Ozymandias

Breaking Bad – Season 5, Ep. 14, “Ozymandias”

Original Air Date: September 15, 2013

From a story of how one man’s best laid plans got in the way of his insatiable urges, leaving no one in his life unaffected, we move on to yet another. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) had begun the TV series “Breaking Bad” as a highly-respected high school chemistry teacher and family man, albeit one who always felt like he’d been handed the short stick in life. A man of his intelligence ought to have been the next Alfred Nobel or Werner Heisenberg. Instead, Walter was left only with a death sentence: a lung cancer diagnosis. Turning to meth cooking with former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) might never have entered into his mind otherwise. It never should have, considering that his brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), happened to be a DEA agent. Within a year’s time, Walter would not only be producing the most pure form of crystal methamphetamine that anyone in Albequerque, New Mexico (and other parts of the world) had ever seen, but create a legend driving fear into the hearts of men with his nickname of “Heisenberg,” and become a drug kingpin in his own right. But, like most empires, Walter’s was destined to crumble.

By the time of “Ozymandias,” Walter had burned all but one of the bridges in his life. Jesse had seen Walter’s monstrous side and had finally had enough. Hank had inadvertently discovered Walter’s secret through the signature of a dead man in a Walt Whitman book sitting on a stack of magazines in Walter’s bathroom, and realized that his own brother-in-law was the very man he’d been trying to track down and arrest for nearly the entire length of the series’ run. In an enemy-of-my-enemy situation, Jesse gave Hank all the information he needed to make an arrest, something Hank was in the process of doing out in the New Mexico desert when a group of neo-Nazis with heavy artillery showed up and opened fire.

Walter had always genuinely tried to keep his family safeguarded from his double-life as Heisenberg, even resorting on this occasion to bargaining his $80 million in cash with the neo-Nazis. Now, with Hank dead, Walter had finally and ultimately failed in that task, losing his brother-in-law and most of his fortune (the Nazis left him $11 million), all Walter can do now is race home and try to convince his family to join him in a getaway. This does not go over well because his sister-in-law, Marie (Betsy Brandt), in believing Hank to be triumphant has already forced Walter’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) to tell their cerebral palsy-afflicted son, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) everything. Walter Jr. tells his mother something that many fans have been screaming for a while now, “If that’s true, then you’re just as bad as him!”

Walter shows up at the house, evasive about answering why he’s not in Hank’s custody. Skyler puts 2 and 2 together. In a terrifically shot sequence, Skyler sees before her two options of something to grab: Does she go for the knife rack, or the telephone? Skyler chooses the knife. The scuffle that ensues causes Walter Jr. to call the cops. This gives Walter the opportunity to make his tearful getaway, but not alone, as he picks up and carries his infant daughter, Holly, with him. With Walter driving off, Skyler gives chase but to no avail. Walter realizes his mistake later when Holly tearfully cries out her first word, “Mama!” Leaving Holly in the passenger seat of a fire engine, he calls Skyler, now flanked by her sister and the police. Sparing Skyler the chance of going down with him, he angrily resorts to name-calling and insists that his empire was something he built all on his own, that she had no part in it whatsoever. Skyler doesn’t get it at first, but you can almost see the proverbial light bulb above her head turn on, and she plays along. Walter has only one course of action remaining that won’t result in jail or death, and that’s to hop into a van and start a new life. Yeah, like that’s gonna last…

Named for and directly influenced by the poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the only thing wrong with this episode is that it runs a total just of 47 minutes (minus commercial breaks). You’re so busy admiring this work of art that it’s over before you know it. The opening sequence sets the tone, making you sweat upon seeing the death of Hank and the threat upon Jesse’s life. For five seasons, these were my two favorite characters in the show, and now there was a very real possibility that they might both meet their maker within seconds of one another. The acting and writing on “Breaking Bad” were always worthy of accolades, but there is something sincerely special about “Ozymandias.” A lot of it is thanks to Bryan Cranston, whose character is witnessing his entire world falling down around him. Walter White’s greatest scene in the entire series may well be that last phone call to Skylar. But perhaps the most heart-wrenching performance comes from the one person in this show who doesn’t realize they’re an actor, the infant(s) appearing as Holly. Whether her reactions are purely spontaneous or are prompted by someone off-screen, “Holly” grabs your attention just as easily as Cranston, Anna Gunn and the rest of the main cast.

Written prose is not the only media from which “Breaking Bad” drew inspiration. Music plays a very important role, not just in setting a mood but in telling a story. In “Ozymandias,” it is “Take My True Love By the Hand” by the Limeliters which parallels the narrative just as neatly as Shelley’s poem. Walter loves his family, yes, but it’s his brand of blue crystal meth and the empire he built with it which makes up his passion in life. So, it’s no mistake that the song plays as Walter is rolling his last remaining barrel full of money along with him as he travels through the desert following the shootout. He’s “taking his true love by the hand” and “leading her through the town.”

Series creator Vince Gilligan calls this his favorite episode of “Breaking Bad,” and I must concur. It has also been suggested that “Ozymandias” could easily serve as a series finale to most any other series. Given all that was packed into this one episode, I once again see no reason to disagree. But as this was the fourteenth episode of Season Five, that means that there were yet two more episodes before we officially bade Walter & Co. a final farewell. Likewise, this five-part series of television reviews has one more episode forthcoming. “Ozymandias” would surely be a perfect one to finish with but, like Walter White, “I still have things left to do.”

The Getaway

Dexter – Season 4, Ep. 12, “The Getaway”

Original Air Date: December 13, 2009

Instincts… They aren’t always an exact science but, for better or worse, they do serve as a guiding path for us to choose whether or not to follow. Every action taken based on instinct comes with risk attached. How each person’s life progresses is built from the risks he/she is willing to take. Even for those who profess not to believe in organized religion, when tapping into their instincts, are proving that they still do believe in something or someone. For officers of the law, it’s the willingness to think outside of the box that can lead to a big breakthrough in a case. For newlywed couples or in the case of siblings, it’s the belief that the person you love, be they husband, wife, sister or brother, is a better person than they perceive themselves to be. You may not have all the information you need to make such a judgment, but you make it nevertheless because you haven’t seen anything to contradict that belief.

There are, of course, instances where your instincts fail you. Case in point, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall). Most of the people in Dexter’s life who think they know him never see the darkness that he keeps hidden away. Those who do rarely survive one encounter. By day, Dexter is a blood spatter analyst for Miami Metro’s Homicide division. By night, he’s a serial killer, albeit one who only kills other serial killers. He’s been at this for a while now, and he’s gotten pretty good at it. He’s also been one step away from being caught on a number of occasions. As of “The Getaway,” the final episode of Season Four, Dexter had two women in his life whom he could honestly say he loved: his wife Rita (Julie Benz) and foster sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), herself a detective at Miami Metro. Neither of them have even a clue as to Dexter’s night life. He remembers when his foster father Harry (James Remar) who knew from the beginning what Dexter was and took steps to focus his primal urges, reacted by committing suicide after finally seeing for himself what Dexter could do. It would destroy Dexter to have either Rita or Deb find out the truth about him and/or die because of it.

In Season Four, the main antagonist is Arthur Mitchell (John Lithgow), a man known to Miami Metro only as the Trinity Killer. He acquired this nickname due to his perceived pattern of killings: 1) Slicing the femoral artery of a young woman in a bathtub, 2) forcing a married mother of two to jump to her death and 3) bludgeoning a father of two to death with a hammer. What wasn’t learned until late in the season is that the cycle begins with the killing of a ten-year old boy. Each represents a member of his childhood family: The boy is himself (whose innocence died), the others are his sister and mother (who both died in accidents), as well as his father (an abusive prick whom Arthur himself killed). Arthur’s been doing this for 30 years, and has remained cloaked under the guise of a Christian charity worker and as a married father of two. It’s this last bit that keeps Dexter from killing Arthur the first chance he had. That would have been the logical thing for Dexter to do, but he instead went with his instincts which told him he had something to learn from Arthur.

Dexter at this time was a new father to a son, and was having a harder time balancing his family life, his job and his extra-curricular activities. Believing himself to have things in common with Arthur, but wary of revealing his true identity, he got to know the man and inquired as to how to find the balance he was searching for. If Dexter had known just how badly Arthur treated his family behind closed doors, he wouldn’t have bothered. Instead, he got too involved and put himself and his own family on Arthur’s radar. In his haste to be rid of his nemesis, Dexter gets into a hit and run that leads to a heated discussion with police, ending in Rita having to pick Dexter up from jail. Smooth move, Dex. But one good thing this alone time did for Dexter was to contemplate the end to his career as a serial killer. He wants to be a better man for his family, he says, and he means it.

Another thread which had been going on at the same time was Debra’s investigation into her father’s indiscretions with his C.I.’s (or criminal informants). One of them, it turns out, was Dexter’s birth mother, Laura Moser, who also had an older son named Brian. Debra knew him all too well, having been engaged to and then almost murdered by the bastard. She considers keeping her discovery of Dexter’s origins to herself, but eventually tells Dexter, who feigns surprise (although he is surprised that she didn’t find out more beyond those basic details), and expresses gratitude when she affirms her love for him. So, Debra now knows where Dexter comes from, and it hasn’t changed how she feels about him. Seemingly, that’s one fear which Dexter can now put to bed.

After trying and failing once to corral Arthur, Dexter finally tracks him down and kills him with the same hammer which Arthur had used in his own cycle of violence, but not before Arthur utters the same spine-chilling phrase he spoke to the bathtub victim from Season Four’s opening episode: “It’s already over…” More at ease knowing for certain that Arthur has been removed from this world, Dexter heads home to pack for the Florida Keys and his honeymoon with Rita. Intercepting a phone message from his wife telling him she’d returned to pick up the passport she’d forgotten, Dexter tries to call back… but Rita’s purse and phone are still inside the house. Moments later, he can hear Harrison crying. It’s coming from the bathroom. There, Harrison sits in a pool of his mother’s blood… the same manner in which Dexter had been found years ago after Laura Moser’s murder. To Dexter’s horror… and that of the TV audience… there lies Rita dead, bled out in the bathtub as the Trinity Killer’s final victim.

Even as I type those words, I get emotional just thinking about it, and yet it was never a surprising event for me. I knew of Rita’s death long before I’d ever started watching the show, and purely by accident. I’d been familiar with actress Julie Benz through her guest appearances as the vampire Darla, first on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (where she’s the first person you see in the pilot episode) and later in the spin-off series “Angel.” Sometime in early 2010, I’d stumbled upon an article online which detailed the gruesome means of her departure from “Dexter.” Lacking a subscription to Showtime, the channel which aired “Dexter” during its entire eight-year run, I had no way of seeing this or any other episode of the show by legal means until it came to Netflix late in 2013.

So instantly hooked by this show was I that it took little time at all to reach Season Four. Once I finally got to “The Getaway,” the anticipation level was like that of Christmas morning. This episode was like the present you already knew you were getting, but it pleases you no less, both because of the contents inside and the feelings behind the gift itself. Initially, I’d only been thinking about how terrible a sight Rita’s death scene would be. It was so perfect for her death to have occurred off-screen. This way, we are left to imagine the brutality with which Arthur Mitchell committed this deed. What I didn’t anticipate was the camerawork, the music (which is never anything short of impeccable) and the acting of Michael C. Hall. Dexter had made mistakes before, but this was the first time he’d let an enemy get the last laugh, and it was a mistake that would haunt him throughout the rest of the series.

There were enough game-changing events in this one episode that, combined with the way it ends, “The Getaway” could have served as the series finale. Many fans of the show have said the same thing, expressing disappointment in what came after. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say that nothing Seasons 5 through 8 came up with ever quite matched this one for drama, excitement, anticipation, and sadness all in one hour. Somehow, knowing what would happen did not lessen the overall impact. Because that knowledge piqued my interest enough to start watching and become a fan of “Dexter,” I can say without question that following my instincts was the right course of action.

The Body

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Season 5, Ep. 16, “The Body”

Original Air Date: February 27, 2001

Rare are the opportunities in life for one to experience a true epiphany. One such opportunity came to me in early 2002. As I often do, I was channel surfing one day when I stopped on an episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” which as it happens had begun only a few seconds earlier. That episode was “The Body.” If you’re at all knowledgeable about this TV series, then you’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute! You mean to say that ‘The Body’ was your introduction to ‘Buffy’?!” As a matter of fact, I do. Like I suspect many have done either because of the show’s bizzare-sounding name, or because the subject matter is unappealing, I had ignored Joss Whedon’s first major breakthrough in TV until it was well into the sixth of its seven seasons. Fortunately for me, FX was airing the reruns, so I was able to play catch-up within a few months. Had Netflix been around back then, I would have only needed a week or two. I wouldn’t find out until later, but “The Body” is perhaps the most atypical episode this series ever produced.

Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) comes home one day to find her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) sprawled out on the couch, unresponsive and with eyes wide open, staring at nothing. Buffy’s reaction is the same as anyone else’s would be: She dials 9-1-1 and tries to perform CPR. During this whole scene, including when the paramedics arrive and fail in their attempt to revive Buffy’s mom, the camera reflects the frantic and futile nature of the situation, tracking Buffy’s movements through the house, zooming in on various shots, choosing to focus only on the paramedic’s lips (as Buffy would be) as he delivers the bad news. As they are called elsewhere, Buffy (who by this time is emotionally shut down) wishes them good luck.

We stay with Buffy as she waits for Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) to arrive. She vomits on the floor, and then one of the more perfectly shot moments of the episode takes place. As Buffy opens the back door, her face is lit up by the sun and you can hear wind chimes, children playing and someone practicing on their trumpet. What this scene is telling us is that death occurs, and yet life moves on. Buffy still has yet to have any sort of reaction apart from losing the food in her stomach until Giles shows up and sees Joyce’s body. She shocks even herself when she blurts out the words, “We’re not supposed to move the body!”

Buffy’s next charge is to have to go to her sister’s school and inform Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg). She’d rather face a cadre of vampires than have to do this. At that time, Dawn is only concerned with the bitchy girl in the class spreading lies about her, unaware of the tragedy that has taken place that morning. Buffy wants to go somewhere private because she knows her sister and how she’ll react. The camera shifts from out in the hall to back inside the classroom. We stand with her teacher and classmates, watching with sympathy as Dawn collapses to the floor in tears.

In the dormitory room of Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), one of Buffy’s two best friends in the whole world, we get another truly fantastic scene. Willow, in her grief, is rifling through her entire wardrobe trying to find a blue shirt that she says Joyce liked. She’s upset with herself for not having enough “grown-up” clothing. This was said to be the hardest scene for writer/director Joss Whedon to film, as it was based on his own difficulties in choosing the right tie to wear to a friend’s funeral. Understated because it was not meant to be the focus of this episode is the fact that “The Body” marks the first time that Willow and girlfriend Tara (Amber Benson) kiss on-screen. It’s less passionate and more comforting, and that’s probably the only way it got by the censors… the same ones who wouldn’t bat an eye at this display of affection today. If only everyone were so tolerant.

Buffy’s other best friend, Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) shows up at the dorm with his girlfriend, the formerly immortal demon-turned mortal human Anya (Emma Caulfield). Xander takes the typical male approach of expressing his grief through anger, first by vowing vengeance against Glory (the main villain of Season Five), and then blaming the doctors who had removed a tumor from Joyce’s brain earlier that year. You know that moment of pure frustration where you just feel like putting your fist through a wall? Xander actually does this, not through some sort of superhuman strength (that’s Buffy’s angle) but because of some rather shoddy plasterboard material.

The surprise of this scene comes just before Xander decides to blame the wall. It’s when Anya is asking seemingly horrible questions (“Are we going to be in the room with the body?” “Are they going to cut the body open?”) Being new to this whole mortality gig, Anya doesn’t know how she’s supposed to act in a situation like this. She doesn’t understand why Joyce can’t just stop being dead. Human death makes no sense to her at all, and it’s tearing her up inside. She’s already learning what it is to be human, and doesn’t even realize it. This was actress Emma Caulfield’s finest bit of acting in any of her episodes.

So abnormal was this episode that, looking back, it’s amazing to me that it’s the one that first got me interested in watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which since grew into one of my favorite TV shows, if not my #1. One of the greatest choices Joss Whedon made was to film this episode without any music (except for the opening/closing credits theme). Had there been any hint of a soundtrack, it would only have served as a distraction. We don’t need music to tell us how to feel about the topic of death in the family. For Buffy and friends, this was brand new territory. For almost five years, they had fought and survived countless battles with vampires, demons and other creatures of evil. During that time, many fellow students, teachers and even friends had fallen victim, but it wasn’t until the death of Joyce that they felt completely helpless. Here Buffy was this young woman imbued with the strength to fight any enemy in her path, and she can’t even save her own mother from the natural conclusion of life. There were so many great episodes this show came up with, but none so easily relatable, none so grounded in reality, and none more well-written in the history of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Taking a break from the usual posts concerning movie reviews, I am shifting my attention… albeit briefly… towards the small screen. I’ve watched a lot of television in my life, beginning with the early days when it was cartoons on Saturday/Sunday mornings and music videos during the week on MTV, when that channel actually aired music videos and they were some seriously creative stuff! In all that time, I’ve seen a lot of stuff that I wish I’d never tuned in to watch. However, I’ve also watched certain half-hours and hours of television so compelling that I still think about them to this day. I could probably spend several days mapping out a list of potential favorites, expanding it into a list so long that I could spends months (or years) of my life trying to talk about it all. This is simply not necessary.

When it comes down to it, there are five hours of television which I can single out as having the biggest impact on my viewing experience. Like all lists, everyone’s going to have his/her own opinions about what should/shouldn’t make it onto lists like these, and I respect that. I also believe it to be a futile argument, because we’re all different folks out there, and so it could only be by some strange coincidence that someone else could name the same five TV episodes I’m about to. Also by coincidence, each of the five deals with the subjects of death and/or defeat. Always good for dramatic effect, and certainly in the case of these five. I’m only including episodes of TV series which aired during my lifetime, and only from shows I followed through to the end. Thus, there will be no Westerns, no episodes of “M*A*S*H,” etc. In no particular order, I’ll be referencing key plot points from each of the five shows, so it is now that I give my first and last warning to those reading up to this point: THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

 

The Best of Both Worlds

Star Trek: The Next Generation – SEASON 3, EP. 26, “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I”

Original Air Date: June 18, 1990

I’ve been a “Star Trek” fan since the age of four. Whether I’m supposed to be referred to as a “Trekkie” or a “Trekker” I leave up to you, because I gave up trying to figure that one out years ago. But I digress. I’ve been a TNG fan since the original airing of the pilot episode in the autumn of 1987, yet even I can admit that the show took a while to find its footing. By Season 3, the writing was much improved, and the actors had established their roles as fully-developed individuals which required no overacting whatsoever, excepting in the case of deliberately comedic adventures. There was nothing funny about their original encounter with the cybernetic hive mind known as the Borg, which occurred in Season 2′s “Q Who?” It was then that viewers knew who the chief adversary of the Enterprise crew was meant to be. The moment finally arrived in the final episode of Season 3, ominously titled “The Best of Both Worlds.”

For two years, Starfleet, the Romulan Empire and others have been discovering whole colonies within their territories destroyed, each believing it to be the work of their sworn enemies. None among them could have suspected or anticipated that an unstoppable force from the other side of the galaxy was truly responsible. A chance encounter with the Borg sent Starfleet into a frenzy, scrambling to prepare for the inevitable assault on Earth. They knew where the Borg were likely to strike, but not how. With the Enterprise hiding from the Borg inside a nebula, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) turns to advice from Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), a being of extraordinary age and wisdom who serves as bartender on the Enterprise. She’s also the only person on the ship who has escaped the Borg’s wrath and lived to tell about it, a more fortunate fate than that of the majority of her race. She warns that Humanity is in for a similar fate, and that the only possible victory may simply be to survive. Shortly after being forced to leave the nebula by the Borg, the Enterprise is boarded and the captain kidnapped from the bridge. An away team discovers the reason for his capture: The Borg have made Picard one of them!

Up until this point, “Star Trek” had only flirted with the concept of a two-part episode once before, with the original series’ glorified clip show, “The Menagerie.” That aside, this franchise had been all about stories which resolved themselves in 60 minutes (or less, minus the commercial breaks). “The Best of Both Worlds” marked the first time either existing “Star Trek” TV series had tried its hand at a cliffhanger. This meant that viewers were to sit on their thumbs for the entire summer, contemplating just how in the hell their beloved crew was going to will their way out of the mess they were in. It was truly agonizing for me. At only eight years of age, this was my first encounter with a cliffhanger, and no other has surpassed it in terms of sheer drama. Before the age of the Internet, and without access to any publications which might leak any hints, I would remain clueless until the show returned for its fourth year.

Routinely, “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I” shows up at the top of fan polls for favorite episodes in the show’s run and with good reason. Among other things, it’s the most theatrical of all “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episodes, the first sign that this cast was worthy of a shot at the big screen. The second TNG feature film, “Star Trek: First Contact” serves as a sort of sequel to the events of this and the following episode, albeit with some revisionist history. For me, the one outstanding moment of the show’s seven-year run is that final image of the assimilated Picard threatening his former crew, and Commander Riker responding by giving the order to fire on the Borg vessel. I told actor Jonathan Frakes this much when I met him in person in May at the Fanboy Expo in my hometown of Knoxville, Tennesee. There were other, much more thoughtful and more cleverly-written episodes in the series’ run, but it is “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I” which sets the bar, and continues to be one of my five favorite TV episodes of all-time.

Platoon (1986)

Director: Oliver Stone

Starring: Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen

One thing I will never be accused of is blind patriotism. I didn’t grow up believing that the United States of America is the greatest country in the world. How can I be sure of it when I’ve never been further from my home than a ten-hour bus drive up to Pennsylvania? Even if I had ever taken a trip outside the United States, what makes the human beings that occupy my part of the world any better than those who live on the other side of this little blue planet? For a long time, it was believed we were better because we had chosen democracy, and that any nation which had adopted communism was evil and had to be corrected. In the 1960′s and the early part of the 1970′s, Vietnam was the focal point of a long, brutal, and ultimately futile attempt to “make the world safe from communism.”

Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is a young American deployed to Vietnam in 1967 who, unlike most of the others in his platoon who were drafted, actually volunteered for combat. He comes in with a sense of patriotism, as well as a legacy to live up to. His father and grandfather both served in the Army, and so he sees it as being his turn now. If only he’d known what he was getting himself into, maybe he’d have moved to Canada instead. Unfortunately, there’s no instruction manual for how to handle both external and internal conflicts. It’s one thing to have to sleep in shifts, constantly picking the fire ants and the leeches off of your flesh while you’re waiting for the Viet Cong to come and blow you and your fellow soldiers into tiny bits. It’s another thing entirely when you’re also dealing with a civil war within your own ranks.

Chris’s platoon is divided almost 50/50, with loyalties split between the ruthless Staff Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) and the more free-spirited Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe). Those who are with Barnes are emotionally stunted, and exceptionally violent. Some of these men are animals in the truest sense of the word. They have no place in a civilized society. Those in Elias’s camp… Chris among them… partake in mind-altering drugs, listen to “hippie” music, and try hard not to think too much about the horrors that await them out in the shit. They’re waiting for their orders to come in so they can hop the first helicopter out of this hellhole.

What defines a hero is as subjective as anything else, but it seems to be a term which is thrown around a lot more casually than others. In my estimation, “hero” is a title that cannot be given away; it must be earned. There is a noticeable shortage of heroism in “Platoon.” The characters around which the story progresses fight and kill each other with as much unsettling ease as they do to the Vietnamese, whom they also terrorize, rape, and burn down their villages. Part of this is due to the lies they’ve been fed by the U.S. government, and part of it is built out of their own frustrations from being so far away from home in a foreign land where they’re not especially welcome. War seems to always be shrouded in a confusing shade of grey.

Although we see most of the action in “Platoon” through Chris’s weary eyes, the most interesting character is Staff Sgt. Barnes. He’s an immoral son of a bitch, for certain, but he’s a hell of a soldier. It makes one wonder if it’s this war that’s made him that way, or if he’s always been flirting with insanity and being in the military has simply made him a more efficient killer. He’s got an incredible legend: Having been shot seven different times has cause some of his infantrymen to ponder the thought that he may be invincible. The scars on his body, in particular the distinctive one on the right side of his face, are an untold story all to themselves. How did he acquire them, and in which battle? Are they clues to the shaping of his state of mind, or are they just old wounds? Whatever the case may be about Staff Sgt. Barnes, actor Tom Berenger gives a memorable, scary and intimidating performance in bringing him to life.

This movie is also blessed with a supporting cast filled with recognizable faces. In addition to future Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, you have John C. McGinley, Keith David, Tony Todd, Kevin Dillon and a baby-faced Johnny Depp (who, at this point, still hadn’t decided whether to make a career out of acting). Some, like Depp, are not around nearly long enough. Perhaps the most memorable is Kevin Dillon’s Bunny, a sadistic little creep who has Barnes’s violent streak but lacks a certain discipline.

If “Platoon” is a genuinely depressing look at a depressing point in American history (and it is), it’s because it’s based in part on the real-life experiences of its director, Oliver Stone, himself a Vietnam Veteran and a recipient of the Bronze Star, the Purple heart, and the Army Commendation Medal. I don’t care to speculate what exactly he saw during his time there, nor do I care to. I prefer to sleep at night. What is clear is that Chris Taylor, more or less, IS Oliver Stone.

You won’t catch me watching too many war movies from back in the day (i.e. pre-1970), and for two reasons. Firstly, too few of them are willing to present the blood-stained ugliness of war in its true form, including what remains of those who are fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate) enough to survive. Secondly, most of those gung ho movies are centered around World War II, a necessary war which the U.S. helped to resolve, ridding the world of an evil unlike anything ever seen before. Vietnam shows a truly ugly side to war, in which we really had no right or reason to invade there, and didn’t even get the job done.

When the various military holidays such as Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day roll around, rather than think of how we have “the greatest military in the world,” I think instead of the unfortunate souls who never got to come home to their families, especially the ones who would never have put themselves in danger in the first place if they’d had any choice in the matter. I also think of how I almost never came into being because of the Draft, and of how precious that makes my own life. Such are the musings which enter into my mind when watching a masterpiece like “Platoon.”

Sleeper (1973)

Director: Woody Allen

Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton

First impressions are all about the visuals. You see someone whom you’ve never officially met before, but in your mind you’ve already formed an idea as to what kind of person they are based on their physical appearance. There’s a small chance you’ll be right, but 9/10 of the time you’ve missed the mark entirely. The same can be true of movies. I’ll never forget the first time I saw an image of Woody Allen, courtesy of a still photograph from the movie “Sleeper.” I was six years old at the time, and the photograph was in a sci-fi (and sci-fi/comedy) movie guide put together by Starlog Magazine. In the image, his character was bouncing around (although he could have been hovering for all I knew) in what appeared to be some sort of inflatable suit. I knew virtually nothing about the film itself, apart from the most threadbare of plot analyses. The reviewer called it “the funniest SF feature.” High praise. Being a big fan of other sci-fi comedies such as “Ghostbusters” or “Spaceballs,” I was expecting something along those lines. If I had any idea what kind of filmmaker Woody Allen is, I would have thought differently.

The year is 2173, and the society that was has been defeated and destroyed by war… and most probably a few miserable election cycles back when there was still such a thing. In its place is a pathetic excuse for a world where people jump into booths to “perform sex,” robot servants attend to your every whim, and everything that was said to be unhealthy for you is now found to be the opposite, and vice versa. Oh, and intellectuals and free-thinkers are reprogrammed to behave as the government (ruled by an overlord referred to only as the “Leader”) sees fit. This is the world that Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) is waking up to after spending 200 years in suspended animation.

Before Miles has had enough time to really process the fact that the world he remembers is ancient history, he’s being hunted by the government, who put an alert out to anyone who comes in contact with him to report “the alien” (as he is referred) immediately. Disguising himself as a robot servant, Miles ends up at the home of a socialite named Luna (Diane Keaton). When Miles first meets Luna, she’s a very naive, not especially bright young woman who writes bad poetry. She’s also the sort you have to learn to hold your tongue around because you’re bound to notice something she’s said that warrants correction, and she hates being wrong!

Eventually, Miles is forced to reveal himself to Luna, who alerts the authorities the first chance she gets. Miles has to come to her rescue when the agents determine that she, too, must be “corrected” for simply having been in close proximity to “the alien.” Returning to the house where he was first unfrozen, albeit unintentionally, they are caught and Miles buys time for Luna to escape. This is where their roles become reversed, as Miles is brainwashed so that he’ll behave as a cooperative, complacent member of society, whereas Luna becomes a member of the rebellion. When the two are later reunited, they discover that the Leader had been killed ten months prior, and that a plan is moving forward to clone him using the only piece of him left intact: his nose. This makes their mission clear: steal the nose, dispose of it, and be rid of the Leader once and for all. The hard part, assuming they succeed, is deciding what comes next.

As with his earlier slapstick comedies, Woody Allen taps into the early days of cinema for inspiration. It can be said that “Bananas” owed a bit to the Marx Brothers, just as it is also true that “Sleeper” could not exist without the films of Buster Keaton. The best example of this is in Allen’s scenes where he’s posing as the robot slave. These scenes work because all of the comedy is in his facial expressions. You want another example? How about the scene where, while he and Luna are on the run and in need of food, Miles finds a field full of giant-sized fruits and vegetables. Here, you see Miles and one other person literally slipping on a banana peel. The jazz score for “Sleeper” also sounds like it belongs as the accompaniment to a film from the silent era.

Diane Keaton, whose work outside of the “Godfather” saga and her collaborations with Woody Allen I have a hard time getting excited over, displays great range with her part in “Sleeper.” Apart from the tremendous growth her character undergoes in a movie that last for less than 90 minutes, Keaton (no relation whatsoever to Buster) is also the best thing about my favorite scene in “Sleeper.” The brainwashing Miles undergoes proves tough to crack. Resisting the persuasion to return to normal, he slips into the role of Blanche DuBois from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” This gives Diane Keaton a chance to imitate her “Godfather” co-star, Marlon Brando, when Luna plays along by assuming the role of Stanley Kowalski. She has Brando’s facial expressions so close to perfect that it’s the biggest laugh-out-loud moment of the entire picture. It’s something that has to be seen to be fully appreciated, but it is absolutely marvelous.

“Sleeper” is not what I consider to be the funniest sci-fi movie I’ve ever seen, nor is it Woody Allen’s best, but it is still among my favorites of his. The thin plotline means that this movie survives based on the combined talent of its lead actors and the laughs they are able to produce through their interaction, as well as a few well-timed sight gags. I remember being underwhelmed the first time I saw it, only to reverse my opinion on subsequent viewings. So, don’t be surprised if “Sleeper” doesn’t make the best of first impressions. If you find that it’s not your cup of tea, I would not advocate that you have your mind changed for you. It’s no skin off my nose.

Bananas (1971)

Director: Woody Allen

Starring: Woody Allen, Louise Lasser, Carlos Montalban

One thing I’ve noticed about certain live television events, whether it’s sports or national news, is how much the viewing audience is always left hanging on the edge of their seats waiting for carnage to ensue. Woody Allen recognized this as far back as 1971, which is why he begins “Bananas” with a televised assassination featuring the sort of news coverage you would have expected out of a boxing match. To top it all off he includes sports commentator Howard Cosell, who describes the action in the same way he would call the action for one of Muhammad Ali’s fights, which only serves to make this opening sequence all the more hysterical. Beginning his movie this way, Woody Allen has already hooked you. We cannot “change the channnel” now, fearful that we may miss something. Such instincts would be correct.

Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) is a college dropout who earns his keep as a products tester. Highly neurotic, as is the trademark for all of Allen’s characters, Fielding has his troubles in the romance department. It’s not that he can’t “perform,” but that his personality is so grating that no woman in her right mind would stick around for very long. Even Nancy (Louise Lasser), a political activist, finds something missing in her time spent with Fielding. One of Nancy’s great passions at the moment is the revolution going on in the “banana republic” of San Marcos (a fictionalized country based mainly on Cuba). Dumped by Nancy but still motivated by lust, Fielding takes an interest in the internal conflict of San Marcos and decides to pay a visit to the republic.

While in San Marcos, Fielding draws the ire of the country’s new dictator, Gen. Emilio Vargas (Carlos Montalban), who plots to kill him and blame it on the rebels. But Fielding is saved at the last minute by the rebels, who teach him how to be a revolutionary while he helps their leader assume power. But, as seems to always happen in countries which overthrow one dictator, the man to replace him also becomes drunk on power. Before Fielding has time to react, he’s become the rebels’ choice as San Marcos’ new President. Seeking financial aid, he reunites with Nancy, who does not recognize him until the moment he removes his ridiculously fake beard. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has caught wind of Fielding’s rise to power, and they intend to bring him to trial on charges of being a Communist traitor.

Often is the case with the films of Woody Allen that he manages to cast at least one future Hollywood star in a cameo role. In “Annie Hall” it was the statuesque Sigourney Weaver appearing as his date in a wide shot near the film’s end. The scene to watch for in “Bananas” is around the 11-minute mark, where two thugs board the subway car which Fielding is traveling on and proceed to cause trouble. Nervously reading a “dirty” magazine, Fielding plots to push them out the open door, thinking that it will close up and he’ll be rid of them. It closes, all right, but soon after it opens right back up and Fielding knows he’s in for a rough ride. The more prominent of these two hooligans is none other than Sylvester Stallone, five years before “Rocky” put him on the map.

During a time before he’d settled in on producing mostly dramatic pictures, Woody Allen infuses “Bananas” with a healthy dose of slapstick comedy. Some of the humor is a bit obvious, but the payoff is always great. Made during the time of the Vietnam War/Richard Nixon administration, the movie is just as much a parody of government protest and the Red Scare of the Cold War as it is of “Don Quixote” and ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Allen could not have known how relevant these topics would still be today, albeit in different forms, but they serve to keep the humor of “Bananas” as fresh to the audience of the 2010′s as it was for the audience for which it was originally intended.