the one thing they feel destined to get to at some point. The sad thing is, many of them will never make it there.

“Bull Durham” focuses on three characters throughout: Crash “the player to be named later” Davis played by Kevin Costner, Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh played by Tim Robbins, and Annie Savoy played by Susan Sarandon. LaLoosh is the star pitcher of the Durham Bulls and is about to make his professional debut. When he does, he ends up, as Millie (the incredibly cute Jenny Robertson) says, pitching the same way he makes love, “All over the place.”

Hence, veteran catcher Crash is brought in to teach LaLoosh how he can control his pitching, and to get him prepped for the major leagues. During this time, the two of them will meet the high priestess of baseball, Annie Savoy. Her church is the one of baseball, and she hooks with one guy a season to help them with their playing and to expand their mind. This player also gets to share her bed with her, and considering just how amazingly hot Sarandon is in this role, it looks very foolish to even consider turning her down.

At the age of 14, I may not have understood all of what “Bull Durham” was about, but it was not a movie as disposable as a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Shelton offers us a closer look into the world of baseball than I could have expected to see back in 1988. The intimate details of the minor leagues make it very unique among other films of its genre. You also get to learn the importance of the relationship between the pitcher and the catcher, and of how one better not cross the other if he is looking to win.

Aside from the main players, the other team members are individualized to where you can tell one from the other. There’s the one player who swears by the bible and wants all his fellow teammates to follow in his righteous path. Then you have another who uses a necklace with a cross to bless his baseball bat, and who later needs a live rooster to take the curse off his glove. Crash Davis also shows an alternative way to get a rainout which results in one of the movie’s funniest moments.

Kevin Costner was perfectly cast as a veteran baseball player, and he also had the athletic ability to hit a ball right out of the park during filming. In “Bull Durham,” Costner gives us a man knowledgeable of the majors and the minors, and through his eyes he shows us the yearning he has to get back to “the show” as he was there once for 20 days, the greatest days of his life. You can only imagine how much he is working to get back there, but it seems more like a mirage that gets further and further away from him as time marches on.

Looking back at Tim Robbins’ performance, it is clearer to me now he had the toughest role to play in “Bull Durham.” Throughout, he has to take LaLoosh from being a wild and crazy guy on and off the baseball to someone more mature and ready to enter the majors. Robbins makes the transition look seamless, and it was the first indication of the brilliant actor we now see him as today. Seeing him again in “Bull Durham” after all these years is a kick because he is so loose and fancy free.

But seriously, the most memorable performance comes from Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy. To say Sarandon is sizzling hot remains an understatement as she captivates the audience in the same way she reels in Robbins and Costner. With this character, Shelton gave us one of the most original female characters ever seen on the silver screen. Annie is a strong female, and Sarandon succeeds in making Annie this and more. It may almost sound ridiculous to have a character believing in the “church of baseball” when you look at it on the page, but once Sarandon utters those words which start off “Bull Durham,” you never doubt that she fully believes in it for a second. After all these years, it is still a travesty she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for her performance.

But the real star of “Bull Durham” is Shelton, and he sees a lot of Crash Davis in himself. After this film came out, he became the go to guy for writing sports movies. You never get a “Rocky” like movie from him, and the characters he creates are rich, complex, and they always have such fantastic dialogue coming out of their mouths. This great talent of his led him on to make “White Man Can’t Jump” where Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes were as brilliant at hustling on the basketball courts as they were at verbal sparring with each other and their opponents, “Tin Cup” which left me thinking Costner and him should make as many movies together as possible, and “Cobb” with Tommy Lee Jones which may very well be the definitive anti-sports biopic of all time.

Incidentally, the commentary track he did for the DVD remains one of my all-time favorites. Throughout the movie, he strips away the mythology of other baseball movies to give us an idea of what the game is really like. I also loved how he talked about the fight to get Robbins cast even though the studio didn’t view him as a big enough star. The way they saw it, the audience would never believe Sarandon would ever fall for a guy like him. This led Shelton to bring up how he is godfather to one of their sons.

Shelton also pays great respect to the other actors like the late Trey Wilson who is so good here as the coach, and to Robert Wuhl whom he cast despite him giving the worst audition of any actor he had ever seen. He also lays bare how much he loves making movies and how much he hates the business.

Shelton may have never made it to the majors, but his experiences allowed him to give us “Bull Durham,” one of the funniest and most irresistibly sexy films of all time. I still see it as my all time favorite sports movie, and I don’t care how much more acclaim “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” have over it/ Besides, where else will you find a movie about minor league baseball? Oh yeah, there’s “Major League: Back to The Minors,” but who’s in a hurry to see that?

* * * * out of * * * *

 

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Platoon’

Platoon movie poster

I think its use of “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber is one of the reasons I stayed away from watching “Platoon” for the longest time. It still is one of the saddest pieces of music I have ever heard, although it would later be eclipsed by the even more emotionally devastating “Symphony No. 3” (subtitled “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”) by Henryk Górecki which Peter Weir used to powerful effect in “Fearless.” Plus, the way the violence in “Platoon” was described to me by friends at school, like when a soldier gets his arms blown off by a bomb, filled my mind with horrible images which had no business infecting my mind at such a young age.

It took buying the 25th anniversary edition of “Platoon” on Blu-ray for me to finally sit down and watch it. I hadn’t even seen the movie yet, and here I am buying it at Costco for $11.99 By then, I had seen many Oliver Stone movies like “Born On the Fourth of July,” “JFK,” and “Natural Born Killers,” so I was long overdue to give this Best Picture winner a look.

Before “Platoon,” I had seen “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Full Metal Jacket” which viewed the Vietnam War from different perspectives. The one thing they had in common was they were directed by filmmakers who had never served in Vietnam. Stone, however, had served there, so “Platoon” is largely autobiographical for him. As a result, this is probably the first truly realistic depiction of the Vietnam War anyone could have ever hoped to see in a movie.

Charlie Sheen stars as Chris Taylor, and it’s interesting watching him here as this was long before his days on “Two and a Half Men.” Taylor serves as the narrator and most relatable character as, like him, we are coming into this war fresh-faced, naïve and innocent. The first scene where Taylor comes off a plane with a bunch of newbies is an omen of what is to come. Seeing body bags filled with fallen soldiers and crossing paths with those men who have seen the war up close quickly gives you a good idea of what Taylor will probably end up looking like at the movie’s end.

Sheen is perfectly cast as he makes Taylor go from being a newbie to an experienced combat veteran in little time. It’s a shame Sheen has since pissed away a good portion of his talent to where he’s pretty much playing a version of himself as some drunken womanizer, be it on a television show or a movie. His work here is a strong reminder of how good he can be as he is utterly believable in a role no one would cast him in today.

Seeing Taylor struggle on through the Vietnamese jungle after the opening scene is a quick indication of how unprepared he is for combat. Like many wars Americans have fought, it was on the soil of another country they were completely unfamiliar with. We see how this puts them at an immediate disadvantage as they look completely exhausted and depleted even at the start of the day.

When it comes to Vietnam, Taylor makes it clear he is a unique case as he tells everyone he dropped out of college to volunteer and serve in the war. This makes him seem like part of a generation raised to believe fighting in a war is both noble and infinitely patriotic, something to be proud of. Taylor also feels that not only poor kids should be sent to fight instead of the rich, but he soon learns the truths about war, one of which is given to him by King (Keith David) who tells him something which resonates strongly even today: “You got to be rich in the first place to think like that. Everybody know, the poor are always being fucked over by the rich. Always have, always will.”

The other two performances worth noting are given by Willem Dafoe as Sergeant Elias and Tom Berenger as Sergeant Barnes. Both figure prominently in Taylor’s tour of duty, and even he says these two were fighting for his soul. Dafoe is mesmerizing as the idealistic soldier who sees America’s involvement in Vietnam ending badly. The Christ-like pose he gets in, whether its holding a machine gun over his shoulders or as he runs from the Vietnamese soldiers, is no mistake. Elias ends up dying for the sins of his fellow soldiers while doing his best to protect them.

Berenger’s performance as Barnes ranks among his best ever. He succeeds in getting inside the head of someone who has been shot at so many times to where they are forever psychologically altered. Having seen death up close, Barnes acts as if he has surpassed it. In some ways, Berenger doesn’t need those makeup scars to show you how many firefights his character has been in as watching him walk through the jungle, completely unaffected by explosions going off around him as if he were Colonel Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” is more than enough proof of this.

Stone makes you feel the blood, sweat, tears and exhaustion these soldiers experience, and it’s all so vivid to where we come out of “Platoon” feeling like war veterans ourselves. It leaves all those other movies which make war seem like fun to utter shame. Coming from a filmmaker who has seen this particular war up close, we cannot deny the authenticity he puts on display.

“Platoon” also captures how quickly people can lose their moral bearings in the face of war. The scene in the village is by far the movie’s most unnerving moment as we watch Taylor and the other soldiers get overcome by their boiling anger and hatred. What’s so horrifying is that while you would like to believe you would have acted differently than they did, there’s no way you can be sure if you haven’t been in combat. The line between soldier and killer gets seriously blurred here, and it’s not hard to understand why.

Before filming began, the cast was treated to an intensive military training course under the tutelage of former Marine Captain Dale Dye who also served in Vietnam. They were made to dig foxholes and subjected to forced marches and nighttime ambushes which utilized explosions. This succeeded in breaking them down, and you can see and feel the weariness in them throughout. It more than adds to the sheer realism we see here.

There’s no victory to be found in “Platoon,” only death and destruction on both sides of the conflict. The movie gets at the truth of war which Danny DeVito talked about in “The War of the Roses” when he said, “There is no winning! There’s only degrees of losing!”

The violence and death portrayed may not seem quite as visceral as it did when the movie first came out. There have been many other war movies since like “Saving Private Ryan” which featured scenes of such brutal violence that no other filmmaker could possibly match. Plus, we all know about the Vietnam War in general and big a mistake it was for America for many years now. Still, “Platoon” is nothing less than powerful as its vision of the craziness and insanity of war is impossible to shake once you have seen it.

The Vietnam War may be a thing of the past, but the lessons we learned from it still need to be taught over and over again. America keeps fighting wars which, whether necessary or not, continually overstay their welcome and leave a lot of people feeling angry and betrayed. Oliver Stone certainly understands that, and he makes “Platoon” into a movie which shows the damage of war and why we can’t just let the past be the past.

* * * * out of * * * *

Jonathan Demme’s ‘Something Wild’ Takes Us on an Irresistible Journey

Something Wild movie poster

I got to revisit “Something Wild” recently at New Beverly Cinema, and it quickly reminded me of what a unique filmmaker Jonathan Demme was back in the 1980’s. He had a wonderfully offbeat approach to making movies few others did at the time, and they functioned as parties he gleefully invited us to time and time again. This style of filmmaking disappeared in the 1990’s when he made “The Silence of the Lambs,” and while it is one of the best movies ever made, it marked the beginning of his work having a darker and less playful look to them. This is not to take away from his resume since as it includes such great movies as “Philadelphia,” “Rachel Getting Married” and a number of Neil Young documentaries, but watching “Something Wild” made me realize how much I miss Demme’s earlier style of filmmaking as it was more joyous and anarchic than much of what he has made since.

Jeff Daniels stars as Charles Driggs, a conservative looking banker whose wife and kids have since left him. We catch up with him while he is eating at a diner in the urban part of New York, and he suddenly decides to leave without paying his check. However, he is caught in the act by Lulu (Melanie Griffith) who confronts him about his felonious act and sees a rebellious side in him she is eager to exploit. From there, she offers to drive him back to his office and ends up kidnapping him on an adventure which flies in the face of everything considered conformity.

When Lulu gets a hold of Charles’ pager (yes, this movie was made a long time ago) and throws it out her car window to his utter shock, we are along for the ride as she brings out a side of him he has not exercised for quite some time. What I love about “Something Wild” is that, while Lulu essentially kidnaps Charles against his will, it tapped into something deep within me to where I would be open to her taking advantage of me. What Lulu does is force Charles to abandon his normal lifestyle and engage in something adventurous, and there’s a point in all our lives where we want to break out of a lifestyle which eventually becomes much too stifling for our own good. Granted, common sense usually kicks in as we can’t afford to get into the kind of trouble they get into in this day and age, but this is why we go to the movies: to experience things we have the knowledge to avoid in real life.

We are with Charles as Lulu takes him on an adventure no one could easily prepare for, and it makes what we watch in “Something Wild” all the more exciting. The movie digs into our deepest desires as these two engage in an unexpected road trip which has the two of them falling in love. Things, however, take a sharp turn when Lulu’s husband, Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta), comes back into the picture and threatens to destroy their newfound coupling with his Svengali and violent ways.

It’s fun to watch Daniels in this role as he makes the squarest of human beings appear more charismatic than what was on the written page. This could have been a thankless role in the hands of another actor, but Daniels makes Charles’ transition from a conventional banker to a love-struck man determined to save the woman he has fallen in love with very believable to where we are with him every step of the way. Daniels’ career had nowhere to go but up from there as he went on to deliver brilliant performances in “The Squid and the Whale,” “Steve Jobs” and “Dumb and Dumber.”

Griffith’s career was at its height in the 80’s as her performances in “Working Girl,” “Body Double” and “Stormy Monday” showed us she was an actress who did not back down from a challenge. Her performance as Lulu, who is later revealed to be Audrey Hankel, is one of her best as she fearlessly portrays a character who is as free-spirited as she is reckless in her law-breaking ways which allow her to live life on the edge. At the same time, Griffith gives Lulu/Audrey a vulnerability which makes her performance all the more fantastic as even she comes to see her fling with Charles has become much more than that.

But then along comes Ray Liotta as Audrey’s violent ex-husband, Ray Sinclair, who steals the show. The audience at New Beverly Cinema applauded loudly when the actor made his first appearance in “Something Wild,” and it’s not hard to understand why. From the moment he arrives onscreen, Liotta gives us an infinitely charismatic villain we can’t take our eyes off of. We know he’s dangerous, but like Daniels’ character we can’t help but go along with him on a ride. You know he’s bad for you, but Liotta’s unpredictability keeps us pinned to our seats. He is mesmerizing as he fights to get Audrey back into his life even as she struggles to break free of him once and for all, and he makes it easy to see why it is not at all easy to get rid of him.

Demme pulls off the impossible here as the screenplay written by E. Max Frye starts off as a road movie and then turns into a domestic thriller. Such a shift can be jarring in a movie, but Demme keeps everything running smoothly even as the story heads into darker territory. By the time we are introduced to the devious Ray Sinclair, we have come too far with Charles and Audrey to just give up on them.

The director also works with a colorful palette which keeps things feeling light even as we head towards a violent conclusion. He also provides us with a terrific soundtrack with choice tunes from Fine Young Cannibals, New Order, Oingo Boingo and David Byrne. This is not to mention Demme’s usual cast of actors he has worked with constantly like Charles Napier, Tracey Walter, Sister Carol and Gary Goetzman who bring their unique energies to the roles they are given, and they make us remember their characters long after we have left the theater. There are also some inspired cameos from filmmakers John Sayles and John Waters, and Waters’ cameo is as priceless as the expression on his face when Audrey offers him a bribe.

Looking back at “Something Wild” makes me realize what a uniquely talented filmmaker is as he cheerfully invites us on a ride which goes against what’s normal and becomes all the more exhilarating as a result. Some filmmakers try to keep you at a distance from their characters’ exploits, but Demme instead offers you a front seat to the action, and it results in a truly irresistible time at the movies. In addition, his casting choices here are perfect, and you can tell the actors are having a blast with the material they have been given.

I find it good to see a movie like this every once in a while as it makes me question whether I have become too complacent in my life. Granted, I wouldn’t be that quick to jump into a car with a complete stranger behind the wheel unless it was a Lyft ride I requested, but to be taken on a ride which allowed me to break out of the routine of life feels absolutely necessary as time continues to speed up as we get older. Demme understands this, and he makes “Something Wild” into an invitation we movie buffs would be foolish to turn down. It remains as entertaining today as it did back in 1986.

* * * * out of * * * *