Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The merits of a "minor" film

This is the latest in my Double Jeopardy series, which runs on Tuesdays. I'm revisiting certain underdog films -- films that I liked a lot, but other people did not -- and giving them a "second trial," to see if they deserve my support.

With accomplished directors who boast large bodies of work, there's a tendency to refer to their lesser films as "minor." There are a couple ways to interpret this word "minor" -- either the film had big ambitions, but wasn't hugely successful at achieving them, making it only good instead of great, or the film had small ambitions to begin with.

A good recent example of this seems to be Shutter Island, which was referred to by many as "minor Scorsese." I would argue, actually, that Shutter Island is a combination of both definitions of "minor" I've given above, which makes it kind of the perfect example of a "minor" film. On the one hand, it's a genre film, so that sort of makes it "minor" by default, considering the way Martin Scorsese has busted genres in the past. However, on the other hand, it had a largeness of scope to it -- just think of the grandiose helicopter shots of that island -- so it's also kind of a "big" movie that only halfway succeeded in its ambitions. "Minor Scorsese" to be sure.

I think you would agree that "minor" is not an insult -- in fact, sometimes it's not even a backhanded compliment. It just means you aren't necessarily going to discuss this film when surveying the major works in this artist's career. And sometimes, that's a good thing.

Take U-Turn. It is very definitely "minor Stone." And to me, that's very definitely a good thing.

See, Oliver Stone is a director whose every film is "major." The man almost always has some grand sociopolitical agenda. He's made a movie about the Kennedy assassination. He's made a movie about Richard Nixon. He's made a movie about George W. Bush. He's made a movie about Alexander the Great. He's made a movie about 9/11. And he's made not one, not two, but three movies about Vietnam. And those are just his films based on real events. This is to say nothing of the various messages and intentions in his films about fictitious subject matter.

So when he makes a little film noir set in the desert, like U-Turn, it feels like something of a relief from all this bombastic seriousness of purpose. We still get to see the filmmaking style that's so captivating -- kind of like a restrained version of Tony Scott -- without all the thematic baggage.

Yet U-Turn was widely dissed by critics. The site I write for gave it a 1 1/2 star review. Metacritic gave it a 54, which is not terrible, but is not up to the usual Oliver Stone standards. Could it be that people want seriousness and bombast from an Oliver Stone movie, or else they won't be happy with it?

So as I watched U-Turn for the second time last night, I was trying to pick up on what people didn't like about it. And couldn't.

I think part of the reason I liked U-Turn so much, when I saw it in the theater back in 1997, was that I thought it contained residuals from Natural Born Killers three years earlier -- one of Stone's most controversial films, which I consider a masterpiece, difficult to watch at times though it may be. Some of the most memorable passages of that film are set in the deserts along Route 66, the route Mickey and Mallory Knox take on their killing spree. Simply put, Stone's filmmaking style is a perfect match for the American desert. You can see the gritty grains of sand in his lens, the dueling stillness and violence of the American southwest, with its unrelenting heat and unforgiving lawlessness. The place is symbolized by its broken, dangerous characters and the kitsch of its roadside Americana, influenced by Mexican and Native American cultures. Simply put, it's as cinematic a setting as there is.

So Stone returns to that world through a low-level hood in a Mustang convertible, played by Sean Penn, on his way from Somewhere to Somewhere, having to stop in between at Nowhere (Superior, Arizona) for a blown radiator hose. Penn's Bobby Cooper owes a $30,000 debt to gangsters, who have recently taken two of his fingers as a warning. The payment is in his trunk, but it's not that easy. First, in an extremely long and unforgiving 24 hours, Bobby must get jerked around by a shady mechanic (Billy Bob Thornton at his scuzziest, in scummy coke bottle glasses), seduced by a local Latina (Jennifer Lopez, looking sultry during her pre-2000 run of very good film choices), punched and then propositioned by her husband (Nick Nolte, looking as grizzly as ever), eyeballed by a local sheriff (Powers Boothe), not-eyeballed by a blind Vietnam war vet (a nearly unrecognizable Jon Voight), held up for his duffel bag full of money in a grocery store (where his money ultimately gets destroyed by buck shot), flirted at by a local teenager (Claire Danes) and threatened by her sometimes-boyfriend (Joaquin Phoenix, all hot air).

The film is not only a noir, but it's a black comedy that is downright hilarious at times. (Especially funny are the scenes involving Danes and Phoenix -- when Bobby finally tires of Phoenix' posturing and starts pummeling him, Danes rushes to his side as he's crying like a little baby, and yells out at Bobby, "Yew killed him!") Like a prototypical noir character, Bobby is constantly getting beaten up in one way or another -- he collects all manner of scrapes, scars and bandages as the day goes on, and one recurring joke has him constantly unable to quench his thirst, as the old-fashioned soda bottles he's always popping open (purchased with his last few dimes and quarters) are forever getting knocked out of his hand for one reason or another. Stone's love for noir conventions are all over this film, as Lopez makes a perfect femme fatale who may be involved in a handful of double or triple crosses, as her various allegiances are revealed throughout the course of the film. And in what appears to be a direct nod to Chinatown, there's even some possible "She's my daughter! She's my sister!" incest here, and Nolte's character even looks a bit like John Huston. (And Penn's bandages remind us of the one Jack Nicholson wears for the second half of Chinatown.)

I like the filmmaking, too. The cinematography (by Robert Richardson) has a grainy, throwback look, and its used in perfect tandem with Stone's editing style, which often shows small pieces of the action -- close-ups, throwaway shots -- in quick succession, but not to excess. The film's style has its personification in the character of Darryl, the mechanic played by Billy Bob Thornton, who is one giant greasy tribute to poor hygiene and bad teeth. He's superficially harmless, but this hick has malevolence running through his veins.

So why didn't people like it? Not sure, exactly. I guess it might be 20 minutes too long, as it cracks the two hour mark. I guess it might not be exactly what you would call a feminist film, as the film's two main female characters are portrayed as slutty and devious, and are each on the receiving end of violence from men. But I would argue that this is a film where there's no one to cheer for, man and woman alike. For some people, that could be the ultimate reason they didn't dig U-Turn. For me, when done right, that can be the makings of the best black comedies out there -- maybe "noir comedy" is the appropriate term in this case.

And maybe by making this comment on the irredeemability of mankind, Stone is sending one of his usual "big" messages after all.

Double Jeopardy Verdict, U-Turn: Stone should find his way into "minor" territory more often -- as long as it's truly "minor," and not just a major film disguised as a minor film, like the disagreeable Any Given Sunday.


Simon said...

I've heard of this, but the combination of Sean Penn and Jennifer Lopez wouldn't sit well with me.

Vancetastic said...

Simon, does the fact that they both might have wicked comeuppances in the movie make you any more interested?

Simon said...

Do they talk during said comeuppance?