Thursday, October 14, 2021

1922



1922 (2017)

Dir. Zak Hilditch

Written by Zak Hilditch, based on the novella by Stephen King

Starring Thomas Janes, Dylan Schmid, Molly Parker, Neal McDonough



 

If you’ve been hearing a series of rattling thrums growing in intensity over the last few days, I have good news for you: it was just the sound of me revving up the ol’ CHAINSAWNUKAH to carve into another year of horror movies (we’ll return to our Oliver Stone retrospective in due time)! As you perhaps noticed over the course of the last year, my output of long-form reviews has dwindled significantly from the old days when I could count on cranking out a good 50 or 60 reviews over the course of October and November (and usually into December and maybe even the new year). But that doesn’t mean I’m not watching these turkeys, it just means that I no longer force myself to try and drag 1500 words out of some turd zombie flick that even its original makers didn’t think about that hard. Instead, I’ll write up a significantly shorter –but no less witty and incisive!—capsule review for the ol’ letterboxd accounthttps://letterboxd.com/Mr_Subtlety/. If you don’t follow me on letterboxd, well… why the heck not? Same great content, more digestible portions. Everyone wins! It’s like a SAW movie except instead of a convoluted death trap with a specious moral lesson, you’re just given the choice of trudging on with your dull, empty existence OR being privy to my enlightening opinions on, say, BACKDRAFT 2 (yes, they made a Backdraft 2. Yes, William Baldwin’s back!). And because they’re shorter than these long rambles on the blog, I can crank ‘em out like Stephen King!

 

Speaking of which, we begin our long-form journey today with one of the many, many, many things King has cranked out. To give you a sense of just how god damn many movies have been adapted from (let alone ripped off) his even more voluminous bibliography: seven days into the month, I’ve already watched three without even trying. And 1922 THE MOVIE (based on his 2010 novella of the same name, which appears in his collection Full Dark, No Stars) is among the more rarified company of movies adapted faithfully from King’s work. That means there’s lots of Stephen King-y-ness in this one, for better or for worse –and while that’s not by any means a categorically advantageous feature, I think in this particular case it’s for the better. Part of its advantage here is that you can count on Stephen King to embrace simplicity. Where modern media has increasingly become the exclusive province of high-concept, hyperactively overplotted, narrative-driven genre fare, King retains a zen-like ability to focus on the details of a simple premise. Like GERALD’S GAME or THE NIGHT FLIER, 1922 THE MOVIE doesn’t have a lot of story, and in fact this can’t even boast an outrĂ© premise like those two; basically, a farmer murders his wife and then gradually starts to feel haunted by what he's done, and that's it. But the meat of the thing is in the feel of it. It's simply a closely-observed but not necessarily realism-driven portrait of this particular guy, eager to get us inside his head and simply let us sit there as King and script-writer/director Zak Hilditch (RATTLESNAKE) run him through the ringer to see what will happen.

Now, about that farmer: I think it's probably necessary to preface this by noting that Thomas Jane (BOOGIE NIGHTS), in portraying this character, goes all in on a country accent just this side of Foghorn Leghorn, very much playing with the fire of unintentional comedy. I think he's trying to sound like Tim Blake Nelson (who they probably should have just gotten for this role) but he lands dangerously in the neighborhood of SLING BLADE. The accent is not, like, imaginary; I mean, it's not like Ewan McGregor or somebody just making up an accent which has never before come out of a human. And he’s at least consistent with it. But it's a lot of accent, and it's pretty jarring to hear it coming out of Thomas Jane, especially if you have ever heard him talk before. There are certainly some people who are not going to be able to make it past that basic fact, especially since he's narrating and therefore talking through almost the entire runtime. But although your results may vary, I eventually got on board with it.




The accent is maybe even appropriate in this case, because Jane's performance very much rests on a kind of faux-folksiness which is at the core of a lot of King's stuff, and is the key to understanding how to read him. King is not a journalist, and doesn’t seem to draw heavily on his own observed experience. He isn’t interested in interviewing farmers and spend six months working on a rural farm to get the details right. He’s interested in a simulacrum of simple rural America which has little to do with lived reality, but everything to do with a strand of romantic American storytelling that he and his work are steeped in. It’s not realism, but it’s certainly not frivolous imagination either; the storybook-simplicity of the protagonist (complete with broad, nonspecific “country” accent and omnipresent overalls) allows King to slip past reality altogether and tap into the fundamental tropes that underlie our cultural stories, and, grounded in fact or not, inform who we are. This gives his work a kind of mythic quality, and turns 1922 THE MOVIE away from the gritty contemporary docu-realism which is so much in vogue in the age of the digital camera --with its unflinching crispness and ability to capture real-world lighting, potentially evoking the world of youtube—and towards something quite different, a dark folk tale which uses its hacky artifice to draw turbulent and troubled emotions to the surface from the deep world of the collective unconscious. Farmer Wilfred* James doesn't strike me as someone you could encounter in the real world (even in 1922, which is when the story takes place, and I suppose as good a title as any) but he definitely strikes me as the very quintessence of the small-time farmer in American fiction. He is mythic, archetypal; the simulacrum of a certain subset of real Americans as filtered through a couple hundred years of American cultural soup.

Which makes this a portrait not so much of a person as of a certain strand of brittle Americana. Farmer Wilfred seems at first to embody a kind of paradigmatic American ideal. He's hardworking, humble, practical, quiet, skeptical of pretension and scornful of faddish frippery. The 'Simple Kind Of Man' that Lynyrd Skynyrd sang about, or, more ominously, the "forgotten American" that Trump idealized. But the unpretentious country farmer is only admirable until up to a point; when his wife
(Molly Parker, THE WICKER MAN 2006) brazenly challenges the small authority he does possess, something rather vicious and aggrieved rises to the surface --rather easily, in fact-- and before long he's convinced himself that murder is his only option. And crucially, he lets us know that the convinced himself is doing a lot of work here; this isn’t the story of a good man who makes a foolish mistake when backed into a corner. This is the story of a man who uses the false pretense of being backed into a corner to give himself license to unleash the violent retribution he’s been nursing all along. Who is able to tell himself a story about his own victimhood which is convincing enough to validate his seething anger and justify lashing out. Even with the accent, Jane locates the bitterness and impotent rage in this quiet agrarian, lets us see how his admirable qualities subtly transmogrify into monstrous ones in ways that even he --heck, maybe especially he-- doesn't understand. And indeed, it is his very inability to unpack his feelings that is at the root of this transformation.



I’m not sure what, if anything, was going on in King’s world in 2010 that made its way into this story, but in 2017, and especially 2021, one can hardly help but read this as a commentary on the roiling cultural tension of modern America. There’s a reason I felt compelled to name-check Trump back there; Wilfred James reflects a rigidly conservative strain of American thought. He is solitary, traditional, fiercely resistant to change (he doesn’t even have indoor plumbing) and contemptuous towards outsiders, especially the despised ‘city folk.’ The whole inciting incident, in fact, arises from his wife’s desire to sell their land and move to Omaha, Nebraska, a place he is convinced (with no discernable first-hand evidence) is a land of the debased and fallen. He, on the other hand, is dead-set on passing the farm down to their son (Dylan Schmid, HORNS), who is mostly ambivalent about carrying on his father’s lifestyle but is sufficiently besotted with the neighbor’s daughter to allow himself to be manipulated into becoming an accomplice. It’s telling that the son is only tangentially interested in staying on the farm; despite Wilfred’s empty assertions that he’s acting on behalf of his kid, we know it’s empty posturing. It’s not about misguided paternal concern, it’s about standing athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’ He simply wants things to stay the same forever, even after he’s gone, and he’s willing –eager, even-- to kill anyone who pushes back on that idea. It’s about control, about feeling powerless in the world and consequently pathologically defensive about his dominance among the few people he can control. But that just means he’s going to lose his soul first, and then lose everything anyway.

 

But I hasten to add, although the film is very much about this, it’s in no way an overtly political or didactic film. It’s simply a dark character piece, and a pretty exaggerated one at that. But that doesn’t mean it can’t still get at something interesting and valuable about the real world. I don’t want to overstate all this, but it just seems to me so intrinsic to, and yet so often ignored about, the reason we tell stories in the first place. The movie, unlike so much unbearable art from the last decade or so, has no interest in demonizing this guy or scoring cheap culture war points. It has no moral desire to condemn farmer Wilfred, who is, after all, a fictional character, and indeed, by adopting his perspective it even provides us reason to understand him, even sympathize with him. His wife’s snide imperiousness, layered with a subtle layer of condensation, is pretty abrasive, and it’s easy to understand why she is so loathsome to him, just as Parker’s excellent performance gives us all the evidence we’d need to re-imagine this story from her perspective. Of course she’s a little vindictive towards this stifling, selfish hayseed – but this is his story, not hers, and we need to understand his perspective to understand why he responds in the way he does. By simply placing us in the perspective of this particular character, we learn something about him, and, by extension, others who idealize the things he represents, and, to a certain extent, ourselves, since there’s certainly a part of us who can understand him. This is, I suppose, what people mean with the phrase ‘everything is political,’ in the sense that politics is just the expression of the way we want to organize the world, and the values that we believe should guide that organizing. But to my mind, this is a far, far better method to get at these underlying socio-cultural issues through art than the recent spate of genre movies which seem so eager to simply state the moral aloud and sit back and wait for the congratulations to pour in.



Which is good, because some thoughtful character work is all you really get here. There's a little sprinkling of gross corpses and ghosts and stuff (which may or may not be real, and it's such a small part of the film that it doesn't really matter which), but the horror is really more psychological. It's not a film about guilt, exactly, it's a film about decay, about everything --physically and spiritually-- in our protagonist's life falling apart the harder he tries to hold on, mostly because he's trying to hold on, whether or not he realizes that last detail. It wants us to go on this journey and simply experience it all, rather than drag the story this way or that in service of perceived genre goods. Which does not in itself sound like something that would make me happy; over the last few years, horror, or at least any horror with real ambition, has gradually just become drama with spooky music, not necessarily to the benefit of either genre. And you could very reasonably level the same criticism against 1922, which offers very little genre content you could point to; there’s probably less ghost content than Hamlet, which I doubt anyone would want to defend as a horror story. But again, the film’s willingness to go broader and more archetypal serves to its advantage; as horror has become drama, drama has increasingly become undramatic, focusing on intimate details of small stories, shrinking up into an actor’s exercise in minimalist realism. Something like 1922, with its baroque gothic affectations, neatly avoids that trap and simply delivers big, operatic, unreserved emotions. Not histrionics or camp, and not without nuance, but still far more extreme and outrageous than any self-respecting drama today would attempt, and it’s away to get away with it (assuming you think it does) by virtue of its willingness to announce itself as a horror story rather than a drama, freeing it up from the dull confines of naturalism to churn up some tumultuous human emotions into a larger-than-life frenzy which is more interested in the overwhelming way things feel than the mundane way they are.       

 

And in its unhurried way, it's pretty good at getting those emotions rolling; the performances are uniformly quite fine (as long as you can get on board with the accents), broad, certainly, but textured enough to feel specific and meaty, and the atmosphere is bolstered by some surprisingly nice cinematography by Ben Richardson (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, WIND RIVER), who clearly knows what he's doing in using the digital photography to get a lightly high-contrast, unobtrusively oversaturated effect which feels highly appropriate for the story's vaguely mythic affectation (making this a rare Netflix film which doesn't look implacably chintzy). The music, which I regret did not take much note of at the time, is apparently by Faith No More frontman Mike Patton, who, wow, I now see scored THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES also, which is weird. 

 

One might reasonably wish for a film this low-concept and generally lackadaisical about incident to get a little more aggressive with the style than Hilditch seems willing to do, but the drama is sturdy enough to make it consistently compelling, and sometimes it's maybe kinda nice to have a small-scale dark drama which has faith enough in King's keen eye for little details and complications which add character that it doesn't need to overthink things. I can definitely imagine this material feeling unendurably thin if you catch it in the wrong mood, but it mostly worked for me. Farmer Wilfred, you may be a murderous, conniving, unbalanced regressive, but I enjoyed spending this time in your head. Next time, though, maybe let’s do some kind of gimmick killer thing, huh?



* Everybody calls him "Wilf," which is weird; is it normal for people named "Wildred" to go by "Wilf"? "Wilf" sounds like the noise a dog makes when it smells something it doesn't like.



Friday, September 24, 2021

Salvador

 

Salvador (1986)

Dir. Oliver Stone

Written by Oliver Stone, Richard Boyle

Starring James Woods, Jim Belushi, Michael Murphy, John Savage, Elpidia Carillo

 

Holy moly, how in the fuck did Oliver Stone make this and PLATOON in the same fucking year? If there was ever enough cocaine in the world, there certainly isn't anymore.

Even more astonishingly, how did he make PLATOON after SALVADOR? Because even though we started our little retrospective with PLATOON, SALVADOR was finished first and beat it to theaters by a whole nine months. And SALVADOR is not just some kind of gentle warm-up that one might use as a step towards something more ambitious. It’s a war movie, a buddy comedy, an adventure film, a biography of a living person – co-screenwriter Richard Boyle, in fact—and a searing indictment of US  cold war meddling in Latin American governance, clocking in at a meaty and dense 123 minutes, and was nominated for two Academy Awards. Just watching it is an exhausting experience – imagine making it! Supposedly, James Woods was offered a role in PLATOON too, but turned it down because he "couldn't face going into another jungle with [Oliver Stone]." The fact that Stone himself had the stamina to pack up his camera and move on to the next project after something so massive is hard to wrap one’s head around. 



Anyway, there’s a reason to start with PLATOON: SALVADOR is unmistakably the weaker of the two films. But it packs quite a punch on its own. It documents the exploits of one Richard Boyle (James Woods, COP), a real-life veteran photojournalist (who also co-wrote the script with Stone) with a penchant for gravitating to the world’s most dangerous conflicts – Vietnam during the war, Cambodia during the revolution, “The Troubles” in Ireland—and a personal life so chaotic and irresponsible that his wife has just left him and taken their baby with her. Broke, drunk, and without any immediate prospects, he recruits his ne’er-do-well buddy Doctor Rock –his real legal name, as far as I can tell-- (Jim Belushi, acting somewhat conspicuously as the Dr. Gonzo to Boyle’s Hunter Thompson) and simply drives South, hypothesizing that he can scrounge up some freelance work in Latin America. When he reaches El Salvador, however, it quickly becomes clear that the country is reaching the boiling point, and that the US is secretly propping up ultra-right-wing nationalists who are on the precipice of a violent purge. Which is bad news for them, but great news for the masochistic Boyle, who quickly falls back in with his other wife and child –not the one who just left him, his alternate backup family back in El Salvador who he did not come here specifically to see but is happy enough to hang out with since he’s in town—and the equally insane but somewhat more functional war photographer John Cassady (John Savage, THE DEER HUNTER). At first, this is sort of a freewheeling ugly American travelogue, but gradually things take a darker turn as Boyle starts to get a little more personally invested in the situation and begins to realize just how dark things are about to get. And they do get quite dark. Especially as the stakes ratchet up and chaos descends in the second half of the picture, there's no mistaking the brain-melting intensity which Stone also captures so well in PLATOON and will only build on for next decade or so.


The difference comes down to focus; while PLATOON quickly finds its natural rhythm as a kind of heightened, operatic slice-of-life, SALVADOR is a little more all over the place, fiddling about for a while with some lead-footed buddy comedy thing that Stone has no aptitude for, sluggishly postponing any decision as to where its dramatic focus lies for far too long, and saddled with a much greater need for exposition as it shoots to define the entire local and geopolitical situation in El Salvador in 1979. Credit where it's due, the last of these three is pulled off with more deftness than you'd have any right to expect, as Stone communicates a great deal about the situation and how it got this way without a lot of clunky didacticism, but it still requires quite a bit of effort and screen time (SALVADOR is only three minutes longer than PLATOON, but it feels like a full mini-series worth of material has been covered).

And in the middle of it all, you've got James Woods doing perhaps his James-Woodsiest performance ever, which is, on one hand, a lot of sleazy, weasely, dirty fun to watch, but on the other hand, a lot to add on top of a movie which is already somewhat uncomfortably overstuffed. Thank God Jim Belushi is playing it pretty low-key (and disappears for long enough stretches to make one wonder why he's here at all). 



In an Oliver Stone movie, the way-too-muchness is usually more of a feature than a bug, but between the loud performances, larger-than-life central character, meandering narrative, large cast and angry politics, SALVADOR find his tendency towards overkill at its most ungainly. But ungainly is not the same as ineffective; inefficient, perhaps, but it packs enough raw power that a lack of focus doesn't doom it. It's the kind of film which is incapable of not having a ridiculously unnecessary three codas... but also the kind of film where they're all really great, even if it makes the pacing a little herky-jerky. And the fact that this huge, operatic, overstuffed epic was somehow produced on a dinky four million dollar budget is absolutely fucking mindblowing. Even if it has been Stone's only movie in 1986, it would still have been an obvious announcement of a real powerhouse auteur in the making.


Appendix A: Oliver Stone Studies
+PLATOON (1986)
+SALVADOR (1986)
+8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1986)
+WALL STREET (1987)
+TALK RADIO (1988)
+BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY(1989)
+THE DOORS(1991)
+JFK (1991)
HEAVEN & EARTH (1993)

Friday, August 13, 2021

Platoon

 

Platoon (1986)

Dir. Oliver Stone

Written by Oliver Stone

Starring Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe

 


This year, for no reason at all, I thought it would be interesting to revisit the filmography of Oliver Stone, a –shall we say controversial?—artist who throughout a lengthy and extremely productive career (he averaged two films a year for almost a decade in the late 80’s and early 90s! Albert Pyun could barely keep up with him!) has been alternately (and sometimes  simultaneously) glorified and reviled, hailed as the savior of cinema and the destroyer of it, called a shameless liar and a bold truth-teller, achieved spectacular commercial success and resounding box-office failure, been a humorless didact, a shameless provocateur, and a feckless showman, tackled subjects which range from ripped-from-the-headlines topicalism to classical antiquity to, um, football. And, most importantly, cast John C. McGinley is a whole shitload of movies. In recent decades he seems to have drifted into the wilderness a little, making a series of films which didn’t really seem to connect with audiences, becoming something of a dubious pro-Kremlin propagandist, and obsessively re-editing and re-releasing his 2004 epic ALEXANDER. But man, for a full decade between 1986 and 1996, the guy was absolutely untouchable, cranking out cinema which, whatever else you can say about it, is as fiery and passionate and ambitious as any mainstream filmmaker has ever attempted.

 

I reviewed his 2012 film SAVAGES when it came out, and took a look at his first studio film, THE HAND the next year (his directorial debut was 1981’s SEIZURE; after that he spent several years as a screenwriter, notching MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, CONAN THE BARBAIRAN, SCARFACE, and YEAR OF THE DRAGON before SALVADOR hit the screen in March 1986). But even though it marked his fourth film as a director and ninth film as a writer, I think it would be folly to begin anywhere but with his second movie which came out in 1986 (actually his third as a writer, since he’s credited as a co-writer on EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE). While SALVADOR beat it to theaters, it was PLATOON that shot to the top of the box office (its $136 million domestic gross made it the third-biggest film that year, trailing TOP GUN and, um, CROCODILE DUNDEE, and all that on a miniscule $6 million budget) and made Oliver Stone not just a household name, but a inarguable American auteur.


 

PLATOON was an incomparably perfect vehicle for Stone's strengths primarily because of its simplicity; unlike SALVADOR, which gets bogged down a bit in explaining the shifty mechanics of Latin American politics and US intelligence, PLATOON correctly assumes we already have all the context we need to understand the Vietnam war and be against it, and consequently focuses all its attention on communicating the subjective experience of being there, in it. Since Stone was “in it,” (just like the film’s protagonist, he dropped out of an ivy-league college in 1967 and enlisted in the US Army, specifically requesting combat duty in Vietnam, where he was wounded in action twice) he is enormously effective at cultivating a mountain of tiny details that feel authentic and meaningful and help make for an immersive, textured film about an experience which feels deeply truthful even when it's absolutely wild and histrionic a lot of the time.*

 

He is helped enormously by his cast, a veritable who's-who list of guys** who would become beloved character actors (Forrest Whitaker, Keith David, John C. McGinley, Tony Todd, Johnny Depp) and especially by Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger, both of whom bring a tremendous amount of specificity and personality to their two opposing characters who on the page probably read more like symbols (and opposing father-figures) than humans; Dafoe brings a touch of sardonic, mischievous danger to a character who might otherwise seem like a bland white knight, and Berenger brings a hint of existential pain to his sadistic villain, as though he genuinely regrets that the world has made him what he is. This allows us to believe and invest in the characters enough to make even the most outlandish, operatic drama hit hard rather than feel overblown and silly like it maybe ought to (see: the film's poster).


 

The movie also benefits in a way it would be difficult to overstate from the superb editing by Claire Simpson (who rightly won the Oscar for it) which is so astoundingly ahead-of-its time that the movie feels startlingly modern even in 2021. Well, except that today's version of this type of chaotic editing would miss entirely the storytelling precision Simpson displays here, and would be shot like shaky dogshit as opposed to the careful, unshowy mastery we get from Robert Richardson (he didn't get his Oscar for this one, but would end up snagging it for JFK, which is even more honorable). Simpson (who, like Richardson, had already worked with Stone on SALVADOR***) would go on to only one more film with Stone (the next year’s WALL STREET), but she would mentor her replacements (Pietro Scalia, David Brenner, Joe Hutshing and Julie Monroe, all of whom would enjoy multi-film tenures as editors on Stone’s films) and contribute immeasurably to the aggressive, borderline avant-garde editing style which would later come to define Stone’s work. But Richardson would stick with Stone for more than a decade, becoming the cinematographer on every one of his films up to 1997’s U-TURN. Between the three of them, Vietnam turns into something overstimulating and overwhelming, perfectly capturing the characters’ subjective reality through their simultaneously exhaustion-stunted and adrenaline-amped consciousness. And the genius is, this is all done without the movie feeling it necessary to make explicit that this is subjective on some meta-level: it just presents this as reality, because the movie is how we enter the world of these characters, so of course it's subjective. Proof that right from the start, Stone and his collaborators understood that in art, emotional truth is the only kind of reality that matters.

 

Still, there are perceptible traces of a filmmaker still finding his feet. Despite across-the-board excellent performances from the rest of the cast, Charlie Sheen (MAJOR LEAGUE) is fine as a blank audience surrogate, but brings very little to the role in a movie which is otherwise packed to the brim with personality. You could argue that it's important for this particular film to have a steadier performance holding the center while the craziness revolves around it, but you can be steady without being bland, and Sheen definitely tends towards the latter rather than the former. He also really struggles with the admittedly ludicrously overwritten voice-over narration, which is the one element of the film which is overblown in a way which feels cheesy, rather than heightened. Stone’s strength as a conjuror of intense subjective experience (and his dream-team of cinematic collaborators) is already present and accounted for here – unmissable, even. But perhaps he didn’t quite have the confidence yet to simply show, rather than tell, and his inability to get more out of Sheen (and his -perhaps consequent-- reliance on voice-over narration) are the one obvious sign that he still had room to grow.

 

Even so, the overall film is so focused and potent that few other war movies have ever been able to touch it. If the world had missed SALVADOR, they couldn’t ignore this kind of powerhouse. This was indisputably the work of a genuine capital-v Voice. You can quibble about the corny narration or its somewhat myopic foregrounding of Stone’s own perspective, but you can’t argue about its raw potency. It's a masterpiece by one of cinema's most ferocious auteurs, and whatever little caveats I have about this or that pale in the face of its righteous fury.

 




* Near the end, there's literally a shot where Tom Berenger has devil eyes, similar to the amazing deleted scene from NIXON which I just watched again to be sure and holy goddam, if that scene had played in theaters I am convinced it would have caused the movie DEMONS to happen for real. That shit melts steel beams.

** And it's all guys; I don't think there's a single English-language speaking part for a woman, which is just as well considering female characterization is not generally Stone's strong suit.

*** Which was only her second theatrical film after her debut as editor in… holy cow, C.H.U.D.!

Appendix A: Oliver Stone Studies
+PLATOON (1986)
+SALVADOR (1986)
+8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1986)
+WALL STREET (1987)
+TALK RADIO (1988)
+BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY(1989)
+THE DOORS(1991)
+JFK (1991)
HEAVEN & EARTH (1993)

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves

 


Robin Hood: Prince In Tights Of Thieves

Dir. Kevin Reynolds

Written by Pen Densham, John Watson

Starring Kevin Coster, Morgan Freeman, Mary Elizabeth Mastantonio, Alan Rickman

 

ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THEIVES (or, RH:PoT, as the hip online kids of today call it) begins in a Jerusalem torture chamber. The first faces we see close-up are the filthy, sadistic (but helpfully English-speaking!) visages of the dungeon's torture/amputation division, as they ply their trade on the miserable Christian captives of the failed Third Crusades. In fact, even after we get a look at the hapless Englishmen, we may not realize that one of the men we are looking at is our protagonist, because he's dressed in soiled rags and sports a beard and mane that would make ZZ Top jealous. These are most assuredly not merry men. Short of starting with the slug line "The Dawn of Man," there isn't much more a film could do to convey to us in no uncertain terms that this aint yo' pappy's ROBIN HOOD. Unless you were born after 1991, in which case, it actually IS your pappy's ROBIN HOOD, canonized with a Mel Brooks parody, no less. 

In fact, I got the idea to watch this one when I reviewed ROBIN HOOD, MEN IN TIGHTS and dismissively suggested it might be funnier if you were familiar with PRINCE OF THIEVES, which I described as "a movie that no one on Earth has watched in nearly a half a century." Well, as you can imagine, it didn't even take a full minute after typing that sentence before I was overwhelmed with desire to remedy that situation. Which was an unexpected sensation for me, given that I had never previously regretted passing on this movie when it first came out and everyone agreed it was a drag. Indeed, the movie was roundly criticized at the time for being too dark and serious. Ebert called it "murky, unfocused, violent and depressing," and went on to describe it as "gloomy" and Costner as "tortured." Vincent Canby called it "joyless" and slammed it for, um, "coming out firmly for civil rights, feminism, religious freedom, and economic opportunity for all" (apparently SJWs have been ruining all culture with their divisive politics since 1991 at least).


It was, in fact, arguably the origin --patient zero-- of the trend towards dark and gritty reboots which would become basically a full-blown cultural movement by the turn of the millennium. There were earlier cinematic* stirrings of this trend; John Boorman’s trippy, violent EXCALIBUR (1981) might be an example, and Tim Burton’s BATMAN from two years earlier comes even closer (especially in terms of how it was perceived at the time), but RH:PoT is much more beholden to some kind of faux-realistic affectation than either of those movies even pretended to be. People considered those films (and the following year’s BATMAN RETURNS), to be dark, but they’re certainly not “gritty,” which turns out to be a vital –although perhaps not quite as foundational as it might appear-- element of what would become the formula. “Gritty and realistic” remakes were not, of course, wholly unknown in 1991; Outlawvern commenter Pacman 2.0 noted the 1984 ‘this ain’t your daddy’s Tarzan’ adventure/drama GREYSTOKE, which definitely feels like it shares at least some DNA with PRINCE OF THEIVES in its self-conscious foregrounding of “gritty realism” within a pulpy premise. But it differs in that it represents an effort to return to the original (somewhat darker and more intellectual**) source material. PRINCE OF THEIVES has no definitive source material (the conception of “Robin Hood” and the related characters evolved slowly over centuries of poems, ballads and plays, all of which clearly arise from older folk traditions which predate the 15th-century records which survive today), and so can’t claim fidelity to authoritative origins. Or to any kind of established history, for that matter, which perhaps explains why it feints towards “realism” only in a few highly selective ways, more as a signifier that it ought to be taken seriously than as an honest attempt to grapple with this subject in any kind of real world context (there’s a magical witch and a Bryan Adams song, among other distinctly fantastical elements).

The “realism,” then, is mostly a facade, though it would prove to be of defining aesthetic significance in the films that later adopted the same technique. Fundamentally, though, PRINCE OF THEIVES, like EXCALIBUR, Burton’s BATMAN films or the later Nolan/Snyder superhero films, is banking not on authenticity, but on surprise: its ability to shock a complacent audience by intentionally undermining expectations about a universally known icon which has grown so familiar as to feel “safe.” It is, like many of the “dark and gritty” reboots that would follow it, a movie that is deliberately confrontational towards an audiences’ presumed expectations about the subject matter. The entire raison d’etre is to say “hey kids, this isn’t the old, boring Robin Hood your parents like! This is the real Robin Hood, brash, uncompromised, uncowed, the one your square history teachers don’t want you to know about! He shares your dangerous, rebellious disaffection, scares your parents, and just might be too hot for polite society to handle!” (it’s worth noting that the production company, Morgan Creek, had previously enjoyed some in-retrospect-utterly-inexplicable success with its similarly irreverent semi-revisionist Western YOUNG GUNS).



It is this pugnacious attitude, based on shaking the comforting perceptions of nostalgic figures (many associated with childhood) that I think critics were responding to back then; it’s not that these films are necessarily “dark” compared to, say, other 1991 alumni like PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS or SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (or even TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY, which is indisputably more violent and intense). It’s that the film’s entire modus operandi has to do with subverting our expectations about deep-rooted cultural icons which have persevered so long as to feel centering and stable and perhaps somehow “pure,” untouched by the messy world of adulthood –but also static, abstract and unthreatening. Challenging that can be uncomfortable in some ways, which is, I think, what makes it potentially productive in others: I don’t know how culturally valuable it is to perpetually reimagine the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles so they stay fresh and vibrant for future generations, but one can at least dimly imagine some value in taking the tale of Robin Hood –with its fundamental fury at wealth inequality and wholehearted endorsement of revolutionary resistance—and shaking off the cobwebs a little, rescuing the tale from being a harmless fairy story rendered toothless by rote repetition and restoring its subversive bite. And locating it within a cinematic “reality” featuring distinctive signifiers that point to contemporary relevance –such as the “dark and gritty” aesthetic which, at least in 1991, was a cue to interpret the material as serious and hard-hitting, as opposed to the idealized, theatrical affectations most of the kids in 1991 would have associated with the corny old Robin Hood movies of the past—feels like a legitimate strategy to that end. But it is, ultimately, a strategy, not an end in itself. So while the critics –including myself!—often find it convenient to describe this and similar films as “dark and gritty,” they are really doing something rather different just underneath the surface. It’s just that to do so, something like ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THEIVES combines both the calculated “darkening” of material popularly perceived as frothy matinee stuff for kiddies (like we see in EXCALIBUR and the BATMANs) with the “realistic” “grittiness” of GREYSTOKE (or the next year’s revisionist UNFORGIVEN) to add some visceral weight and punch to a basic premise which had perhaps been dulled and diluted through rote repetition.



This would, of course, prove hugely influential as a technique, in many ways becoming a defining feature of the way studios thought about revitalizing old properties in the subsequent years (though the effect was not immediate – by 1995’s BATMAN FOREVER, the studio was deliberately trying to lighten things up, and it wasn’t until the ignominious failure of the glibly comic BATMAN & ROBIN in 1997 that the tide really started to turn. And even then, you had the cartoonish GODZILLA remake in 1998 and the old-fashioned corniness of THE MUMMY reboot in 1999). It obviously it struck some kind of chord at the time, though; the movie was a huge hit. But in1991, it sounded like a bunch of pretentious self-serious garbage to me, and I never bothered with it.

Imagine my surprise, then, to finally watch the movie and discover thirty years later that it is in fact a completely different kind of garbage! All that fretting about the gloomy, intellectual new Robin Hood was bunk, probably a response to the studio PR machine more than the movie itself. Far from being a broody, intellectual bore, RH:PoT turns out, in fact, to be a movie which is almost maniacal in its desire to entertain. You can almost hear the producers screaming "There should be witty banter in EVERY scene! And constant swashbuckling action! And raw sex appeal! And sweeping, expensive spectacle! But also relatable aw-shucks human drama! And for God's sake, can we get some sweeping, triumphant music in here?" Apparently this is what "dark and gritty" was like in 1991. It was a time of innocence.

But just because it’s not actually dark and gritty at all doesn’t mean it’s not a labored mess, it’s just a labored mess in a different way. A better way, I should stipulate; its earnest effort to create constantly entertaining big-screen spectacle is appreciated in this age of lazy, jokey 200-million dollar superhero sitcoms. Whatever it is, RH:PoT is absolutely never lazy. It was a fairly expensive production for its time,*** and man, every penny of that budget ended up on the screen. The movie is jam-packed with incident, setpieces characters, elaborate sets and costumes. Unfortunately therein lies the problem; it's so damned fanatical about constantly ingratiating itself in the moment that it loses track of the big picture. It's a movie where fun stuff is constantly happening (fight scenes, evil monologues, Kevin Coster swimming in the buff, bonding, fighting, comedy, pathos) but the story never seems to build any momentum.



Or, perhaps, it spends far too much time trying to build momentum. Like many of its “dark and gritty” descendants (striking so, in fact, another way in which the movie proves shockingly prescient, even prophetic, about the shape of Hollywood franchises to come), it is cripplingly obsessed with the hero’s origins (a disastrous trend for narrative film, which would be kicked into overdrive with the STARS WARS prequel trilogy in 1999, but—crucially-- is all-but-absent from BATMAN). Hence, the torture-chamber opening; where previous Robin Hood films simply presented the familiar character fully-formed, PRINCE OF THEIVES wants to meticulously chart the course of how the character came by all his iconic trappings, from the bow to the Merry Men to the name. This takes quite a bit of time and exposition to accomplish, and even if much of it is solidly entertaining it seriously challenges the point of making a movie about Robin Hood, if for much of the runtime our hero is not yet recognizable as that character. “Robin of Locksley” doesn't become "Robin Hood" proper until well past the halfway point, and “Becoming Robin Hood” and “Doing Robin Hood Stuff” are two different story arcs which feel noticeably separate, related but not comfortably contiguous. The movie is burdened with so much backstory that once the pieces are finally in place, everything feels weirdly rushed, with the whole Hood-Nottingham conflict crammed into two huge setpieces in the movie’s back half and never given the chance to breath. When the big climax turns up (nearly 2 hours into a merciless 143 minutes**** -- apparently egregiously bloated runtimes for blockbusters are not wholly an artifact of 21st-century Hollywood) it still feels narratively too soon, like they already did a whole movie and then tried to cram its sequel into 50 minutes at the end. 

Still, credit where it's due: fun stuff is constantly happening. Even aside from the impressive action and production, it’s a hugely entertaining cast. Alan Rickman, as the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham (no Prince John here, which probably saves us a good 40 extra minutes of screentime, though at something of a cost to the story's central conflict), goes absolutely all-out mega-acting, to richly entertaining effect, and most of the rest of the cast is able to meet him at least halfway, leaning into the larger-than-life broadness of their characters. Costner makes for a notable exception; his decision to play the title character as a humble, intellectual man of action was the subject of bitter criticism when the movie premiered (with many critics comparing him unfavorably to Errol Flynn's breezy, swashbuckling take, which they apparently considered definitive). But today it seems like the obvious right choice, leaning into the actor's folksy everyman charm and allowing him to operate as the solid hub of a rather unwieldly and eccentric wheel. It's a little silly that he doesn't even take a swing at a British accent, (even Christian Slater at least tries. Or at least, I think that's what he's doing) but hell, it's a silly movie. Robin seems to become a hero because he has a nearly inhuman ability to find things to swing from in virtually any situation, like a 12th-century Spider-Man. If you can enjoy that, I don't think we really need to worry too much about the accent.


And I hope you do enjoy that, because swinging on things is very much the movie's idea of excitement. Which makes it kind of amazing that this friendly, silly, eager-to-please mainstream blockbuster was taken so seriously at the time. Despite its foundational role in the creation of the gritty, serious, realistic reboot… when you come down to it, it's hardly any of those things at all! There's, like, three nut-shots in the first half-hour. Costner and Freeman banter like Riggs and Murtaugh! Friar Tuck breaks the fourth wall! There's an out-of-the-blue cameo in the last 30 seconds! There's a huge fiery explosion that Coster has to strut away from without looking back, for Christ's sake! And I mean, it's cool enough when guys do that in modern movies where shit is exploding all the time; when the fuck is this dude in the 12th century ever gonna see anything that cool again? So double badass, there. 

Basically, I think the movie is a bit misunderstood. It's not so much an attempt to make things more realistic as it is an attempt to add a different texture to a familiar story, teasing a few new threads of meaning out of it, but mostly just having fun doodling in the margins with whatever the filmmakers thought might be cool. 

Obviously I'm in favor of that, and would like to correct the record on 1991's behalf. But if the movie is misunderstood or misremembered, I also can't necessarily say it's underrated. Like anyone trying too hard, it's not all that consistent, and a little exhausting to put up with. But it’s interesting that this fact is not what history has held against it – for better or worse, the movie, if it is remembered at all, is remembered for its pioneering, boundary-pushing “dark and gritty” approach. The fact that it self-evidently isn't either didn't matter, apparently; that was what people remembered about it anyway. Of Ebert’s complaints that the movie is "murky, unfocused, violent and depressing," the only one which is even a little true is “unfocused.” But in the movie world, perception is reality, and obviously even the timid gestures the movie makes in that direction felt significant enough to the contemporary audience to be hugely impactful – not just on the way they viewed the film, but as a potential lens to view any proposed remake or reboot. It is, I think, no coincidence at all that in 2010, we got another Robin Hood movie (this one directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russel Crowe) which leaned even harder in the direction of a “dark and gritty” origin story. After all, by that point, RH:PoT very much was your pappy’s Robin Hood – and the problem with its basic strategy is that it is by definition it loses its zest as it ceases to be surprising. And of course, you can only get so dark and gritty before the whole approach loses its impact. The next ROBIN HOOD, in 2018, took a wholly different approach, trying to mimic a very different set of aesthetic signifiers: those of the modern comic book blockbuster. All of which leaves poor PRINCE OF THEIVES as an orphaned relic of a bygone era, which blazed bright for a brief moment, and perhaps had a significant influence on the direction pop culture took in the subsequent years, but has as an independent work of art sunk into relative obscurity, even suffering the indignity of being eclipsed in the popular consciousness by its own parody, which is today almost certainly more frequently watched and better remembered.

But at least I respect its hustle. If more movies had tried to imitate that, rather than its alleged gritty realness, blockbuster history might have been shaped for the better. But oh well, at least we'll always have the merchandise

And, I'm sorry to remind you, a truly dire Bryan Adams song. 

 


 


* Comic books had been going in this direction for some time, since at least Frank Miller’s 1986 sweaty, fascistic grimdark The Dark Knight Returns. By the 1990’s, gritty anti-heroes like Venom and Spawn would be the rule, rather than the exception. But movies were slower to follow, flirting with the florid nihilism of comic books throughout the 90s but struggling with how –or if—to translate that energy to the big screen.

** Or so I’m told. It’s Edgar Rice Burroughs, so I feel like there’s probably a limit on how “dark and intellectual” it could be, but the consensus seems to be that GREYSTOKE is, in both tone and substance, much more faithful to the source material than previous adaptations had been. I’ll have to take their word for it since there’s no way in hell I’m reading 1912’s Tarzan of the Apes. Right? I mean, of all the things in the world to read, why would I read that? I mean, I guess, it probably would be interesting as a cultural artifact. And it’s probably pretty short. Oh shit, should I read 1912’s Tarzan of the Apes? It does sound like the kind of thing I would do, now that I see it in written out in black and white.

*** Though at $48 million, hardly record-breaking; 1989’s BATMAN had cost only a little less, and TERMINTATOR 2 cost twice as much. Only a scant four years later, Costner’s own WATERWORLD would cost $172 million.

**** And there’s also a 155-minute “extended edition,” which apparently contains even more exposition about whatever supernatural conspiracy the Sheriff of Nottingham is on about.

 

Friday, June 11, 2021

Batman Forever

 


Batman Forever (1995)

Dir. Joel Schumacher

Written by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchlet, Akiva Goldsman

Starring Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Chris O’Donnell

 

In which America sanctions a surprising amount of buffoonery.


You’ll notice I did something unusual in watching these 20th-century Batman movies: I watched both pairs (the Burton duology and the related-but-distinct Schumacher duology) in reverse order, starting with the later film and then checking out the earlier one. This was somewhat happenstance, but it turned out to be an interesting way to view them: the rap on both duologies is that they each began with a somewhat staid first movie, while the second became a near-parodic catalog of the respective directors’ personal fetishes, to their detriment. Watching in reverse order, with the full expression of auteurial excess already on display, we can perceive more clearly what is absent from the first movie, rather than focus on the continuities between them.

 

All of which makes it kinda hilarious, in retrospect, that people loved BATMAN FOREVER when it came out and hated BATMAN & ROBIN two years later, because I can't help but notice that they're basically the exact same fucking thing. Same neon hellscapes, same duo of furiously over-acting villains, same incessant campy corniness, same nightmarish overproduction. Hell, even the Bat-nipples, so strenuously derided by the time BATMAN & ROBIN rolled around, were already clearly in evidence.* Everything people claimed to hate in the sequel was already omnipresent here.

 

There is one key difference, though: while BATMAN & ROBIN was obviously written as a comedy, FOREVER seems to have been written more or less earnestly... it's just played for comedy. Relentlessly so. As Ebert’s contemporary review remarked, “there was a feeling after ‘Batman Returns’… that the series had grown too dark and gloomy,” and one feels the movie self-consciously course-correcting in nearly every scene. Nothing is allowed to play out without being immediately undercut by some desperate mugging, even when there’s nothing even resembling a joke in the script… which is most of the time! BATMAN & ROBIN had terrible, corny jokes, but at least they were, unmistakably, jokes. FOREVER seems to have become a comedy more out of anxiety over being perceived as too serious than out of any apparent plan to be funny per se, but the result is that regardless of the actual story, nearly everything that happens is presented as if it was funny.




 

And this is a huge problem, because the only person who is ever even remotely funny is psychotic bat fetishist Nicole Kidman, who's playing her daffy character 100% straight, and seems to be the only person who isn’t aware of the buffoonery playing out around her. But this is at most a mild grace note, and is almost immediately drowned out by the maniacally overacting villains, in the form of the unlikely duo of Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey. Of the two, Carrey sucks up the most of the film’s attention; he is pitched at a frequency that can only be described as "the brown note," and is absolutely inescapable here, constitutionally unable to resist screaming and doing a weird voice and doing a wacky dance and running through sixteen different facial expressions and striking a comic pose and throwing in some kind of dumb joke, all while wearing an outfit that would make Cher blush. It's screeching, fingernails-on-a-chalkboard anti-entertainment, and it sucks up every single molecule of oxygen in the film, stopping the film dead in its tracks every time he's on-screen, which is constantly. Meanwhile Jones is so monotonous in his over-the-topness that he basically vanishes into the background, which is a pretty fitting description of the entire movie. If everything is turned up to 11, nothing is.**

 

A Batman movie is gonna live or die on its villains, and so FOREVER was doomed before it even began. But there's one other major problem on top of all that: I feel weird saying this, but for a movie so histrionic, its main problem is that nothing very interesting happens. The movie has many elaborate sets (MVP Barbara Ling of BATMAN & ROBIN infamy is doing basically the same thing here, just on a slightly smaller scale) but it has amazingly few set pieces. I’m not convinced that Batman himself does even a little bit more superheroing than he does in the infamous low-action Burton duology. It’s an oddly inert story, yet pitched at a manic tone – a mismatch that makes the whole thing feel like huge engine which is constantly revving but never drives anywhere. BATMAN & ROBIN, for all its many flaws, at least uses its garish silliness to do fun stuff. FOREVER just kind of sits there, yelling at you. 


 

So how to explain, then, the general positive response this one got at the time? Looking back, it’s a real head trip to see apparently sane people like Ebert treating this more or less as a normal movie, pointing out themes and motifs and stuff as if any of that mattered even a little bit, commenting that “Schumacher makes a generally successful effort to lighten the material” and (incorrectly) that there are “lots of laughs for the Riddler.” Everybody seems to have just accepted on faith that this was basically a normal Batman movie with a slightly lighter tone, rather than a weird camp parody which makes the 60’s Adam West Batman look solemn and dignified by comparison. I can only conclude that the mainstream still didn’t have an entirely clear idea of what camp was, or a solid idea about what a comic book movie should be – and so they simply took the script and the marketing department’s word for it that this was basically a serious Batman film with a little bit of silliness to lighten the mood. Its sequel made the mistake of assuming the audience was in on the joke, which apparently they were not, and did not appreciate being enlightened (perhaps because of the unavoidable implication that if they missed it the first time, the joke was on them). It seems crazy, but I don't have another explanation. We forget, sometimes, to what a shocking extent an audience can simply be told what to think of art, even when there’s a mountain of contradictory evidence sitting right there in front of their eyes.

 

Still, the degree to which you can tell an audience what to think has a lot to do with time and place. If you're going to gaslight them, you need to keep gaslighting them, and the subsequent sequel kinda blew it by owning up to its own silliness. Which means that in retrospect, people taking this movie seriously seem outright insane, and people enjoying it seem misguided to the point of outright fraud. Needless to say, BATMAN & ROBIN is not a good movie either, but it at least has the benefit of being entirely one thing. FOREVER, trapped between a script with no jokes and a tone so bracingly shrill that it can only play as comedy, doesn’t even have that solid foundation to fall back on. It’s all but unwatchable, a bizarre pileup of contradictory corporate notes, frantic and flop-sweating without ever producing any actual energy or momentum.*** The only appropriate response to a such a monster is the response Jones apparently had to his insufferably mugging co-star: “I hate you. I really don’t like you… I cannot sanction your buffoonery.”






 

* Schumacher later grumbled, “The bodies of the suits come from Ancient Greek Statues, which display perfect bodies. They are anatomically correct.”

100% medically accurate
 

** The heroes vanish into the background so completely that they're not even worth mentioning, except that at one point Robin does his laundry using karate. And even that isn't quite able to reach the level of sublime dumbness that it should, thanks to its manic, disruptive editing.

 

*** Interestingly, there is a fabled SnyderCut-esque “Schumacher Cut” which is reported to be less campy and more serious, potentially actually delving a little into the script’s fleeting lip service about Batman’s psychology (which intrigued Ebert enough that he opened his review by addressing it!). It’d be interesting to see, and basically anything with less Carrey and O’Connell could only be an improvement, but the essential problem that the film simply lacks incident and momentum seems unsolvable to me. We’ll see #ReleaseTheSchumacherCutIGuess         


APPENDIX A: Various Batmans or Batmen
BATMAN (1989)
BATMAN FOREVER (1995)
BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
BATMAN VS SUPERMAN (2016)
JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017 / 2021)
THE BATMAN (2022)