Friday, June 6, 2014

THE WORLD BELONGS TO SAVAGES -- The Crime Films of Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone is one of the most famous and distinctive living directors in American film. His films tend to be divisive and a font for controversy and criticism, as well as great acclaim.

Are all his films masterpieces? No, though several are.

Are all his films worth seeing, worth talking about? Absolutely.

Stone is most well-known for his political films, films like JFK, Born on the Fourth of July, and Nixon, all of which attempt to take the major symbols of late 20th century history and reconfigure (some would say revise) them into epic tales of the battle for America's soul, and put these events into the framework of familiar and recognizable genres and storytelling forms. The Kennedy assassination becomes the basis for a suspenseful murder mystery. The Vietnam War is the setting for a young man's journey from innocent to victim to hero, using Frank Capra-esque conservative iconography for leftist, subversive purposes. Watergate becomes the act of hamartia that leads to the downfall of a president in the tragedy of Nixon. These political films are fairly well-regarded, though they have their very vocal detractors. Stone's attempts to move into 21st century history have been much less successful in critical and popular terms -- World Trade Center and W.  both are typically regarded as overcooked and under-thought.

However, while those politically-oriented films are what Stone's reputation -- whether positive or negative -- seems to be based around, there exists another pattern throughout Stone's filmography that I find to be under-analyzed, and almost nearly as interesting (if not always as good) as Stone's political films: his crime films.

Four films will be the subject here: in reverse chronological order, they are 2012's Savages, 1997's U-Turn, 1994's Natural Born Killers, and 1983's Scarface, which was directed by Brian De Palma but written by Stone. Though differing in terms of setting, subject matter, and origin (all were adapted from another source, whether it be a novel or a previously published screenplay), these four films exhibit a tremendous amount of connectivity in aesthetic and worldview. Perhaps most intriguingly, these films create a very different tone and POV when compared to Stone's equally distinctive political films.

Stone's films, of all stripes, demonstrate heavy levels of cynicism, paranoia, and fear, but the takeaway in these two varieties of film are different. Stone's political films are highly fearful of the sabotage of the democratic process on behalf of a powerful and influential elite, and of the encroachment on peace and prosperity by the military-industrial complex. In films like JFK and Nixon, black-suited old men sit in smoky, darkened rooms and plot the future of the western world, conspiring to feed lies to an unsuspecting public, ordering invasions and assassinations as easily as you or I order coffee. And they're not unsuccessful. None of Stone's political films end with the forces good triumphing unambiguously over evil. Clay Shaw is found not guilty of assassinating JFK. Ron Kovic finds his purpose in life as an anti-war activist, but there is still much work ahead of him. Nixon leaves office, but the "beast" that put him there is still active. But the tone is altogether idealistic, even quixotic. At the end of these films, Stone wants you to come away from the theatre feeling energized, invigorated, eager to do something to stop the forces of darkness from destroying the American dream. The final scene of JFK might be the clearest example. Jim Garrison walks into the distance, defeated but not broken, head unbowed, while the following text rolls onscreen: Dedicated to the young in whose spirit the search for truth marches on. 

On the other hand, Stone's crime films decide to keep the cynicism and the darkness, but lose the idealism. In the crime films, the world is wicked. And cruel. And you're probably on your own. They display a particularly bleak and nasty dimension, as foreign to most American films as the explicit politicism of Stone's other films. The clearest expression of this is probably in U-Turn. The film, an under-the-radar, quickly forgotten noir fable starring Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Jennifer Lopez, depicts the tragicomic plight of a small-time crook/gambler (Penn) whose car breaks down in a middle-of-nowhere Southwestern town. Penn spends the entirety of the film's 125 minutes trying to get the hell out of town as soon as he can, in order to pay off his debts to a vicious gangster. Various mishaps, both intentional and accidental, prevent Penn from leaving, and he finds himself entangled in a plot of murder and incest far too complicated to summarize here. The film's final act involves so many double-crosses and triple-crosses that a certain point the audience decides to stop getting invested in whatever the current situation is. In the final scene, having outlived both Lopez and Nolte, a badly-injured Sean Penn makes his way to his repaired car and gleefully starts the ignition -- only to find that the car's radiator hose has burst yet again, leaving him stranded and bleeding in the desert. The film's closing moment is defining image of Stone's crime films: a pack of hungry vultures eying a dying and bloody Penn, unable to move, unable to escape. You may outlive your enemies in Stone's world, but at the end of the day, you're stuck in a car that ain't movin', and soon you'll just be lunch.

Stone's crime films are all fairly different in terms of what crimes they cover. Scarface and Savages are both about drug dealers, but Natural Born Killers shows a pair of serial killers, and U-Turn is a classic noir-style about a man asked to commit murder in exchange for quick cash. Nevertheless, they all keep the same tone -- nihilistic, sure that no one is making it out alive, and that it's a fool who tries. It seems a complete 180 from "the search for truth marching on."

Another counterpoint to JFK's postscript is in Scarface. The gangster protagonist rises to the top of Miami's drug game by killing every rival, superior, and competitor that stands in the way, as well as everyone he loves or cares about. In the end, Tony Montana is only truly at home when he stands alone in his mansion, firing round after countless round of machine gun fire at his attackers. Every major character dies, and very bloodily. As the smoke clears, and a pool of blood forms around Montana, a neon sign mocks his character's ambition, and the very idea of ambition, ironically proclaiming "THE WORLD IS YOURS."

Stone's screenplay makes a notable departure from the 1932 original by having its "hero," who in both incarnations dies in a hail of bullets, meet his end at the hands of rival dealers, and not the police. In Stone's world, the representatives of law and order and decent society have no hopes of taking down Tony Montana. They might not even exist. The police are largely absent, and corrupt when they're visible, in Scarface; in Natural Born Killers they're either killers like Tom Sizemore's detective, so deeply fucked up that he sleeps with, then murders prostitutes in his spare time, or self-aggrandizing sadistic martinet's like Tommy Lee Jones' buffoonish bully of a prison warden; Powers Boothe's small town sheriff in U-Turn is an easily-duped stooge; and in Stone's latest, Savages, John Travolta plays a corrupt, paid-off DEA agent who protects a pair of drug dealers in exchange for money, then swoops into a deal in order to make himself a media hero.

And yet these are no "heroic outlaw versus evil copper" stories. The criminals in Stone's films are vicious, even sadistic, and have no real impetus for their crimes other than an all-consuming greed and hunger for more. The drug cartels in Savages shadowy, unrepentant, absolutely ruthless killers, with a taste for the theatrical. They will decapitate people simply to make a threat. When Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson, playing two California boys who get caught up in the drug trade, try to make a deal with them, the cartels force them to show their trustworthiness by torturing and immolating, while he still breathes, a drug lawyer. It is a nasty, hard-to-watch scene. And no one comes out of it looking good. Benicio del Toro's cartel hitman Lado might come closest to summarizing the film's worldview in one scene late in the film. Throughout the film Lado has been training a young protege in the ways of murder. Near the climax, Lado casually shoots and kills the young man, and with a shrug, simply says, "It didn't work out. You're too sensitive." There is no room for the soft, the weak, the sensitive. They won't even make it to the climax. The world belongs to the savages.

Is there any hope at all?

Maybe. But not in a way that is familiar. While U-Turn and Scarface roll credits with every main character having shuffled off the mortal coil, Natural Born Killers and Savages offer something stranger than the blood-soaked stage. Natural Born Killers, detailing the adventures of Mickey and Mallory, a pair of married serial killers who drive around the country committing mass murders for no particular reason, has to kill off everyone but them to even open up the possibility of a better future. Over the course of the film, they have murdered indiscriminately, gotten caught, been sent to jail, caused a jailbreak, killed some more, and finished off Robert Downey Jr.'s wily TV reporter by assuring him that they'll spare one victim: his camera. Over the credits, the couple are seen driving an RV around the country with a brood of kids, while Leonard Cohen's song "The Future" plays. "I have seen the future, brother," the lyric goes, "It is murder."

This ending is fairly baffling. Do Mickey and Mallory, two serial killers who derive legitimate joy from walking into a roadside diner and killing every patron, who say that they have "evolved" to the point where they perceive murder to be pure, really intend to spend the rest of their life living as a kind of '90s Partridge Family? Or are they a new breed of humans who exist in a realm beyond our mere mortal capacity for understanding? Have they evolved? Have they reformed? Will they slide back into old habits? Or do we not even have the vocabulary to talk about who they are and where they're going?

Or to return to Leonard Cohen's words:
"When they said 'repent!' / 'repent!' / I wonder what they meant?"

Savages features an ending that seems not too dissimilar, but raises different questions. To recap, Ben and Chon, two easygoing SoCal pot dealers who share a mutual girlfriend, nicknamed O, find themselves in hot water when they receive a buyout offer from a notorious Mexican drug cartel. When they are reluctant to say yes, O is kidnapped and held as a hostage. All three go on a journey through darkness, getting in touch with the most ugly and evil parts of themselves. Ben, a pacifist and a Buddhist, like Stone himself, allows himself to become a murderer in order to get back the woman he loves. O, who narrates the film, initially presents us with an ending that matches Stone's previous films in body count, where the three all perish in a literal Mexican standoff, and die, beaten and bloodied, in each other's arms. Then O, and Stone, do something very curious. They reveal that the ending we just watched is not what actually happened, but merely what O imagined to happen. The actual result is that Ben and Chon get arrested by the DEA, but spend only a few weeks in jail due to their status as "confidential informants." Then they fall off the face of the earth, as far as the recognizable world is concerned, moving to an unnamed third world country with O, and living, as she puts it, as "savages": "cruel, crippled, reduced to a primal state of being." The film closes over idyllic shots of the trio living out on the edge of the world, in a seeming tropical paradise, while O's narration intones: "One day, maybe, we'll be back. For now, we live like savages. Beautiful savages."

What are we to make of this? Is this a true escape? What does it mean when O says that the first ending was just her "imagination"? Was it a hopeful imagination or a fearful one? In the last scene, O doubts if three people can remain equally in love forever, hinting that perhaps one day, maybe not too far in the future, Ben, Chon, and O will drift apart, and that their love, the one pure thing in the film, will die. Is that truly preferable to the three romantically dying in each other's arms? Is death the preferable world? Is it better to end up like Tony Montana than like Mickey and Mallory? Stone's most recent film leaves us wondering, and the inscrutable look actress Blake Lively, playing O, gives the camera at the end of the film leaves open many possibilities.

These films are difficult to handle. The chainshaw scene in Scarface, though credit probably goes to Brian De Palma, has been the bane of the squeamish moviegoer for more than 30 years. Quentin Tarantino admits to turning off Natural Born Killers (heavily revised from his original screenplay) not too far into the movie, citing a scene which plays Mallory's childhood abuse and molestation as a literal black-and-white sitcom as the reason. I saw Savages twice in theatres, and both times I could sense the audience becoming progressively standoffish and even hostile to the film, particularly during the aforementioned torture and immolation scene, which caused physical recoiling. 

Is this reaction merely due to incompetence of filmmaking? I would say certainly not. Stone is, as Tarantino pointed out, "cinematically brilliant," and is capable of creating images of great beauty (some of the pastoral images presented in Born on the Fourth of July or the overlooked Heaven and Earth are transcendent).

What is it about these films that make them so hard to watch? They simply contain more cruelty than audiences tend to be capable of handling. The characters of Stone's crime films are vicious, nasty, self-interested, sadistic, and above all, cruel. When you compare them to the character's presented in the crime films of that most acclaimed poet of American gangsterism, Martin Scorsese, Stone's characters come off much worse. A closer examination reveals just why:

In Mean Streets, the central character is a guilt-ridden, reluctant, morally conflicted small time criminal, and the characters around him are at worst, stupid and impatient. In Goodfellas, Henry, the narrator, never kills anyone, and is mostly just too lazy to get an honest job, while his mentor Jimmy and his bosses kill out of self-preservation from prosecution and for business reasons. It's cold and ruthless, but the audience understands it. Only Tommy, Joe Pesci's scene stealer of a trigger-happy crook, kills for personal reasons, and even then his killings often stem from insecurity. It's not endearing, but it is humanizing. Casino is similar to Goodfellas; Gangs of New York features a young orphan seeking revenge for his father's murder, something Hollywood films almost always present as downright heroic. And in The Departed, the narratives hinges around a unhinged killer, while the other characters are characterized as being in opposition to him, isolating him and his actions.

In Stone's crime films, people enjoy killing. They do it with a smile. They kill to be cruel, to hurt, to bring others down to their level. They kill for no good reason. They kill because "murder is pure." It's easy to see why these films provoke such hostile reactions.

The casualness of death, and worse, the cruelty of death is something few filmmakers ever try to deal with, and Stone's attitude is one few filmmakers take, that this world is a world of natural born killers and hungry vultures. And you might find your place of peace, however briefly, but at the end of the day, the vultures are in the canyon with you. It's their world, not yours.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


It's all too easy for film enthusiasts -- critics, academics, amateur bloggers -- to ignore Billy Madison (1995). Released in February of 1995, the film seemed notable at the time only for being the first leading vehicle for its star, Adam Sandler, on the verge of finishing up a memorable four year run on NBC's flagship variety show Saturday Night Live. That notoriously hit-or-miss program served perhaps most importantly as an incubator for future comedy stars, going all the way back to the show's inception in 1975 and the show's first breakout cast member, Chevy Chase, and extending through such stars as Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, and just prior to the release of Billy Madison, Mike Myers. The formula was simple: cast promising young comedians and comic actors and let them develop a menagerie of recurring characters and celebrity impressions. While at first these actors are expected to be versatile sketch comedy utility players, eventually they will develop a clear and definable persona that can be slotted into various scenarios and settings with minimal variation on the central character -- a character that will, with time, be scarcely separable from the public's vision of the actor themselves. Eddie Murphy is a motormouthed, wisecracking but good-natured thorn in the side of the establishment. Bill Murray is a dryly sarcastic oddball who balances cynicism and a shrugging contentment. Dan Aykroyd is an almost Rain Man-like obsessive, able to spout a variety of trivia and jargon without blinking an eye. Once considerable fan appreciation has built up for the actor, they'll be given their own starring vehicle tailored to their particular persona. This wasn't really a wholly new set-up. It was just that SNL had replaced or expedited more traditional show business routes, like stand-up clubs or radio comedy troupes.

Madison was greeted with solid, if unspectacular, box office receipts and quite poor critical reception. Roger Ebert said its star Sandler was "not an attractive screen presence," and compared him to nails on a chalkboard. Brian Lowry of Variety worried if audiences would grow tired of the protagonist before the opening credits were over. Barbara Shulgasser of the San Francisco Chronicle seemed to sum up the critical reaction to the film by bemoaning the state of the film industry and asking "Is this how one conducts a career these days?" But the film's financial success was the start of something very big, something that would seem to baffle those critics who panned the film in 1995. Adam Sandler went on to be one of the most successful comic stars in film history, whose films have grossed a combined $2 billion dollars worldwide. Recent reports suggest that for Sandler's newest film, 2013's hit Grown Ups 2, he was paid a salary of over $15,000,000 -- a paycheck 150% of the entire budget of his Billy Madison. Like it or not, Sandler has been a consistently successful screen star for nearly 20 years, and it appears as though he is here to stay.

To understand the popularity of the Sandler persona, it might be useful to examine the early films of his career. After all, it is nearly always the early works of an an artist or entertainer's career that are the most popular by consensus, because if we,m as an audience, didn't agree on the early works, we would have no agreed-upon terms by which to discuss the later works (this is the same reason why a strong late period Bruce Springsteen album like Wrecking Ball will never be as popular as a Born to Run, but that is a story for another time). However, Billy Madison presents something of a challenge to someone seeking to understand the Adam Sandler formula, to no small degree because the film itself is a challenge to the as-yet-unformulated Adam Sandler formula.

There was a certain kind of commercial American comedy film that was particularly common in early and mid '90s. This is not to say that there was no precedent for these kinds of films beforehand, nor that these kinds of films do not persist to this day, but from around 1990 to 1995 there was a kind of flourishing of these types of films, and some gained extreme popularity, and they were linked together by a common set of traits, narrative and stylistic, that were characteristic to most. These films were typically based around and built around a leading comedy performer with a defined persona --  a Robin Williams or a Steve Martin or a Billy Crystal, for instance -- and placed that character in a position where their comedic persona was placed in the position of a lovable underdog who triumphs over smug enemies and unlikely odds through his good heart and personal quirks, while also learning a valuable lesson along the way. The tone is light, in both the comedy and the requisite moments of heartstrings-tugging drama, which tend to last for a brief moment in an inevitable second act "dark point" . Laughs tend to come from broad physical humor, amusing but unsophisticated wordplay, and fish-out-of-water sight gags. While some of the physical humor may be described as particularly "wacky," generally, the films take place in what is more-or-less a reasonable (and reasonably pleasant) fascimile of the real world, with obvious diversions from accepted reality and breaks with the fourth wall kept to a minimum. These films, such as City Slickers, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Problem Child, King Ralph, the Kid 'n Play vehicle Class Act, My Cousin Vinny, Mrs. Doubtfire, Grumpy Old Men, and 1994's Airheads, which featured Adam Sandler in a pre-stardom supporting role, vary somewhat, but have as their spine a generic (in both senses of the word) plot and set of character interactions that come together to create an familiar and acceptably pleasant atmosphere that when coupled with some jokes and gags, can create a beloved favorite. The recent crop of Sandler films (and he is most certainly the auteur of his films) manifest themselves a slightly modified, personalized form of the type of films mentioned above.

This body of films fluctuates from the very good (My Cousin Vinny, which is incidentally the most accurate trial film in Hollywood history) to the abysmal (most of them, including most Sandler films), but for the purposes of this piece, I think the most revealing film to look at is 1995's Chris Farley showcase Tommy Boy, released only a month after Billy Madison. The truth is that these two films form a clear and obvious parallel to each other, and a look at Tommy Boy (perhaps the archetypal '90s comedy underdog film) illustrates much about just how incisive of a comment Billy Madison was on the films of its ilk. Watching Tommy Boy is watching Billy Madison without any of the self-awareness, the venom, or the absurd qualities which make the latter a nearly singular film.

The basic plot of Billy Madison is as follows: the title character (Sandler), the only son of a wealthy hotel chain mogul lives a life of drunken tomfoolery and immature shenanigans with his friends until the day comes that his father decides to bequeath his entire family business to a corporate underling, Eric (Bradley Whitford), leaving Billy without an inheritance. Billy, who learns that he only got through school because his father bribed all of his teachers growing up, convinces his father that if he can go through first through twelfth grade again, and pass, that he is worthy of inheriting Madison hotels, to which his father agrees. Over the rest of the film, Billy attends each grade, alongside age-appropriate child students, until he finally emerges victorious over Eric in the climactic Academic Decathlon. From this brief description, one can easily imagine a painfully generic film (probably starring Billy Crystal) full of dull naptime jokes, triumphant dodgeball games, and montages set to terrible covers of Motown classics, with some lessons learned along the way for our mischievous but lovable hero.

Billy Madison is not quite that film. Does it have these elements? Kind of. But they are all tempered and undercut by repeated moments of absolute absurdity, non-sequiturs, and scenes where Sandler and co-writer Tim Herlihy's script seems to be aware of the dramatic and generic conventions of the lovable-underdog genre, and exaggerates the expected elements until they take on an absolutely unexpected form. The central goal of Sandler, Herlihy, and director Tamra Davis in making Billy Madison in the way they did seems to be the complete and utter subversion of the idea of a lovable oddball triumphing over the odds.

Billy Madison, as played by Sandler, could only be seen as lovable in the sense that he is the protagonist of the film. Otherwise he is, as Roger Ebert said in 1995, like "nails on a chalkboard." He does 'silly' voices for no reason other than to annoy the people around him, including his father. He willingly shirks all responsibility for the first thirty or so years of his life, sponging off the wealth of his father and contributing nothing to society. He physically assaults the servants when a game of kickball doesn't go his way. He verbally (and physically!) attacks small children, sexually harasses women (both adults and teenagers!), and all-around lies, cheats, and steals to get his way. And note that this is not just at the beginning of the film, as a way of establishing the flawed person he was before he undergoes the expected "change of heart." Billy remains an all-around asshole to the end. We even see him cheat in the final, climactic Academic Decathlon where he is supposed to be proving his merit. And yet the world of Billy Madison bends over backwards to reward and praise the title character, at the expense of everyone else in the world; Billy Madison revolves around Billy Madison to an absurd degree. The whole premise is willfully nonsensical. Why should being able to go through elementary and secondary school as 30-year-old man qualify Billy to run a hotel chain, seeing as how he spends all of his time drunkenly hallucinating a giant penguin that he inexplicably feels a need to chase? And why would someone as seemingly intelligent and capable as Billy's father agree to this plan? There is no reason, other than the fact that he is the main character of the movie, and in a lovable underdog movie, the sweet bumbling hero has to be allowed to succeed, even if they should not.

By my count, he basically does only two decent, altruistic things over the entire length of the film, and the first example -- pretending to have urinated on himself to spare a third-grader the embarrassment -- has such a bizarre and antisocial consequence, causing an entire class of third graders to pee themselves, that it's hard to see the act as a Jefferson Smith-esque moment of essential goodness. The second example, giving this essay it's title, rewards Billy for one brief act of modest kindness -- calling a former classmate, played by Steve Buscemi, and apologizing for bullying him in high school -- with a disproportionately beneficial, and utterly insane, reaction: Buscemi saves Billy from losing the Academic Decathlon by crossing Billy's name off a "People To Kill" list, firing on Eric with a sniper rifle, and slipping away, unnoticed into the distance. Billy notes this unlikely series of events with a simple, succinct, remark: "I'm glad I called that guy," highlighting the exact kind of protagonist-centric fatalism of this kind of deus ex Buscemi -- a moment of genre-based exaggeration that exposes the ludicrousness of the typical climax of a lovable underdog film, where Chris Farley's Tommy, for instance, finds that all the characters he's encountered along the way and all the good deeds he's accomplished have come back to help him out. For Billy Madison, one brief phone call where he exhibits basic human decency is enough to spawn a sniper-rifle wielding madman to save his life in the finale. It's a hilarious moment of absurdity and metafiction wrapped in the traditional trappings of a shiny Hollywood product, made all the more wonderful by Buscemi's wonderful, smilingly crazy performance.

The perfectly pulled-off climax of the movie, everything comes around the give Billy everything he wants and to punish all of his enemies and rivals disproportionately. Perhaps an even better example would be the fate of the O'Doyle family. Throughout the film, a large family of redheads named the O'Doyles continue to mildly bother Billy -- throwing dodgeballs at him, dumping milk on his head, etc. -- prompting Billy to say "O'Doyle, I got a feeling your whole family's going down." Towards the end of the movie, the O'Doyles (all of them, including young children) are driving down on a family road trip, chanting "O'Doyle rules! O'Doyle rules!" And what happens to them? Their car literally slips on a banana peel, careens off the road, and falls off a cliff, sending the entire family to their untimely deaths in a off-screen explosion. In a lovable underdog film, being at any point opposed to the protagonist is an invitation for your own karmic humiliation. In Billy Madison, it's an invitation for fiery death.

The world, for the most part, loves him. He is somehow, despite being played by nebbishy little Adam Sandler and being, literally, an elementary schooler, the subject of numerous characters vast sexual desire. In addition to the requisite love interest (then it-girl Bridgette Wilson as Billy's third grade teacher, who goes from hating to loving him as a result of absolutely nothing), Billy's maid Juanita asserts her attraction while alone to herself by declaring "Ooh, that boy's a fine piece of work all right. He's a fine piece of ass though, too." A group of third grade girls fawn and sigh over him like he's a member of Hanson. Even Billy's elementary school principal Mr. Anderson gives him a card on Valentine's Day with a short and simple post-script: "I'm horny". Occasionally, a character will be aware of the insanity of the plot of the film. When starting the third grade, Billy turns to a little boy to his right and says "I mean, first and second grade was easy, but social studies and long division?! This is gonna be tough!" But the boy merely stares, dumbstruck, at Billy, knowing that this really should not be happening. At this point, Billy turns to a different boy on his left and repeats -- word for word -- the same spiel, this time getting an introduction to his new sidekick Ernie. It's a brief lifting of the veil before the world of the film "rights" itself. The final scene of the film gives Billy and all his "friends" pairing off to dramatically kiss in the sunset, including Chris Farley's rage-driven bus driver, who gets a handjob from Billy's hallucinated giant penguin. A happy ending indeed.

The parody at the core of Billy Madison threw off contemporary reviewers. Comedies that satirize other comedies are rare; we're used to the Hot Shots! and Naked Guns of the world, parodying genres that take themselves deathly seriously. That kind of parody is more familiar, and it's target's flaws are more recognizable. But parodying a comedy is both much more difficult and equally valid. Comedic films are just as popular, if not more popular than dramatic films, and they are just as bound by generic conventions, and they reinforce their own potentially harmful messages that need to have the piss taken out of them, just like dramatic films do. Billy Madison is a full-on assault on the idea that just because someone is the hero of a story they deserve all the gifts of the world and all their enemies deserve to be taken down. 'Billy Madison deserves nothing and gets everything, but he's the hero, so in film logic that must be okay,' -- that's the line of thinking Sandler and Herlihy want to question, yet most people do not consciously question it after seeing the film. But every joke, every laugh comes from the complete exaggeration of the traditional tropes and mores of this kind of film, illuminating the ridiculousness of them. 

This film is an anomaly. Even by Sandler's immediate followup, Happy Gilmore, a worthy comedy, he began to move away from subverting cliches and move into the cliches themselves. Perhaps creating Billy Madison proved too exhausting for Sandler. It certainly took more effort and creativity than the lazy excuses for "stories" that his recent films exhibit. In most artistic bodies of work you can watch the auteur comment on his earlier works as time goes on -- think John Ford making The Searchers The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Cheyenne Autumn -- but ironically, for Sandler, it is his later films that his first film mocks. But for as many Just Go with Its as we get, we'll always have Billy Madison. And I'm glad for that.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The best laid plans of mice and men

It has become increasingly clear that living the life of a full-time student does not allow for my stated goal of "a film a day every day" to be viable. I've put a lot of films into a short amount of time though, I'll try to maintain something of a regular pace of film-watching.

This does NOT mean that I won't be writing anymore. That would be a bit of an overreaction. But my focus will be back to irregular reviews and pieces, which is honestly what I prefer.

Monday, January 13, 2014

365 Movies A Year - January 5 through 7

A quick recap:

Jan. 5 - Looking for Richard (1996), directed by Al Pacino. This documentary follows Al Pacino, along with his hilarious colleague Frederic Kimball, who, over the course of several years, attempts a sort of quasi-dramatization of Shakespeare's Richard III, all while filming behind the scenes of the production, and his efforts to get at the heart of Shakespeare's words, and make them palatable to a modern audience. Amusing, intellectually engaging, and a great excuse to break out your dusty old "Collected Works of Shakespeare."

More than anything, this made me want to see a full length, big budget of Richard III starring Pacino and his assembled actors. The staging of the murder scene between Alec Baldwin (as George, Duke of Clarence) and the two actors playing the men sent to kill him is better than the equivalent scenes in the Olivier and McKellen/Loncraine versions, and Pacino looks like he could rival both Englishman for his portrayal of the skulking, scheming hunchbacked monarch -- with his macho, Tony Montana-esque aggressive Richard, who bears his open, hairy chest to a young Winona Ryder as Lady Anne, standing as a nice comparison to Olivier's fey plotter and McKellen's self-amused crook.

Jan. 6 - 5 Against the House (1955), directed by Phil Karlson. An interesting film noir from the tail-end of the original cycle. A group of college students hatch upon a plan to take a Reno casino's nightly earnings for themselves; things, as they say, do not quite go as planned. Interesting tone here: begins rather comedic, seeming almost like a 1950s Hangover-style romp, gradually gets darker and more dramatic until a finale that is both unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally?) absurd and strangely sentimental and happy for a noir. Brian Keith, as a Korean War hero using the G.I. Bill to attend a midwestern university actually named Midwestern University, gives the film's best, most realized performance by playing a man who is simultaneous angered from being left out of the post-war prosperity he thought he was promised, as well as feeling nostalgic for the thrilling rush of war.

On a mostly irrelevant note, Keith, who was about 33 during filming, looks old as shit, pardon my crudity. And this isn't just a "people looked older back then" issue: he genuinely looks 50. He's only a few months older than his co-star Guy Madison -- and yet when Madison's character, early on in the film, jokes that Keith is his father, I actually believed him for a moment.                                                                                                                                                     Anyways, like I mentioned above, there are some very odd touches to this film. Comedy runs pretty rampant for the first half hour or so, and not just any comedy, but midcentury campus comedy, one of the most specific and dated brands of comedy there is. Future Green Acres player Alvy Moore is one of Keith and Madison's roommates, and basically is doing a nightclub comedy routine for the duration of the film, even looking straight at the camera to deliver a joke at one point.

The film's bizarre climax is Keith and his cohorts, dressed in false prospector beards and cheap cowboy costumes, robbing the casino by convincing a guard that there is an armed, disgruntled dwarf crouching inside of a cart that actually contains a pre-taped recording. Did western stalwart Karlson grow tired of the modern trappings and decide to do a full-on "showdown in the desert" for the finale? I honestly couldn't say. It really must be seen to be believed.

Jan. 7 - Shoot the Piano Player (1960), directed by Francois Truffaut.

One of the reasons I started this project was to get caught up on the agreed-upon world classics that I remain woefully behind on. This, I am both proud and somewhat ashamed to say, is one of them. One of the things that makes this film somewhat difficult to write about is that it is, in my eyes, a willfully loose and disorganized film, a film that has no wish to present a unified whole or a fully coherent overarching message. And that's it's greatest strength! So many colorful shadings, so many interesting dead ends and detours. From the bouncing ball 'translating' a barroom singer's drunkenly delivered singalong, to an actual cutaway showing someone's mother dropping dead when a liar says "Or may my mother drop dead," this film is as replete with fun diversions and clever shakings-up of the cinematic form as Godard's near contemporaneous Band of Outsiders.

Truffaut's use of voiceover narration is particularly interesting. While at times lead actor Charles Aznavour's narration does the typical "explaining possibly inexplicable character actions" thing, just as often it seems to advise him to do the opposite of what he is about to do, creating a strange and fascinating aspect of the film: is Truffaut suggesting a thematic "mind-body" split, or just having fun with hoary old noir tropes? I don't know, and I'm looking forward to repeat viewings to try and either figure it out or embrace the mystery.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

365 Movies A Year - January 3 and January 4, 2013 - CASINO and THE PUBLIC ENEMY

I could lie and pretend that I don't know why I love gangster movies, but I know exactly why: watching a gangster movie is a cathartic experience. You can place yourself in the shoes of the lead character, and experience their thrilling rise to the heights of society, their intoxicating top-of-the-world lifestyle. You can admire their flashy suits, the fast cars, and maybe most crucially, the ability to do whatever they want to their enemies without repercussions. It's a dirty, vicarious thrill, but it speaks to something innately human, and if you're speaking to something human, you're accomplishing something.

Of course, the best gangster movies, films like the first two Godfathers, or Sergio Leone's beautiful Once Upon a Time in America, have more to offer than just vulgar thrills, and more to say than just "Damn, it feels good to be a gangster."

I would not put 1931's The Public Enemy, directed by William A. Wellman, or 1995's Casino, directed by Martin Scorsese, in the very top tier of gangster movies. Big flaws keep them from equalling their closest analogues, Howard Hawks' Scarface and Scorsese's own Goodfellas. Still, the 1931 film remains one of the most seminal hallmarks in the genre, and its influence can still be felt, and Scorsese is Scorsese.

When watching two films of the same genre in close proximity naturally leads one to look for similarities, connections, and intertextualities: both films detail the story of two childhood friends who rise and fall within mob circles in adulthood, hardly a rare plot; both films have some of the quintessential New York actors pretending to be, oddly, Chicagoans.

Casino, though, tries to be more than a gangster movie -- probably too many things, even for its nearly 3 hour runtime. The film is often lambasted as being warmed-up Goodfellas leftovers, a charge with some merit; if Scorsese wished to avoid such criticisms, maybe he shouldn't have cast Robert De Niro as a control-freak crook and Joe Pesci as his hotheaded thug associate, essentially the same roles they played in the earlier film. But the film tries to take on other subplot and generic conventions, with mixed results.

So what exactly is going on in Casino? Well, on one level, it is a semidocumentary about the day-to-day operations of a Las Vegas casino in the days of the illegal "skim" -- told with an eye-of-God style, or in the words of De Niro's character: "The eye-in-the-sky is watching us all." This aspect is interesting, but it can't keep our audience for the whole length of the film, and recedes to the background for the most part by the end.

What else is Casino? Well, it's a Western. In the wild, wild west of the Nevada desert lies a young town nominally run by cowboy-hatted yokels, but in fact run by outlaws and desperadoes, raking in money from nightly poker games, robberies, and shows of strength. Scorsese uses the classic Western trope of the showdown in the desert, now re-purposed as a Mob meeting between Pesci and De Niro, juxtaposes a chintzy Cigar Store Indian with Pesci's unfeeling mug, lets Pesci's character calls his personal jewelry store "The Gold Rush," and even casts Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones as a corrupt local politician. Still, this element feels more grafted onto the film than permeating throughout it, as if Scorsese is working out some of his cinephile amusements onto the project.

At times, Scorsese (and his co-screenwriter, Nicholas Pileggi), try to make the film into an epic high tragedy. De Niro's "Sam Rothstein" laments the fall of the Old Vegas to the strains of Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the end of the film, while the same piece of music plays over the opening credits, while De Niro's black soul goes through a visual "Harrowing of Hell," passing through flame and smoke to tell the story we're being presented with. Reference is made to the heads of the Midwestern Mob as being "The Gods," and indeed, they decide the fates of mere mortals while sitting in their dark, insulated back room, dining on wine and copious amounts of food like the Olympians toying with a hubristic Greek hero. While evocative, this too feels tacked-on. The characters of Casino, like the characters in Goodfellas, are shallow and amoral, and the attempt to give their wins and losses the grandeur of a passion play feels like projecting -- Henry Hill in Goodfellas never tries to claim his story is grand tragedy, and Scorsese knew not to force any comparisons there, while Jake LaMotta of Raging Bull at least had a deep streak of personal self-loathing that was reminiscent at times of Oedipus with his eyes gouged out, so themes of fall and redemption fit more naturally to that story.

Perhaps most originally, Casino is a love story. Specifically, it is a love story between a man whose world consists of cold, rational numbers and figures, a brilliantly logical man whose life is run by calculation, who falls for a woman who represents chaos, disharmony, and the purely unpredictable. He seeks to control her, regulate her, make her into one of his known quantities, all while she warns him that she cannot be tamed, and that his trust in her is misplaced. Which it is. And for the mistake of thinking she was his to be contained, that man loses everything, and winds up "right back where I started." Interestingly, this love story, between De Niro's Sam and Sharon Stone's Ginger, is basically the opposite of the man-woman relationships seen in most of Scorsese's films: usually the man becomes obsessed with a woman, idolizing her as a prize to be won, but once she submits to him, his self-hatred is projected onto her, and he begins to loathe and distrust her -- essentially a tragic version of the old Groucho Marx joke about never wanting to belong to a club that would have someone like him as a member. Here, Sam never stops loving Ginger, even when she is continually trouble for him, and when he, by anyone's standards, should probably give up on her. This is likely the film's most thematically consistent element, and the idea of trust and whether or not you can put your trust in someone else, is neatly paralleled with the trust placed in Rothstein by the Mob's bosses, and with the very idea of gambling, the idea that you can trust a horse to come in first, or a Roulette ball to land on black. The movie is called Casino, but it could very well have been called The Gamble.

But even with this aspect, the movie is probably too overstuffed to devote the proper attention to it; there are long stretches of the film when Stone's character disappears and is not referred to, and then the film picks up with her character, and you go "Oh, yes, that's right, she's in this movie too."

Anything but overstuffed is The Public Enemy. The earliest gangster movies, like it, or Little Caesar, or Scarface: The Shame of a Nation are very simplistic in narrative, as audiences still unfamiliar with the young genre were not yet in need of Western motifs or complex love stories to spice up their gangster movies. All of these early classics have essentially the same narrative. The lead gangster, impoverished at first, rises up in the local criminal organization through a series of increasingly large crimes, gaining the favor of a father-figure boss. He likely has a best buddy who is not quite as ruthless as he is, but is willing to go along for the ride. The two get progressively richer and get duded up in fine clothes and fancy accoutrements. Eventually, the gangster has to commit a Freudian killing of the fatherly boss character, taking his place in the world, but his reign at the top will not last for long. The best friend will die, and the gangster enters a period of darkness and desperation. Rival gangs, or the police force, or both, will take aim at the lead character, who inevitable meets his Hayes Code-approved death in the streets, and then an epilogue comes on that ensures the impressionable audience that "thus will be the fate of all men of their kind" or somesuch babble.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details. Performances, direction, and clever turns in the writing separate the merely adequate (Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar) from the sublime (Scarface, or the later, somewhat atypical The Roaring Twenties, directed by Raoul Walsh).

The Public Enemy's greatest strength is apparent: Cagney is perfect as the swaggering hell-raiser Tommy Powers (a real precursor to Joe Pesci's later onscreen persona). But so are its flaws. Produced only a few years after the introduction of sound into Hollywood films, the direction seems stilted and unsure of itself at times, as do some members of the cast. Robert Emmett O'Connor, who plays the Irish-American saloon owner/bootlegger Paddy Ryan, is perfectly cast, physically. But, bizarrely, between his lines he takes the longest, most meaningless pauses. It almost seems like he's getting paid per second onscreen, so he's deliberately stretching out his scenes. It really takes the air out of the film's balloon when he's onscreen. The actor Murray Kinnell is obviously miscast as the neighborhood fence and Fagin-like figure of Putty Nose; his plummy accent reveals him for just what he was, an English pretending at being a Chicago hoodlum.

There are many ways I could approach the film: as an examination of Irish-American identity in its particular place and time, as a coming-of-age story (Tom is a particularly young screen gangster, and is only a teenager when Cagney begins playing him), as a film about a dysfunctional family, etc. etc. It's also quite interesting to compare the film's depiction of violence to similar film's depiction of violence: note that Cagney is never shown on screen killing someone, and in fact, there are only about three murders we know of for sure that happen in the film, four if you count a horse -- Scarface, conversely, luxuriates in graphic violence from the beginning, and considers death cheap, and even uses it as a gag.

The literature on classic gangster movies is out there, and these observations are hardly new, so I'd rather move on to other approaches, namely, an aspect of the film that, to my knowledge, no one has written about.

Tommy Powers is gay.

Seriously. It's all there, I swear. I caught something, and it all clicked, and fell into place. Tom Powers is a man who is attracted to other men, and not women. And it explains so much about the film.

What is one of the first things we hear a young, preteen Tommy say when his friend Matt embarrasses himself in front of a girl? "That's what you get for fooling with women." Later, an older Tom is contrasted with both Matt, who is a regular womanizer, and Tom's older brother Mike, who has a regular girlfriend. Tom gets one girlfriend, and is remarkably un-physical with her; counterintuitvely for Cagney, who was one of screendom's most physical actors. He later gets bored of her and throws her out of his life. He gets another girlfriend, played by Jean Harlow, who even complains that their relationship isn't going in the direction she wished it would. Unless I'm misremembering, he never kisses her, and even when the gorgeous Harlow lounges around Tom's home in slinky outfits, Tom sits far away from her, looking bored, barely glancing at her. She even remarks that Tom "isn't like all the other men," and wonders what his "boyfriends" will think! When he has a chance to get physical with her while dancing at a nightclub, he tears himself away to look at an male mentor who betrayed him years earlier, all while his friend Matt gets rather frisky indeed with his paramour. In one scene that would later be cut from re-released prints, Tommy gets fitted for a new suit by a very effeminate, gay-coded tailor who is all but hitting on him, complimenting him on his impressive, muscular arms. But Tom, despite being someone whose typical reaction to things is violence and anger, basically let the tailor's comments go by, unremarked upon. He even seems somewhat amused with the guy! This all occurring in a highly homophobic, straight male chauvinistic era, too.

All throughout the film, Tommy tells Matt about how all they need is each other, and how they'll be looking out for each other for the long run. Tom Powers, unless my reading of the film is totally ridiculous, is in love with Matt, although he'd never admit, and could never admit it.

For the skeptical, recall how often gangsterism and criminality is associated with 'deviant' sexuality in older films -- Scarface's Tony Camonte is obsessed with his younger sister Cesca, and reaches his most pure state when he and his sister engage in a psycho-sexually charged shootout with the coppers, White Heat's Cody Jarrett is incestuously fixated on his mother. Whether these filmmakers from a less tolerant age genuinely associated crime with "kinky" sexual behavior, or whether the portrayal of villainous characters allowed for them to depict said behavior in a way that they couldn't have with "virtuous" characters, I could not say. But the tradition exists, and The Public Enemy could clearly be read as a piece of that tradition.

Another, and perhaps the most revealing, bit of evidence for my theory that Tom is gay, and that his homosexuality is key to understanding the film, is that his sexual desires and fears ultimately lead to his undoing. When Tommy is raped by Jane the innkeeper woman near the end of the film, he reacts with extreme shock and disgust , naturally. He immediately rushes out of the hideaway and into the streets with Matt. Matt tries to calm him, and Tom pledges his eternal devotion to him, saying that they're all they need in the world, playfully hitting him on the shoulder.

Just then, a hail of phantom machine gun fire strikes down Matt. He's dead. Tom loses all his bearings in life, spending the rest of the film in a downward spiral.

In other words, Matt and Tom are both punished for Tom's "sin" of homosexuality.

Trust me, it's all there. Watch it again, or for the first time, with this in mind, and you'll be able to see it too. It adds another, more interesting layer to a story that, while stunningly fresh and original at the time of its 1931 release, has been told time and time again, and has thus lost much of its novelty, and deepens the customs and traditions of the genre.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

365 Movies A Year - January 2, 2013

On January 2, 2013, I watched (for the first time) Terrence Malick's sixth completed feature To the Wonder.

I love the films of Terrence Malick. There are times when I think The Tree of Life was perhaps the greatest film to be released in my lifetime so far. Nevertheless, To the Wonder struck me as being likely that great artist's weakest film yet.

It is Malick's most narrowly-focused and "smallest" film yet, lacking the more inherently dramatic subject matter seen in his other films -- the murder spree of Badlands, the Biblical plagues of Days of Heaven, the combat scenes of The Thin Red Line, the civilizations-in-collision of The New World, or the birth of the universe portrayed in The Tree of Life. While most of Malick's films focus on small interpersonal relationships, they're usually juxtaposed with epic conflicts and big, broad themes of life, death and existence. To the Wonder does not completely break from this pattern, but its attempts to find a more universal resonance to its characters' plights seem more forced, or don't connect in the way that they should.

The "plot", so to speak, is rather vague and undefined, naturally. Olga Kurylenko plays an ambiguously European single mother living in Paris who falls in love with an American played by Ben Affleck. They frolic in France before moving to Affleck's hometown in Oklahoma. There problems begin to develop, as the two (along with Kurylenko's daughter) gradually become aware of their flaws and contradictions, and of what our modern society has come to term "irreconcilable differences."The only subplot concerns the local Catholic priest, played by Javier Bardem, who is struggling to find God's in the world around him.

To accuse a Malick film of having an underdeveloped plot seems farcical to anyone familiar and appreciative of his works, but To the Wonder genuinely feels stretched-out and a bit underthought. As always, the cinematography (by Malick's frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki) and the sheer visual wonder is top notch, whether Malick is showing us the natural beauty of rural America, or the urban beauty of Paris. And, of course, the film is nothing if not deeply felt. But perhaps To the Wonder could have withstood a little bit more time in the editing room, allowing for the director to deepen and further work out what he was trying to say.

To the Wonder tries to do no less than understand the nature of love -- the "wonder" of the title, where Kurylenko and Affleck find themselves slipping in and out of -- not only romantic, passionate, erotic love, but also the nature of love as a universal existential presence; it seeks to examine both the love between a man and a woman, and the love between an all-knowing God and the small people who populate his creation. Malick, as ever, is nothing if not philosophically ambitious and spiritually reaching, suggesting an artist who has more in common with Francis of Assisi than Francis Ford Coppola.

But I think the problem may be that the concept of "love," as we know it today, is in fact so vaguely defined that Malick's efforts to connect Kurylenko and Affleck's love affair with Bardem's crisis of faith seem tenuous and uncertain. Similarly, while Malick is terrific at visualizing the feeling of being in love, the transcendent qualities, the feeling of existing in a plain above the squalid mortal world, his attempts at replicating the subtle shifts in desire and spite, the push-pull of personal conflict, are much less effective. The drifting apart of Affleck and Kurylenko's characters makes logically sense, but does not feel as right as their initial head-over-heels playfulness. Nor, for that matter, can it compare to the perfectly realized struggle of masculine wills seen in the director's artistic peak The Tree of Life. In all honesty, the material with Javier Bardem's priest character is the most affecting and intellectual engaging in the film, though it seems to relate only tangentially with everything else that is going on. At  the risk of Monday-morning-quarterbacking, maybe Terrence Malick would have been better off having Bardem's character arc be the film's backbone, as opposed to the clearly personal, but much more diffuse romantic plotline.

Nevertheless, a below-par Malick film is more deeply thought and felt than just about anything you're likely to see at the contemporary cinema, and his singular style (often imitated, never equaled) has a voice that is unmatched, and, when the day comes that Malick sadly shuffles off this mortal coil, we will all be regretting the passing of his works of beauty and grace from our world.

Friday, January 3, 2014

365 Movies A Year - January 1, 2013

Pieces in 365 MOVIES A YEAR will be briefer and more loosely written. Sorry!

Thoughts on 28 Up -- Michael Apted's 1984 documentary that I watched on Netflix Instant Streaming on the first of January, 2013:

My year, or more accurately, this series, gets off to an unusual start, in that the inaugural entry in the series comes midway through another personal project that I'm not writing about.

Lately, I've been binging on the films in Michael Apted's Up series of documentaries. If you're unfamiliar with this remarkable series of films, I hope this summary should suffice: 

In 1964, a team of British filmmakers (including, as a young researcher, Michael Apted) selected a group of fourteen children, all aged seven, to study for a continuing series of documentaries. The children came from different strata of the British class systems --  rich and poor, black and white, from elite preparatory schools to inner-city charity homes -- and were interviewed, asked about their lives, their families, their schooling, their interests, and their thoughts on life. Ever since then, every seven years, Michael Apted (now taking on the mantle of director) returns to these fourteen subjects and films them going about their lives, interviewing them, comparing and contrasting them with their fellow documentary subjects.

It's inherently compelling. But there are also inherent problems -- or maybe just "problems" -- that arise that become more clear in 28 Up, the fourth film in the series.

For one thing, adults with jobs and families, who, in some instances live thousands of miles away from England, are much harder to wrangle together and get to participate in yet another documentary. And 28 Up suffers a bit from the absence of a few participants and the inability (or unwillingness) of the filmmakers to get some of the subjects together for the same interview. I, for one, would love to have seen the three upper-class boys John, Charles, and Andrew together in the same interview again, particularly since one of the highlights of the previous three documentaries was watching Charles and John seemingly move further and further apart, culturally, ideologically, and personally. 

Regardless, there is enough drama and insight in 28 Up -- particularly in watching the heartbreaking segment involving Neil, or getting the chance to see the marvelously charming Tony again -- to make it a riveting viewing experience.