Born on the Fourth of July

Does anyone else find it funny that Tom Cruise, whose birthday is the third of July, starred in a film called Born on the Fourth of July? No? Just me then.
Olive Stone is one of those film makers that I don’t really get. I’m not that much of a Platoon fan, nor can I say I have any affiliation with Wall Street. Natural Born Killers has it’s moments, and I can’t remember a single scene of Any Given Sunday, though I saw it less than 2 years ago. Other than that, I haven’t seen anything he’s made, though my hopes are up for JFK, whenever I eventually get around to seeing it. Born on the Fourth of July seems like a typical Stone movie, in that it comes deeply ingrained with a message (war is hell and will mess you up), and though at first glance it may seem patriotic, if you look a little deeper it’s really a chance for Stone to voice his own personal feelings about his country.
Tom Cruise is Ron Kovic,who growing up in 1950’s Long Island idolised the war heroes in the Independence Day parades. He looked past the wheelchair, crutches and missing limbs, seeing only the glory and patriotism of being a hero. Kovic spent his school years working hard and being committed to being the best, and after his wrestling attempts didn’t quite work out, he responded positively to a presentation from the US Marine Corps, and signs up with a few buddies, including Stephen Baldwin.The scenes of Kovic’s childhood are shot with a hazy, wholesome, rose-tinted nostalgia, and his family, especially his mother, are all very supportive of Ron’s decision to head to Vietnam and fight for his country, and die there if he has to. The era is well realised – particularly though the soundtrack, as Ron’s brother learns Bob Dylan on the guitar – and the TV broadcasts, with Kennedy’s “What you can do” speech seemingly speaking directly to Kovic.

After signing up and heading to war, the action skips straight over boot camp and the green-horn period – Stone covered all that in Platoon three years earlier – and drops us straight into the now Sergeant Kovic’s Second tour of Vietnam in 1967. These sequences are atmospheric and well-realised, but they’re less impressive than almost any other war film. It’s a good thing then that this film isn’t really aiming to show an accurate, visceral depiction of warfare, instead focusing on the disillusionment of volunteers, the effects that warfare can have on those who fight it, and the disconnect between the soldiers and the families they’ve left behind. For when Ron is discharged – in a wheelchair, with the promise that he’ll never use his legs again (though his main concern is being able to use what is between those legs) – he discovers that his brother doesn’t believe in the war, and his friends that stayed home became prosperous and affluent, whilst he had everything taken away from him.

The cats is full of familiar faces from anyone who’s watched Platoon – alongside Tom Berenger’s Marine recruiter is Willem Dafoe’s similarly paralysed veteran, and John C. McGinley turns up for a very small role (as do Wayne Knight and Tom Sizemore).

The film takes a very long time (145 minutes) to put across some fairly simple ideas. The first 90 minutes are thoroughly predictable, and there were very few surprises in the last hour either. Tom Cruise isn’t bad in the role, but as ever he always does better when he isn’t front and centre (Magnolia, Tropic Thunder), and I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was desperately pursuing an Oscar. Though he was nominated, it’s no surprise that it went instead to Daniel Day-Lewis for My Left Foot, and I’d still have been happy had it gone to fellow nominees Robin Williams or Morgan Freeman, for Dead Poet’s Society or Driving Miss Daisy, instead of Cruise.

It’s worth watching if you’re a Stone or Cruise completist, but there’s little new here, and what there is still won’t surprise, or impress you.

Choose life 5/10

Platoon

Charlie Sheen is Chris Taylor who, after dropping out of college because he wasn’t learning anything, volunteers to fight in the Vietnam war, amongst recruits including Keith David, Forest Whittaker, Tony Todd, Kevin Dillon and a young Johnny Depp. The platoon is split, with half drawn to Willem Dafoe’s free-thinking, laidback stoner Sergeant Elias, with the rest, including brown-nosing Sergeant O’Neill (John C. McGinley), prefer the ethos of scarred Staff Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), who counts success by how high the bodies are piled, rather than whether peace has been achieved.
There’s an interesting film buried in here somewhere, but it either follows Sheen’s naive, error-realising private or the conflicts between the two sergeants and their unrespected, inexperienced Lieutenant (Desperate Housewives’ Mark Moses). Some gripping moments stand out – a night ambush, and the colour slowly fading back in after a white-out napalm drop – but the rest is underwhelming and littered with trite or cheesy dialogue and 5-cent philosophising: “We did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves, and the enemy was within us.”
Choose life 6/10

The Big Chill

Imagine if Diner or St. Elmo’s Fire had a reunion twenty years later, and you’ll be picturing something like this, when a group of friends meet up for a weekend to attend the funeral of one of their number who killed himself. Kevin Costner filmed scenes as the departed Alex before they were cut, but his presence isn’t missed amongst those that remained, including Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline and Tom Berenger. The weekend reveals that none of them are as happy or settled as they may initially seem, and each character is inhabited totally and wholly; the cast even shared a house together before the shoot, and remained in character throughout it. The soundtrack is also exquisite, featuring the Rolling Stones, Procul Harum, the Beach Boys and Marvin Gaye.

Choose film 8/10

Inception

Apparently the concept of Inception began when director Chris Nolan, he of the Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Memento and the upcoming Dark Knight Rises, the most anticipated film of 2012 (tied with the Avengers and the Hobbit), wanted to make a film in which several climaxes are all occurring simultaneously. Most directors would then structure a plot in such a way as to have different characters in different locations, all partaking in various climactic events and cutting between them, but Nolan, in what I’m going to assume was an evening rife with alcohol, narcotics and some rare kinds of cheese, opted instead to make a film predominantly set within the world of dreams.

Taking an already interesting, fantastical premise – secrets can be obtained by stealing them from people’s dreams via extraction and spinning it on its head, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s master extractor Cobb and his team – Joseph Gordon Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy and Dileep Rao, are enlisted for one last job, to plant an idea in Cillian Murphy’s dream by business rival Ken Watanabe. By using this world of dreams, Nolan has released literally all limitations as to where the plot can go, and opened up the door for some thoroughly original set pieces, the standout of which is Gordon Levitt’s taciturn Arthur fighting armed goons in a corridor with an ever-changing, and disappearing, centre of gravity. This, combined with a rain-lashed chase through busy city streets and a Bond-inspired snowbound explosive finale adds up to one of the most thought provoking action movies in recent years.

The plot is sometimes lost amid the spectacle of the dream worlds and the new logic required to understand it – in a dream, time travels 12 times slower with each level you go down, your subconscious can flare up against you but you can bend the environment around your will – so at times you forget just what they are fighting to achieve. Nolan also appears to have paid attention to the naysayer accusers who believe, not unfairly, that his films lack a required heart and emotional depth, as the addition of Cobb’s deceased wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) appears in his subconscious, eager to turn the dream worlds against him, and the entire plot takes place just so Cobb can be reunited with his kids. Both these points seem tacked on and superfluous to the overall plot, other than adding a motive and antagonist that, although not asked for, do not overly deter.

Under close scrutiny some of the dream logic is inconsistent and doesn’t quite hold up, with some questions remaining unanswered – how exactly does Tom Hardy’s scene-stealing Eames transform into other people as the teams forger? – but the performance, cast (also including Michael Caine, Tom Berenger and Pete Postlethwaite), effects and sheer scale of the project make this unmissable, and my best film of 2010, although it makes my dreams look utterly pathetic in comparison.

Choose film 9/10