September 22nd, 2010

CAGED (1950) ***

Eleanor Parker gets thrown in jail for a robbery she didn’t commit.  To make matters worse for poor Eleanor, she’s also pregnant.  When she discovers that one of the inmates have hung themselves after being denied parole, Eleanor faints.  Because of her delicate condition, she winds up popping that tot out sooner than expected.  Eleanor is forced to give her baby up for adoption and after she too is denied parole, she turns into a surly, uncooperative inmate.  The evil matron thrives on mentally abusing the inmates and when she takes away Eleanor’s pet cat, she starts a riot.  To retaliate, the matron shaves Eleanor’s head, which only makes her more rebellious. 


What I think was so daring about Caged is that Eleanor actually became a WORSE person because of the penal system.  In the end, she gets paroled but her criminal connections from inside the prison have already got a less than honest job set-up for her.  Even the warden, who had spent nearly all the movie trying to help Eleanor sighs, “She’ll be back.”  In a time when the Hays Code made sure that evil was punished, the ending is particularly powerful and condemning of the American penal system.


And even though the flick was made in 1950, it’s surprising how much stuff they were able to get away with.  While it lacks the punch of some of the best Women in Prison pictures, it’s still a solid entry in the genre.  Like all Women in Prison classics, we get a couple of shower scenes.  Because of the time, all you get to see is a lot of shoulders, knees, and feet.


Parker’s strong performance is what anchors the film and she’s given a lot of good melodramatic scenes to play with.  There’s a really great scene where Eleanor goes before the parole board and desperately pleads her case.  Turns out the main dude didn’t even have the volume up on his hearing aid and didn’t hear a word she said.  When he denies her parole, she flips her shit but good. 


Although Caged is kinda hampered by the limitations of the time (READ:  No nudity), it is nevertheless a worthwhile Women in Prison flick.  If you can get over the fact that there’s no nudity, it’s an immensely enjoyable movie.  Despite the low sleaze quotient, it still features better acting and more dramatically sound situations than your average WIP film.  Because of that, you should spend some time behind bars with Caged.


Caged is on The Video Vacuum Top Ten Films of 1950 at the Number 8 spot, which puts it right below D.O.A. and just above Streets of Ghost Town.

SALVADOR (1986) ****

Wall Street 2 is coming out this week so to honor the long awaited sequel; I thought I’d finally go through my Oliver Stone DVD box set I bought ages ago and finally watch them all in sequential order.  Stone has always been one of my favorite directors, and even though you may not agree with his politics, you’ve got to admit, the man knows how to make some fucking awesome movies.


And the first film in the box set, Salvador is just one of those fucking awesome movies.  Very rarely do you get a movie that’s alternately horrifying and hilarious.  Yet Stone is somehow able to walk a tightrope between the yuks and yucks and the result is one of the best movies he ever made.


Salvador is also the start of a major theme in Stone’s work.  It follows the exploits of a real life character throughout a difficult real world crisis.  This would later turn up on Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Heaven and Earth, and other flicks, but this is where it happened first.


The story follows photojournalist Richard Boyle (James Woods) as he and his buddy Dr. Rock (Jim Belushi) go down to Salvador to get take some pictures and make some quick cash.  His wife has left him, he’s been evicted from his apartment, and his reputation has been tarnished from years of excessive boozing and whoring.  So he figures what does he have to lose?  Might as well go down to Salvador and snap some pics.  Of course, he’s got to put up with the bloodthirsty dictator and his death squads that randomly go around raping nuns and killing anyone they think is a threat.  Naturally, a loud-mouthed Americano with a camera isn’t the most welcomed of guests in Salvador.


These are some great fucking characters we’ve got here.  The scenes with Boyle and Dr. Rock driving in the convertible doing drugs and drinking reminded me of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  And these dudes are fucking funny.  They bang broads, get the clap, spike reporters’ drinks with acid, and do a whole bunch of crazy shit.  In short, these are some guys I’d like to party with.


Boyle in particular is great.  He has a family on each border and probably fucked every piece of ass in between.  Plus, he wears a thoroughly awesome Schlitz T-shirt that I wish I had.  In all seriousness though, he is a real Samurai motherfucker, except instead hiring out his sword, he hires out his camera.  Like any good samurai, he always tries to do the right thing but is so hard on himself that he doesn’t even realize that he has already done the right thing.  Take for instance the scene where he hands over some photos of a mass grave to a mission looking for missing people.  Sure, he only handed the photos over to get in good with the proprietor so he’d set him up with one of his guerilla contacts, but there’s no denying that he did a good deed that helped a lot of people.


And that’s what makes him such a wonderful character.  Sure, he’s a boozed up, pill popping maniac, yet he truly believes that his photos can make a difference.  And through the fog of alcohol and drugs, he braves several life-threatening situations and manages to come out on top.  Just like a fucking samurai.


And no one can play this sort of out of control self-loathing maniac like James Fucking Woods.  While I think personally that my favorite Woods performance was in Videodrome, I really have to say he’s never been better.  He’s really good at delivering his chest-thumping political speeches, and because it’s James Woods, it never seems self-righteous or preachy.  And I liked how he had a glove compartment full of fake Rolexes in case he has to buy somebody off.  He also has a great scene where he goes into a confessional.  Man that was one for the books.


I don’t think anyone has given Jim Belushi enough credit as a serious actor.  He’s pretty terrific here and balances his character’s comic moments with the dramatics perfectly.  My favorite moment came in the middle of a fight where he tried to smash a beer bottle and use it as a weapon but couldn’t get it to break.


Salvador is really funny but things turn deadly serious really fucking fast.  First they’re boozing it up, next they’re face down on the hood of their car with submachine guns pointed at their necks.  Stone is amazing at turning the tone of the movie on a dime and always keeps you on the edge of your seat.  And you have to give him a lot of credit for delivering one heck of a ballsy non-Hollywood ending too.


In short, we’re talking about an underappreciated gem that definitely needs another look-see.  Any Stone or Woods fan worth their salt needs to check this baby out.  You’ll be glad you did.

PLATOON (1986) ****

I first saw Platoon about fifteen years ago and it was such a brutal experience, I swore off ever watching the flick again.  Like Deliverance, it disturbed me so much that I didn’t ever want to go through it again.  Because of my recent Oliver Stone studies, I decided to check it out.  And I’m thankful I revisited the film.  It went down a lot smoother this time but it was still just as powerful as I remembered.


Like most great movies, Platoon doesn’t necessarily follow a “plot”.  It’s more about a man’s experiences and how it changes him forever.  The man in question is Chris (Charlie Sheen).  He’s a wet behind the ears kid that enlists in the Vietnam War because it seemed like the right thing to do.  His two superiors Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Elias (Willem Dafoe) are as different as night and day.  When Chris witnesses Barnes’ inhumanity firsthand; he has to worry about not only surviving the VC but Barnes as well.


You know, Platoon may seem kinda quaint now watching it post-Saving Private Ryan.  That movie was a game changer.  Ryan really rubbed your nose in the brutality of war and made you feel like you were there, but overall, it just left ya numb.  Platoon on the other hand keeps you on pins and needles the whole time so when there is a burst of violence, it really gets to you.  Saving Private Ryan is an all-out assault.  Platoon is a sneak attack.


Director Oliver Stone achieves a sense of dread throughout the whole film.  He keeps ratcheting up the suspense and knows how to put the audience through the wringer.  Like the way a seemingly routine search winds up with tragic results.  Or how a simple interrogation slowly escalates into a husband seeing his wife’s head blown off in front of him and his daughter being held at gunpoint.  Stone also makes the jungle realistic and the battle scenes tense as Hell.  The editing is confusing on purpose because none of the soldiers ever really see their enemies or know where the attacks are coming from.  Unlike most of today’s directors, Stone can adequately show us the soldiers’ confusion without relying on that Shaky-Cam garbage. 


Berenger and Dafoe are terrific in their respective roles.  It’s kinda weird though seeing Berenger playing the crazy guy and Dafoe playing the nice guy.  You’d think it be the other way around.  This was still early in their careers though when they could be cast against type and it wasn’t a big deal because they didn’t have a type to be cast against yet.  With his scarred face and brooding intensity, Berenger comes off as one scary motherfucker.  And Dafoe is great as the soldier who dutifully looks after the new guys.  Of course, this is Willem Dafoe we’re talking about here so he is going to do weirdo stuff like dish out bong hits from the chamber of a rifle, but still. 


Fans of Chucky S. will be disappointed to know that “The Sheenage Factor” is kinda low.  He more or less has to do the whole Wide Eyed Young Guy That Becomes Disillusioned and World-Weary thing.  And that doesn’t give him a lot of time to do the cocky Sheeny things we’re used to seeing him do in pictures like Terminal Velocity and Navy Seals.  I’ll be damned if he isn’t brilliant in this movie though.  I mean the scene at the end where he goes fucknuts and starts shooting the shit out of everybody (“It’s fucking beautiful!”) is pretty amazing.  You can scoff and call it stunt casting since Charlie’s dad Martin was in another important Vietnam movie, Apocalypse Now (both of them got to do a lot of voiceover narration) but Charlie holds his own among the big guns in the cast.


This is also an important stepping stone for Charlie in terms of his Sheenage as it was his first Oliver Stone collaboration, his first team-up with Keith David (they later went on to star in the seminal Men at Work together), and his first exposure to Tom Berenger before they joined the Major League together.


What makes Charlie’s character so great is that he’s not a glorified war hero.  He’s just another grunt stuck in the shit.  He’s the new guy, and everyone in the platoon hates the new guy.  (They call him “Cheese Dick”.)  He’s given an assignment and he doesn’t know what to do because no one ever talks to the new guy.  Eventually he discovers that the war is not about heroics; just survival. 


Then there’s the supporting cast.  We’ve got everyone here from Forest Whitaker to a young Johnny Depp in this fucker.  Christ, even the fucking Candyman is in this movie.  And there isn’t a bad actor in the bunch.


Bottom Line:  One of the best fucking war movies ever made.