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.)

Sunday 6 September 2020

Born on the Fourth of July by Kovic & Stone

The last time I wrote about an Oliver Stone movie was in a post about Natural Born Killers. Looking at what I wrote now, I see I gave credit for that script solely to Quentin Tarantino..

That was unjust, since Oliver Stone was not only the director of Natural Born Killers but one of the other screenwriters. Certainly he left his personal stamp on that movie.

At the time I was going through an enjoyable Quentin Tarantino revival and mini film festival as the result of reading a new book about him.

Well, I am now reading an even better book about the films of Oliver Stone and that's set me off on a Stone retrospective.

First up, Born on the Fourth of July. This is the true story of Ron Kovic, a naive all American boy who went to Vietnam, suffered catastrophic wounds, and went from being fiercely and blindly patriotic to a ferocious opponent of the war with his eyes wide open.

In many respects this was also the trajectory of Oliver Stone, who volunteered to be an infantryman in Vietnam.

I had powerful memories of this movie — especially the squalid veterans' hospital sequences — and I wasn't disappointed.  

Essentially the story here is of Kovic's disillusionment. To set this up Stone begins with a long sun-dappled depiction of his hero's boyhood and adolescence. And I do mean long.

In my viewing notes I wrote, "The interminable pre-Vietnam sequence needs a chainsaw taken to it." 

However, I also wrote. "But Stone actually gets Cruise to act."

Yes, that's the big surprise here. Tom Cruise is a major movie star, but one doesn't associate him with depth or range of acting.

But in Born on the Fourth of July, he is startling and compelling.

And after the long and rather dull beginning, the movie never lets up and never goes where you expect it to go.

The surprises begin with the build up to the all-important high school wrestling championship which Ron must win.

He loses. And signs up in the marines on the rebound.

No sooner is he in Vietnam than he is involved in shooting innocent villagers and babies — "Very unfortunate," says his commanding officer.

Moments later he accidentally kills one of his own comrades in arms, Wilson. 

When Ron tries to unburden himself about this — "It was very confusing and I think I might have killed him" — his officer snarls, "I don't need anybody to come in here and tell me this shit."

So washing his hands of the whole affair, and leaving Ron struggling to deal with it.

He deals with it by attempting to be a hero, and receiving wounds so severe that the doctors tell him he will never walk again.

Ron defies them in classic Hollywood fashion by staging, through sheer willpower and physical striving, a rousing recovery.

But, in very un-Hollywood fashion, he takes a grisly fall, shattering his leg and ending up worse off than before.

From here on this is the story of Ron coming to terms with what has happened to him. At first he is content to return to his family and be the war hero in a wheelchair.

But Stone almost immediately undermines these sequences with harsh reality — Ron emptying his catheter before the big parade.

And soon Ron is questioning the simple minded patriotism that took his legs away, and is on his way to become a figurehead of the anti-war movement.

But first he has to make his peace with Wilson, the American soldier he killed. And he goes to visit Wilson's family and confess what he did. 

It's a tough, haunting scene, and probably the highlight of a distinctive and unsual movie that simply doesn't follow any of the predictable story contours. 

(Image credits: All from IMDB.)