Sunday, 25 October 2020

Midnight Express by Hayes, Hoffer and Stone

Writing the screenplay for Platoon in 1976 was a major turning point in Oliver Stone's life and career. No one wanted to make such a raw and realistic film about the war in Vietnam... But everyone recognised the brilliance of the writing. 

And soon Stone found himself hired by Peter Guber at Columbia Pictures to create a screenplay from a book called Midnight Express.

Written by Billy Hayes and William Hoffer, Midnight Express is the true story of how Hayes was busted for trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey and how he was incarcerated and brutalised in a Turkish prison, before finally escaping.

Oliver Stone was the perfect writer to adapt this tale for the screen.

"When I interviewed Billy Hayes I conflated him with myself because I'd been busted and I hated the authorities... I conflated two things: Billy's story, and my anger at being busted in San Diego for two ounces of grass... facing federal smuggling charges of five to twenty years..."

Peter Guber at Columbia also decided that the ideal director for Midnight Express would be the British Alan Parker.

Parker liked the book and signed up to do the movie with his friend and ally David Puttnam as the producer.

The only problem was this crazy, unknown American called Oliver Stone who'd been hired to write the script. "Guber... sort of forced me on Puttnam and Parker, who were sceptical," Stone recalls.

"I think they figured that... they'd bring me over to London and run through a quick draft, and then get rid of me."

Stone is completely correct in this. In his commentary track for the Blu-ray on Midnight Express, Alan Parker confirms that the idea was that out of courtesy to Columbia they would let Stone deliver a screenplay and then Parker would take over and the real writing would begin...

"We would put up with this strange individual and then he would go away and I would write the screenplay," says Parker. 

However... "When he delivered the first draft it was so good we were kind of in shock, really. Because though we weren't enamoured with Oliver... he wrote a very excellent first draft."

Stone, for his part, says, "I must say that Parker, though he was cold to me the whole time, maintained the integrity of the script. Alan and David Puttnam were put under a great deal of pressure to tone the film down, but they held out. They fought to shoot my screenplay."

And the result was a powerful, harrowing, beautifully made film which still stands up today, over 40 years later.

Alan Parker did a magnificent job of directing the film and, as indicated, Stone's screenplay is outstanding. 

Mention must also be made of the excellent second unit photography in Turkey, directed by Hugh Hudson, and the outstanding cast — chiefly Brad Davis as Billy and John Hurt and Randy Quaid as his friends in prison, Max and Jimmy.

It's very strange that Brad Davis never went on to achieve considerable stature in the movies, unlike Hurt and Quaid.

And unlike Oliver Stone.

Midnight Express was both a commercial and critical hit. And Stone's screenplay was recognised as a major factor in its success.

He won a Golden Globe for the screenplay, although the award ceremony was something of a fiasco: "That night I was stoned out of my head on Quaaludes and coke... I made this long, obfuscating speech attacking the drug laws...I was being hissed and booed off the stage."

Afterwards David Puttnam angrily confronted Stone, "You'll never get an Academy Award," he snarled.

But he was wrong. In 1979 Oliver Stone won the Oscar for Midnight Express and his career as a film maker was well and truly under way. 

(The quotes for this post are from two sources: James Riordan's excellent biography of Oliver Stone. And a superb coffee table book about Stone that is responsible for sending me on this deep dive into his work.)

(Image credits: IMDB.)

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Heaven and Earth by Hayslip and Stone

Oliver Stone has an undeserved reputation as a macho film maker, and perhaps even a misogynist or sexist one. "I'm just not that type of person," he says.*

A powerful confirmation of this can be found as early as Salvador (1986), his first major film. 

In that raw, fact-based drama there's a chilling sequence in which a right wing death squad attacks a bus full of nuns.

The murderous assault is shot from the women's point of view so that we, the audience, see the vile leering faces of these vicious thugs leering and drooling over us.

There is no question where Stone's sympathies lie.

And with Heaven and Earth (1993) he shot an entire movie from a female point of view, so to speak.

Again it's a true story, based on two autobiographical books by Le Ly Hayslip (played by Hiep Thi Le), a Vietnamese woman who married an American soldier and escaped to the USA.

("Escaped" is very much an apt term, considering Le Ly's harrowing odyssey...)

This is third and final part of Oliver Stone's Vietnam trilogy — begun with Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July.

And in many ways it's his most ambitious. It's obviously deeply felt.

And in the early sections it seems to be shaping up to be Stone's masterpiece.

Le Ly is a happy child in the idyllic rural landscape with black water buffalo wading through glowing green rice paddies. It's a lush paradise that will never be the same after the war arrives.

Le Ly's straw hat is blown away by the wash of a helicopter in a sequence reminiscent of Platoon, where the copters blow the coverings off corpses waiting to be transported back to America...

The impossibility of Le Ly's position is hammered home when she is
arrested and tortured by the American-sponsored government because she's suspected of collaborating with the Vietcong.

And then she's abducted and assaulted by the Vietcong because they suspect her of cooperating with the government.

After further misfortunes, Le Ly ends up pregnant out of wedlock, picking through the trash of a US army base and finding the bodies of murdered prostitutes, discarded like garbage.

Then she is pressured into prostitution herself, as her baby boy screams at being abandoned.

The film is fearsomely potent up to the point of Le Ly's arrival in America married to Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones).

And initially the culture clash of Le Ly in her new home is forceful and funny — she watches a giant woman opening a giant refrigerator, and marvels... But soon thereafter, I feel, the movie goes seriously off the rails.

In sharp contrast to Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July, it's hard to know what we're supposed to care about — or even be interested in. 

Sequences that should be deeply moving — a shaman telling Le Ly her husband's spirit is in the house, her brother describing the terrible aftermath of the war, Le Ly's return to the shrine in the village — instead come across as dangerously close to Pythonesque.

In any case, the film was a financial failure. Or as Stone puts it: "the reception... brutal, and it didn't do anything at the box office... but I loved that movie."

(*The quotes by Stone are from this book, which I highly recommend. Image credits: All from IMDB.)

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Talk Radio by Bogossian & Stone

After making Wall Street and while he was waiting for Tom Cruise to become available for Born on the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone squeezed in a quick little low budget picture.

It was shot in Dallas, where much of the filming for Born on the Fourth of July would take place. This would enable Stone to get to know the place and the local film crews and facilities.

It would also enable him and his cinematographer Robert Richardson to get used to shooting in confined spaces, something they were planning to do a lot in Born, where Tom Cruise was confined to a wheelchair.

Talk Radio was the story of a disc jockey, so a large portion of the movie is spent up close with him bent over his microphone in the radio station.

This project also, to be candid, allowed Oliver Stone to satisfy his hunger for film making. Stone liked working fast and cheap. It was what he had done with his first two pictures, Salvador and Platoon.

Wall Street had been an entirely different beast. A big studio movie. Born on the Fourth of July would be another one.

But in the nine months between the one ending and the other beginning, Stone returned to his guerrilla film making roots.

Talk Radio was based on a stage play written by Eric Bogossian in which he'd also played the lead role. Bogossian was again the lead in the movie.
The play concerned a controversial DJ, what we'd now call a shock jock, but which then was something relatively new on the airwaves, and it took place during one program on one night.

Stone expanded the story in several ways. Most importantly he combined it with the true story of disc jockey Alan Berg in Denver who'd been murdered by white supremacists.

Although the film is firmly centred on the DJ, here called Barry Champlain, it also crucially deals with his callers, mostly disembodied voices — although one of them, Kent, a heavy metal prankster unforgettably played by Michael Wincott, turns up at the radio station.

"Those callers are the costars of the movie, and they're invisible," says Oliver Stone.* And they make an indelible impression in the course of the film, though not quite as indelible as Barry's assassination at the end, in a rooftop carpark.

The camera floats above his body, like his spirit rising upwards, then pans across the night time skyscrapers of Dallas in a masterful shot, overlaid with a collage of voices, as conflicted about Barry in his death as they were in his life. It's one of Stone's finest moments.

(*My deep dive into the films of Oliver Stone was prompted by a most compelling book, which was the source of this quote.)

(Image credits: IMDB.)

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Wall Street by Weiser & Stone

Continuing my deep dive into the films of Oliver Stone, this week I'm looking at Wall Street.

The first surprise for me about this movie was that it was Stone's very next film after Platoon. It's such radically different source material that I thought it must have been made years later.

But to Stone, the son of a stockbroker, this story was close to his heart. "It was really an exploration of my father's world, which I found fascinating."*

It's a world in which the fabulously named Gordon Gekko rules. Played by Michael Douglas, Gekko is a ruthless, shady and highly successful entrepreneur.

The movie is now a classic, remembered for the Gekko quote, "Greed is good." (Although like "Play it again Sam" in Casablanca, that exact phrase never actually occurs in the film.)

Gekko becomes a kind of dark-side mentor to the ambitious young Bud Fox. 

Fox is played by Charlie Sheen and, as with Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone gets a surprisingly effective performance out of his young leading man.

Having been at the centre of Stone's first two films, it looked as if Charlie Sheen might turn into a long term collaborator with the director, but Wall Street was effectively the end of their partnership.

Stone now speaks about him with some disillusion: "he wasn't looking to change the world... he really loved money...  and being in the Wall Street world certainly sharpened his appetites."

He also compares Charlie unfavourably with his father, the distinguished actor Martin Sheen. "I can't say Charlie... would make his dad proud... definitely more interested in money."

But maybe all this made Charlie Sheen perfect for the part of a young man who is seduced and corrupted by money and who lacks the integrity of his father and betrays his values.

Ironically, Bud Fox's father is played in the movie by Martin Sheen himself.

Co-written by Oliver Stone and Stanley Weiser, Wall Street stands up well. Some of the fashions have dated, of course...

And the allegedly cutting edge interior design of Bud Fox's luxury apartment, chosen by his luxury girlfriend Darien Taylor (Daryl Hannah), looks utterly ludicrous.

But then I remember thinking that it looked utterly ludicrous when I first saw the film in the cinema back in 1987.

Stone has described the movie as Pilgrim's Progress on Wall Street and it's a neat, tight story. Bud Fox desperately wants to win Gekko's approval and a place on his team.

So he gives Gekko inside information about the regional airline where Bud's dad is a blue collar worker.

The ploy works only too well, with Gekko buying the airline with a plan to gut it, sell off its assets and drain its pension fund (sound familiar?)...

Bud Fox finds that he has effectively destroyed his own father, and he belatedly realises Gekko is the enemy and takes action against him.

In a way, it's a retelling of the story of Platoon, with a young man caught between two father figures, both appealing, one good and one evil.

At the time of its release Wall Street was badly received critically and only received one Oscar nomination — a winning one for Michael Douglas ("in the part, in the movie, he surprised people," says Stone).

But as I say, the film stands up well and I liked it when I watched it again.

And I'd forgotten that Bud Fox doesn't get off scot-free, either.

He is crying like a baby as he is led out in handcuffs at the end.

Very gratifying.

Incidentally, this is not to be found anywhere in the movie, but I thought you might be interested in where Wall Street, one of the oldest thoroughfares in New York, got its name.

The wall in question was that of the stockade where they kept the slaves.

(*All the quotes by Stone are from the superb book which set me off on this retrospective.)

 (Image credits: Thank you, IMDB.)

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Any Given Sunday by Pyne & Logan & Stone

I am the last guy to take any interest in sport, in any of its myriad stultifying forms. Yet I was very pleased when my informal Oliver Stone retrospective brought me to this movie.

I'd always loved the title... It's so economical and evocative. 

It is actually an improvement of the title of a script called On Any Sunday by John Logan ("a really excellent writer," says Stone). It is telling that Logan wrote the movie Gladiator.

On Any Given Sunday definitely presents a gladiatorial view of the sport. (Stone says, "I played football in elementary school... I think I liked the violence of the game.")

But that John Logan script was just the starting point of this movie. It was then combined with a factual book by Robert Huizenga, who had been a team physician for the Los Angeles Raiders, and who exposed a lot of seamy practices in big league football.

In the movie there are two physicians, the senior being the wonderfully named Harvey Mandrake (James Woods), who is willing to pass men as fit to play even if they're likely to drop dead on the field.

Meanwhile, Matthew Modine plays Ollie Powers, the younger and more idealistic doctor who corresponds to Huizenga and who fights for reform.

But these two medics are just a small part of a big and complex movie, which is one reason that Huizenga didn't end up with his name on the writing credits — which go to Logan, Stone and Daniel Pyne.

Essentially the film is about Al Pacino as the ageing coach Tony D'Amato and Jamie Foxx as Willie Beamen, an inexperienced young quarterback who is given his big chance.

The movie is structured around five games just as, Stone points out, his Jim Morrison biopic The Doors was structured around five concerts.

"Each one of those concerts represents another stage of Jim's journey, as do these games for Pacino and Jamie Foxx."

But, as discussed on this excellent interview on the BBC World Service, despite being a very male oriented movie, On Any Given Sunday features some of Stone's strongest women — like Lauren Holly as Cindy Rooney.

She's married to Jack 'Cap' Rooney (Dennis Quaid), the senior quarterback whose serious injuries open the door for Willie Beamen. 

When Cap tells Cindy that he doesn't think he can stand the pain and pressure of playing any more... she punches him in the face.

And then there is Christina Pagniacci, the owner of the team, played by Cameron Diaz.

Unlike the female druglord in Savages, there was no factual historical precedent for such a person. "There was nobody like that — no female owners," says Stone.

And Diaz is a revelation. She was cast in the movie at a time when she was still principally known for her comic roles. But she is perfect.

And there's a classic moment when she comes into the locker room full of players after a game, looking chic and poised and collected in an elegant black Chanel dress while these gargantuan naked gladiators tower over her.

"She was cool as a cucumber," Stone says. 

It's an unforgettable image from a film that's full of memorable visuals — a practise machine throws a football soaring into a blue sky, a rainswept field full of muddy, dripping players heaves like a primordial swamp.

Like I say, I couldn't care less about sport. But I was utterly caught up in the fate of this fictional team and its vividly evoked characters.

(As with my other recent posts, the quotes by Oliver Stone are taken from this excellent book on him.)

(Image credits: IMDB.)



Sunday, 20 September 2020

Savages by Winslow, Salerno & Stone

I am continuing my survey of the films of Oliver Stone, but this week I'm veering away from his Vietnam trilogy (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Heaven and Earth) to discuss Savages, a more recent thriller.

Released in 2012, it's based on a novel by Don Winslow, who is a master of the thriller form. I discussed Winslow's novel, which is excellent, here, where I describe Stone's film of the book as "flawed but impressive."

Well, on a second viewing, I'm more impressed than ever but the flaw hasn't vanished...

Savages was adapted to the screen by Winslow himself with Oliver Stone, and Shane Salerno. (Salerno and Don Winslow had previously co-created the TV series UC: Undercover.)

It is the story of two young California cannabis entrepreneurs — pre-legalisation. 

Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a genius hippie botanist. His good buddy Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is a former special forces vet.

(Oliver Stone makes the interesting point that their characters correspond to Elias and Barnes in Platoon.)

Ben and Chon are involved in a triangular relationship with Ophelia, known as 'O' (Blake Lively).

The story begins when a Mexican drugs cartel moves in to buy a controlling stake in their dope growing operation.

When Ben and Chon refuse to sell, the cartel kidnaps Ophelia to apply pressure to them.

From that point on you can pretty much imagine what happens...

Following the example of Simon Moore's Traffik, the cartel is run by a woman, the slinky Elena (Salma Hayek), because her husband is indisposed. (In this case, dead.)

(Oliver Stone would probably dispute that Traffik was the inspiration for Hayak's character: "Women have always been involved in the drug trade... There have been some notorious female drug lords, just as there were notorious female pirates."*)

Elena's enforcer north of the border is the ferocious and frightening Lado (Benicio Del Toro).

And John Travolta plays Dennis, a corrupt FBI man working for Ben and Chon (and, it turns out, also the cartels).

This cast is exemplary, except...

Except in the case of Ophelia. O is the lynchpin of this story. She drives the plot, motivating Ben and Chon to great extremities to get her back.

And I do mean extremities. Ben is a Buddhist pacifist, but he is willing to burn a man alive to reclaim O.

Which means the movie is in trouble if the viewer doesn't believe the guys would care this much about O, or that she is worth it.

Well, the movie is in trouble...

None of which is to diss Blake Lively. I thought she was terrific in The Shallows (2016) and utterly magnificent in a very difficult and demanding role in The Rhythm Section (2020).

So I was wondering if she was simply miscast in Savages or whether her character just wasn't sufficiently well written. 

But when you learn that she was a last minute replacement for Jennifer Lawrence, who left Savages to star in Hunger Games, things begin to fall into place.

Jennifer Lawrence would have been vastly more believable as the catalyst for the hellish chaos that ensues. 

But even so, the underwritten part of O in the script doesn't help....

In any case, I never bought that the character was worth all the fuss triggered by her abduction. And I suspect that audiences all over the world felt the same.

Setting that aside — and it is a big ask to set it aside — Savages is a superlatively well crafted thriller.

And, unlike the novel, it has a happy ending. And I always like a happy ending.

(*The Oliver Stone quotes are from this superb book which is my motivation for the Stone retrospective.)

(Images credits: all from IMDB.)

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Platoon by Oliver Stone

Memory played me false with Platoon.

I recalled this movie as being overly sentimental. 

But in fact it's notably devoid of sentiment. The only trace is perhaps in the final voice-over of Chris (Charlie Sheen) reading his letter to his grandmother.

And even there it's not so much sentiment as a hint of grandiosity. And this is far from unearned.

Because Platoon is a remarkable film. It grabbed me immediately with its sense of reality, its virtuoso photography and its sure sense of situation and character.

Those characters are the naive young new arrival Chris — the proxy for Oliver Stone — and the two sergeants who represent the moral extremes of Stone's experience in Vietnam.

The evil Barnes played by Tom Berenger, a bull of a man with a terrifying scar on his face. ("A work of genius by Gordon Smith," said Stone of this makeup.)

And the good Elias, played by Willem Dafoe as a wickedly grinning serpent of a saint.

On the rewarding commentary track for this DVD, Stone astutely points out that until he cast these actors in these roles, Berenger had always been the good guy in the movies and Dafoe the evil one.

Both deliver expert performances. And Charlie Sheen is surprisingly good.

As with Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone elicits unexpected conviction and authenticity from his leading man.

Elsewhere, Kevin Dillon makes an indelible impression as an amiably murderous redneck psychopath with the utterly wonderful name of Bunny...

And Mark Moses is memorable as the equally misnamed Lieutenant Wolfe, the feeble and ineffectual weasel of a commanding officer.

I've already mentioned the peerless photography, by Robert Richardson, a regular collaborator with Stone.

As was Georges Delerue who wrote the music. Delerue is a genius of a film composer, but the tune everyone remembers from this movie is Samuel Barber's Adagio.

The production design, which has so much to do with the look and impact of a film, is by Bruno Rubeo, another Stone stalwart, who also did memorable work on Proof of Life and Dolores Claiborne.

Warning: spoiler coming up...

The death of Elias — which is immortalised on most of the film posters — pushes this movie into its final, lethal phase.

Chris and the other pot heads who hung out with the weed toking Elias are drinking to his memory in their bunker, hoping he is in heaven, "drunk as a monkey and smoking shit..."

When Barnes, Elias's murder, comes into the bunker and offers them a chance to kill him.

It's a scene of real dramatic stature and begins the countdown to the climax of the film — a ferocious and chaotic episode of combat that carries a powerful sense of reality.

Platoon is a great movie. I'm delighted that I rewatched it and had my opinion of it elevated.

I did so because I am enjoying an Oliver Stone retrospective, inspired by this superb book. So there will be more to come.

(Image credits: all images from IMDB.)