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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Co-Picks of the Week, Classic. Platoon, Shoeshine


Platoon (Blu-ray/DVD) (Two Discs) (Four Stars)

U.S.: Oliver Stone, 1986 (MGM/20th Century Fox)

Oliver Stone, as most of us know, fought in the Vietnam War as a young man, and this is the story of what he went through there, translated into the fictionalized experiences of a young rifleman named Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen, in younger, less crazy days). Taylor is an upper middle class kid who, like Stone, leaves college in 1967-’68 to fight with the lower-class guys, white and black, who had no choice. One also suspects that Stone, a budding young filmmaker whose later NYU film teacher was Martin Scorsese, went to war because — like the World War 2 novelists Norman Mailer (“The Naked and the Dead”) and James Jones (“The Thin Red Line” and “From Here to Eternity”) — he wanted to have a good story to tell. He got one, even if he exaggerates a bit, turning it into a sort of political allegory.

Despite all that, Platoon takes you there, makes you see it and feel the fight. When we arrive with Chris in Bravo Company, First Battalion, landing near the green jungles by the Cambodian border, we know right away we’re in a different kind of Vietnam movie, post-Deer Hunter, post-Apocalypse Now, and a thousand miles from The Green Berets. Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” sets up a mournful threnody. We are in the sky (symbolically) with the hawks and the doves, and the vultures. Soon we will be at Ground Zero.

Chris/Stone tells us his story in two ways: in letters home to hs grandmother, earnestly, sensitively phrased missives, full of compassion, and in the foul-mouthed everyday reality of life in Bravo Company, where almost every sentence begins with “shit” and ends with “fuck” (or visa versa).

Stone knows what went down with his fellow soldiers — how they talked, how they lived, how they ate and drans and crapped, how they aimed and fired and killed, how they peeled leeches from their cheeks, how they tried to keep awake watching for a ambush (and failed), the patrols, the firefights, the sudden death, the whuppa-whuppa of the helicopters in the sky, the crackle of the guns, the medics, the screams, somebody’ guts unraveling in front of you, the crackups and meltdowns and bursts of courage and self-sacrifice. And he shows Chris the storyteller-to-be (like Mailer and Jones)– in a war story that’s both real in its details and intensely, searingly dramatic (even melodramatic) in its effects.

He shows us this real/psychic battleground, where Chris (Sheen long before his own meltdown) finds himself pulled between two groups of soldiers: the right wing poker players and the left wing “heads,” and between two father figures, the scarred, unsmiling, brutal Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) and the grinning, empathetic, oddly tender Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe).

The Heads — a democratic group which embraces both blacks and whites — includes Elias, the loud-talking, warmhearted King (Keith David), bearlike sloppy-smiling Big Harold (Forest Whitaker), and maybe the bilingual intellectual Werner (Johnny Depp). They like to smoke dope, have fun and dance to Jefferson Airplane‘s “White Rabbit” and Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears.”

The poker players are a hard-ass bunch that likes to swagger, play cards, swig beer and talk about what assholes the Heads are. They include Barnes, the macho phony Sgt. O’Neill (John McGinley), and the sadistic Bunny (Kevin Dillon). They like “Okie from Muskogee” and they would probably have gone nuts if they saw Merle Haggard opening for Dylan on one of his 2000s tours.

The two groups tolerate each other, barely (and they all hate the candy-ass Lieutenant Wolfe (Mark Moses) who lets Barnes and Elias run things, until an episode in a Vietnamese village fractures everything. It’s a hot day (they’re all hot days) and the platoon is incensed because of an ambush, and they mistrust an entire Vietnamese village whose people won’t tell them where the VC are. Finally Bunny pounds a boy’s head to bloody bone-shreds with his rifle, and Barnes shoots an old woman (the village chief‘s wife) for talking too much, and it looks like another My Lai is about to start happening, before Elias stops Barnes.

From then on, Stone shows two wars, the outer one between the Americans and the Vietcong, and the inner one between Barnes’ group and Elias’s, between those guys who almost like the war (or at least dig its mythos), and those who question or come to hate it — like Chris.

Stone wrote a Vietnam War movie script after returning from Nam. And he pushed Platoon (or, as it was earlier called, The Break or The Platoon) for many years, until John Daly finally gave him a break, Arnold Kopelson produced it, and Robert Richardson, one of the best of all war movie cinematographers, got behind the camera. Stone picked a terrific cast who went through boot camp before shooting (run by Marine Captain and Vietnam vet Dale Dye, who also plays Captain Harris), and got the French New Wave’s Georges Delerue (and Barber and Smokey Robinson) for the music — and they all helped him make it. It wasn’t a big-budget production (6 million or so), but every facet is shining in place.  After you watch Platoon you may agree or disagree with Stone –hail him as a movie-making hero or dismiss him as an asshole and a head — but you’ll be able to see Vietnam in a way that makes sense.

Stone does one of the commentaries for this DVD, and he keeps comparing the movie scenes to their corresponding moments and inspirations in real life, and keeps recalling what it was like back then, in the war and also in the movie. It’s the best damned DVD commentary I‘ve ever heard in my life. Its so good you should listen to it first, even before you watch and hear the movie stripped of it.

Hell, you’ve seen Platoon before anyway. And, like war, you‘ll probably see it again.

Anyway, Platoon is probably still Stone‘s best movie, although he‘s made plenty of good ones (especially Salvador and Born on the Fourth of July and, if he ever cuts the whole thing together, Natural Born Killers). And he’ll make plenty more, especially if he remembers why this one is so good. Here, Stone shows us the face — excuse me, the faces — of war, not as we like to imagine them, or as we fear they may be, but as one soldier and filmmaker sees and remembers it, and tells it like it was.

 Extras: That primo commentary by Oliver Stone; an excellent commentary by Dale Dye; Deleted or extended scenes with optional Stone remarks; Featurettes; Documentary; Trailer.



Shoeshine (Four Stars)

Italy: Vittorio De Sica, 1946 (e one)

We’re all pretty familiar with Vittorio De Sica’s great postwar neo-realist films, Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D — at least those of us are who love art cinema and foreign films. But fewer of us have seen his and writer Cesare Zavattini’s equally great 1946 classic Shoeshine (“Sciuscia”), the devastating story of two shoeshine boys i postwar Italy, best friends Pasquale (Franco Interlenghi) and Giuseppe (Rinaldo Smordoni), who do a side business in the black market, and get viciously trapped in the Italian justice and prison systems. ((Interlenghi later played the central young wastrel Moraldo in Fellini’s superb 1953 piece of provincial realism I Vitelloni.)

 De Sica, who was also a highly popular Italian matinee idol acting star, is at his directorial best here, shooting in the streets and the rubble of post-war Italy, working mostly with newcomers and amateurs, telling a story remarkable for its truth, drama and piercing social critique. In scenes that seem drawn almost straight from life, but that also have a bewitchingly artful shape and execution, De Sica shows us these two poor, industrious but luckless boys buying a horse with their hard-earned shoeshine booty, then getting tossed in jail, and losing both their freedom and soon, their love for each other. The prison society clamps down hard, as so does a privileged little delinquent named Arcangeli (Bruno Ortenzi), a spoiled brat who looks a bit like a ratlike Adrien Brody.  It’s a terrifying story, scariest because it seems so true, so inevitable.

 Pauline Kael said something memorable about Shoeshine, one of her favorite movies: “If Mozart had written an opera set in poverty, it might have had this kind of painful beauty.“ True, true. It’s a masterpiece, grossly underrated by some. And, if you want to see why De Sica is a great director, take your eyes from the main characters during one of the scenes, and watch what the people in the background of the shot are doing. They’re directed beautifully, every movement convincing and lyrical. Here is a filmmaker (two filmmakers, counting scenarist Zavattini) who loved life and makes us love it too — and to grieve for its diminishment and loss. (In Italian, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Fine commentary by Bert Cardullo, who obviously loves this film.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon