Monday, September 24, 2012

THE LAST EMPEROR (1987)


THE LAST EMPEROR (DIR: BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI) (SCR: BERTOLUCCI & MARK PEPLOE)

In some ways, the selection of THE LAST EMPEROR for best picture seems like a typical choice for the Academy: it's an epic, good looking historical drama that chronicles the enormous changes that occur in a single man's life, pretty standard Oscar fare.  On the other hand, it is unusual in that it deals with historical changes in a non western culture, and it is the first (and so far the only) best picture winner to feature an almost entirely nonwhite cast.  It is also an excellent, intelligent film, with strong performances and a sweeping story that chronicles a part of world history that is rarely acknowledged in Hollywood films.
Its director, Bernardo Bertulucci, first began his directing career in his homeland of Italy in the 1960's.  He became well known in America after directing Marlon Brando to a great, raw performance in 1972's controversial LAST TANGO IN PARIS.  In the 1980's, the Marxist director became interested in Asian culture, and convinced the Chinese government to let him shoot a biographical film about Aisin-Gioro Puyi, the last Emperor of China.  It would be the first Western film made in China with the government's cooperation since 1949.   He also gained permission to shoot inside China's fabled "Forbidden City", the first Western feature film to ever do so.  The film's twenty three million dollar budget was raised independently by British producer Jeremy Thomas.   Bertolucci wrote the script with Mark Peploe, and researched Puyi's life, with his younger brother Henry Puyi serving as an advisor.  Hong Kong born John Lone, then known for playing a gangster in Alan Parker's 1985 film YEAR OF THE DRAGON, was hired to play the title role, and famous British actor Peter O'Toole was brought in to play the small role of Puyi's  English tutor. It took six months to shoot the film in China, with the Chinese military helping provide some of the thousands of extras needed for the crowd scenes. It was released in North America by Columbia pictures, and interest in it built slowly, with a big push from the  Oscars (it won nine in all) eventually pushing its box office total to around fifty million dollars in the US.


John Lone and Joan Chen


Beginning in 1950, we see the grown Puyi as a prisoner of war, held by the Red Army of the Soviet Union.  We then flashback to his childhood, when he was raised in the forbidden city after becoming emperor of China at the age of three.  After the Japanese invasion of China, he is allowed to reign over the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, but he is captured by the Red Army after the end of the war.  Eventually, Puyi is released after renouncing his collaboration with the Japanese, and he becomes a simple gardener.

This is a long film, but it rarely drags, really, how could it when its hero has a life that  encompasses both World War II and the rise of Communism?   In the film Puyi goes from spoiled Emperor to exiled playboy enthralled with Western culture, to puppet leader to prisoner, and finally, an anonymous gardener, truly this is a life worthy of an epic film.  And it's also a great looking one; Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro  wisely give each phase of the emperor's life a different look, with his later years appearing gray and  almost colorless, while his time in the forbidden city has colors that are so vivid they practically pop off the screen.  (James Acheson's excellent costumes help a lot too, and both he and Storaro won deserved Oscars for their work).   There are many visually striking moments in the film, like the newly crowned boy emperor emerging from a billowing curtain to discover an adoring crowd, or the seemingly ancient empress dowager (Lisa Lu) lying on her death bed, still adorned in all her finery.

Lisa Lu as the dying dowager


In the title role, John Lone gives a muted but fine performance; he is often quiet and placid, even as huge events occur around him, which is appropriate enough because he had so little control over those huge events; this was a man who was buffeted all his life by forces beyond his control, a fact that Berolucci shows visually at one point by having a wave of Chinese soldiers wash down the steps of the forbidden city and towards the emperor, ready to sweep him into exile.  In many ways, the real heart of the film lies in not the emperor, but in the empress: Joan Chen plays Wan Jung, the young woman who marries the emperor in an arranged marriage, and eventually comes to care for him.  But, when he agrees to become a puppet leader for the Japanese, she rightfully sees it as a betrayal of China, and her bitterness towards this turn of events sends her into a spiral of opium addiction and affairs.  In contrast to Lone's stoicism, Chen is emotional and heartbreaking in her role, and her final scene is powerful indeed.  It is to the film's credit that Peter O'Toole, the only famous actor in the film, is important to the story, but never overshadows the film.  O'Toole seems to be enjoying himself here, showing warmth and humor in the same vein as  the title character from  GOODBYE MR CHIPS, and the rest of the cast is is solid throughout.
If the film has a flaw, it is that I sometimes find it curiously uninvolving.  I think the problem may lie in having a main character who has so little control over his own life, with little initiative or drive to speak of, making Puyi not always the easiest character to warm up to, especially when he quickly agrees to sell out to the Japanese.  Still, this film is an impressive achievement.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

Although fine films like Norman Jewison's MOONSTRUCK, James L Brooks's BROADCAST NEWS and Steven Speilberg's EMPIRE OF THE SUN were all released that year, I think Bertolucci's film towers over them all and is a worthy best picture winner.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

PLATOON (1986)


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PLATOON (DIR: OLIVER STONE) (SCR:STONE)

PLATOON was the second film about Viet Nam to win best picture, but unlike Micheal Cimino's 1979 film THE DEER HUNTER, which often fell into a surreal view of the war almost out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, Oliver Stone's film had a gritty, realistic feel to it, which was no surprise seeing how Stone based the script on his own life and experiences in the war.  While the film does sometimes descend into the kind of heavy handed pretensions that would mar Stone's later work, it still holds up as a powerful, emotional and well made movie that displays the Viet Nam experience more vividly than any other; one can sense that this was an intensely personal film for Stone that  he felt that he  had to make.

It's Oscar victory  must have been particularly sweet for him, considering how long it took for the film to get made.  Stone came to filmmaking after serving in the war in the late sixties; he first wrote  the script for PLATOON in 1968, reportedly it came partly over his anger at John Wayne's pro war  film of that year, THE GREEN BERETS.    Stone's first film as a director was 1974's horror film, SEIZURE.  He continued to work as both a writer and director, with his greatest success coming with his Oscar winning script for Alan Parker's 1978 film, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS.  He tried to get funding for  PLATOON as early as 1976, with no luck for ten years.  Finally, he hooked up with Hemdale films and producer Arnold Kopelson, who green lit the film at a budget of around six million dollars.  Several actors, including Kyle MacLachlan and Keanu Reeves were considered for the lead role of Chris Taylor before Charlie Sheen was cast.  Immediately before shooting, retired marine Dale Dye trained the actors for two weeks in a tropical jungle near Manila, whipping them into military shape.  The cast and crew then suffered through sixty days of shooting in the Philippines, (which was mostly shot sequentially to heighten the realism. ) amid  rain storms  and bugs, not to mention some possibly dangerous moments with helicopters and explosions.  In the editing room, editor Claire Simpson (who would win an Oscar for the film) suggested that Stone use Samuel Barber's beautiful, haunting "Adiagio for Strings" over the more emotional footage, which wound up adding to the film's sense of tragedy beautifully.  The film became an enormous hit, earning over one hundred and thirty million dollars in the US alone, becoming the perfect antidote to the previous year's terrible Viet Nam based film, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II.

Charlie Sheen

It tells the story of Chris Taylor, who drops out of college in 1967 and volunteers to serve in Viet Nam.  His gung ho attitude is changed as he sees the horror of war, and he finds himself torn between two sergeants, who come to represent the good and bad sides of the war to him.

Given the path that director Stone's career would later take, it's hard to believe that his first big film was praised for its realism, and yet that is what makes the film so impressive.  It really digs into the hardships of being a grunt, trudging through a dense forest with a heavy pack on your back while holding a rifle, dealing with hot weather, bugs and snakes, never really knowing when an attack can occur.  The story stays almost entirely with Chris's foot soldier point of view for the whole film, with the mostly unseen Viet Cong soldiers appearing almost like shadows, and this effectively gives the audience a "you are there" feeling.  Stone's script also gets the rough, male camaraderie of the platoon right, with the men bonding over foul mouthed insults, alcohol and drugs.  Stone also wisely has Chris narrate letters home to his grandmother that let him make more sensitive insights about the war to her than he could to his fellow soldiers.  The combat scenes in the film are mostly well done, instead of showing any kind of  glory they are chaotic and brutal, with no winners, just survivors.  The film's most powerful moments come when the platoon, angry after seeing the displayed, mutilated body of one of their men, turn their rage on a town of suspected Viet Cong sympathizers, with even Chris at one point screaming and shooting at the feet of an unarmed man, showing that even the least violent kind of person can be pushed to the edge.  The fact that the violence of the men escalates to the point of Barnes holding a gun to a little girl's head makes the scene almost unwatchable in its intensity, but it also perfectly illustrates the difficulty of any kind of order being maintained in an almost anarchic situation like the Viet Nam conflict.  Inevitably, when a group of  young men are put in a violent situation with almost no structure, and no definite sense of who is or isn't the enemy, there will be times when they go too far.  For Stone, this was the Viet Nam war in a nutshell.

Charlie Sheen has become a walking punch line now, but in this, his first lead role in a film, he's very good as the naive young Chris, he is on screen for almost every frame, and his immediate likability carries the film, and his change from supporting the war to opposing it is believable.  Even better are Willem Dafoe as the good natured Sgt. Elias  and Tom Berenger as the brutal Sgt. Barnes, the  two men who come to represent the struggle in Chris over his attitude toward the war.  Although Berenger has the flashier role, with the scarred Barnes making speeches about death, I think Dafoe really excels as the soft spoken Elias, who has been in Viet Nam long enough to see the war as unwinnable.  I love the scene where Elias talks to Chris about the war while gazing at the stars, or when Dafoe exhales marijuana smoke into a gun barrel for Chris to inhale, in an almost sexual way.  The rest of the cast are also very good,  populating the big, multi ethnic Platoon with immediately identifiable characters(future stars Forest Whittaker and Johnny Depp are among them).

Willem Dafoe on the left Art Greenspon's photo on the right


I find the film falters a bit towards the end; after establishing itself as film that shows the horror of war, the final battle scene comes close to playing like a conventional action film, and while the movie thankfully never sinks to the level of the aforementioned RAMBO, it does come close to being more exciting than horrifying as Chris bravely facing down enemies while his comrades flee. It also sometimes sinks into heavy handedness: Stone makes sure we understand the battle between Elias and Barnes by having other characters compare them to larger than life figures (Barnes is compared to Captain Ahab, while Elias is compared to Jesus). This eventually  leads to the film's broadest moment: the Christ like death of Elias, complete with arms outstretched in slow motion.  To be fair, this image is not just something Stone invented, he based it on a real photograph of a Viet Nam soldier taken by war photographer Art Greenspon.  Still, with this one overdone shot, Stone hurts the film's realistic tone, although the damage is far from lasting.  On the whole, this is an excellent war movie that ranks up there with Lewis Milestone's ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and Stanley Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY as one of the best of its kind ever.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

While I think this is a great movie that deserved the award, I am also a huge fan of Woody Allen's HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, which ranks as one of his best movies.  So, for me, it's really a toss up between those two, but, given the fact that PLATOON seemed to really help shape America's view of the Viet Nam war in the 1980's, I'll go with Stone's film by a nose.