Friday, June 6, 2008

Sweet, sweet Oliver Stone hate

I didn't realize that Oliver Stone was doing a movie about George W. Bush. He's true to form, if nothing else. And that form largely consists of...the directorial equivalent of shouting at the audience for three hours (and three hours is a floor in terms of his movies' length). He doesn't respect his audiences at all to get his point (witness Nixon where Tricky Dick orders the Cambodia bombing while eating a rare steak, so that he has BLOOD ON HIS HANDS!). This is what passes for clever in Stoneland, and it doesn't look like the Dubya movie is going to be any different.

But Stone really has lost his mind looking at this cast list:
W stars Josh Brolin as George W. Bush, Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, James Cromwell as George Herbert Walker Bush, Academy Award® winner Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush, Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld, and Ioan Gruffud [sic] as Tony Blair.
Not one of those choices seems right. None of them look anything like the people they're portraying (Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell?! The Jeffrey Wright from Casino Royale who played Bond's CIA buddy Felix Leiter? The one who helped him stay in the game after he lost to Le Chiffre? Seriously?). Sure, I don't suppose they don't all have to look like the real people (though I think a 6'10 President George H. W. Bush is going to be interesting to see) but it's hard to see exactly why Ollie Stone thought, say, that Ellen Burstyn would make a good Babs. The personae of the Bush White House are ripe for fictionalization, but this is like a crazy, crazy joke, right? Like casting pretty boy Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great? Oh, wait...

I suppose I'm tired of Hollywood trying its hand at Bush agitprop. I'm tired of it largely because Hollywood sucks at it. Every time they try it, every time, they only succeed in reinforcing Bush's support among Bush lovers (although these days they would probably all fit into one theater) and they tell Bush critics nothing new. I sure hope that this movie does more than sneer at how dumb Bush is, because of all his crimes his infelicity with the English language is surely at the bottom.

As for Oliver Stone--why do studios still do business with this madman? He hasn't made a good movie since The Doors (JFK, if one wants to be extremely charitable). And Platoon, despite unquestionably being Stone's masterpiece and a Best Picture winner, really isn't that special overall. I mean, it's anchored by a Charlie Sheen performance. It seems authentic in its depiction of Vietnam, but it comes to no original or interesting conclusions about the conflict. Meanwhile, Stone's become a Hollywood fixture who still secures funding for big blockbusters that have uniformly been shitty money-losers for ages. He couldn't film a six year old's birthday party without turning it into a hamfisted political message, and a boring one to boot. Hollywood does seem to have basic reflexes to stop it from hurting itself--I haven't seen Jessica Simpson in a major motion picture for a while now, for example. And yet Oliver Stone, a man with no discernable talent who is, to put it charitably, a has-been that hasn't done anything worth seeing in two decades still makes a movie every other year? Words fail...

The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects was a film released in 1995 to some acclaim and has since become a cult movie. I was obsessed with the movie in high school, but upon rewatching it, my opinion has, shall we say, been lowered. Here's my revisionist review.

The Usual Suspects is a movie that has exciting action sequences, dialogue that recalls David Mamet's hard-boiled staccato verbiage, acting that is almost uniformly excellent--heck, even Steven fucking Baldwin delivers a solid performance--and, of course, a famous twist that is, as a matter of fact, as surprising and jarring and just flat-out brilliant as has been advertised. It also has no soul. The movie is an exercise in cynicism of the highest order. None of the relationships between the characters are particularly compelling, none of the characters has too much in terms of subtlety or nuance, and while these decisions can be justified by the film's denouement, the rationalizations actually solidify the point that the movie is hollow. Kevin Spacey's character quotes Baudelaire during the course of the movie, to the effect that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. The greatest trick that Chris McQuarrie and Bryan Singer ever pulled, on the other hand, was convincing the audience that The Usual Suspects is a movie.

Perhaps that sounds harsh, but it is true. These, ladies and gentlemen, are the facts of life (as pertain to movies):
  1. Movies are fictitious accounts of events, usually from the point of view of one of the characters or from the "eye of God."
  2. Movies contain characters who typically undergo struggles and have complex interactions with one another.
Okay, so there are probably more, but these two are the one's that interest me. For the record, to people who have not seen Suspects (and, hey, it's worth seeing once), this post is going to have a number of spoilers. Consider this a blanket SPOILER ALERT. Now, to continue...

The finale of Suspects involves the audience learning that the entire events of the film, as narrated by Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) are almost certainly invalidated. Kint is an unreliable narrator who dissembles enough to fool a Customs agent (Chazz Palmintieri) into letting him go, right before he realizes (along with the audience) that it's Kint who is the notorious Keyser Soze, a supercriminal whose identity had heretofore been unknown. It is a brilliant twist, largely thanks to the use of techniques like false foreshadowing and juxtaposition that makes the culprit seem to be another character, Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne). In fact, virtually the entire film builds up to what appears to be the unveiling of Keaton as Soze, when it's actually Kint, the supposedly trustworthy narrator. The film also provides the brilliant touch of making Kint a cripple, and thus naturally virtuous and trustworthy in the eyes of the audience, since disabled people are always slow and stupid, right? Everyone underestimates Kint, and that age-old assumption--that handicapped people must naturally be virtuous and good--is deployed to great effect. It's actually a fairly progressive message in terms of knocking down stereotypes, though the filmmakers RUIN EVERYTHING at the end when we learn that Kint was faking being a cripple the whole time. They couldn't commit to a crippled supercriminal because there was another commitment in play--the commitment to removing any doubt as to the identity of Keyser Soze, which is hammered home here with all the subtlety of an Oliver Stone film.

This is why we are here. The filmmakers can't follow through on such a promising idea because making Kint turn out not to be a cripple is essential in unveiling him as Soze. But it's not the only problem associated with the twist. The central relationships of the film are those between Kint and Keaton, and between Keaton and his lover, Edie, who has supposedly reformed Keaton. Neither relationship is especially convincing on its face. Kint and Keaton were supposedly friends, but there's hardly a moment of warmth between them. Keaton and Edie appear together in about two scenes, and there is never a moment when that relationship becomes real to the viewers. And this is not by incompetence, but rather because of the twist ending that necessitates the poverty of these relationships. Keaton has to be a dick to Verbal so that people will better swallow the idea that he's Soze, a man without friends who just used people for his own purposes. And the Keaton/Edie relationship is weak because it must be--the notion that Edie had really reformed Keaton undermines the false twist before the real end, because people will be more reluctant to think that he's all bad.

So, the relationships Keaton experiences are deliberately stripped down and unconvincing so that people will more readily buy it when the final shoe drops, but what does this tell us about the movie? The characters and their relationships are deliberately shallow, and there's just nothing much to recommend if you're a fan of characters, plus there's the little thing about most of this stuff probably never having happened, and almost certainly never having happened the way Verbal is telling it. There's nothing to latch onto in this film--there's no anchor. Everything is a lie. Which might be fine if there was some emotional import of all this sturm und drang, but there really isn't. The movie provides little feeling and has no heart, and repeat viewings, while perhaps providing more clues to the finale that had earlier been missed, only serve to underline the emptiness at the core of the film. People don't really matter in Suspects, relationships don't matter, what really happened doesn't matter. All that matters is setting up that big twist, which is so uninvested in the characters' motives and feelings that the impact is entirely cerebral. It certainly blows the mind, so much so that people will probably watch it and think it's a good movie because they were so entirely fooled by the twist. They don't know how right they are.

I suppose that one could dissent from this logic to say that I'm not being charitable to the movie. After all, entertainment is entertainment, right? The movie provides a little bit of a mindfuck to people without making them feel stupid for not having guessed it in the first place. It's a watchable enough movie, no?

Buying into this sentiment, though, requires that one concede that a movie that is little but a glorified con job, a masturbatory picture that exists merely for that mindfuck and that eschews the messiness that comes from accurately and honestly depicting human beings--that a movie that so readily brushes aside those things that constitute art can still have value. And I'm not saying that it doesn't have some value, because it is a movie that contains a number of interesting ideas. Technically speaking, it's virtuosic at every level. But the larger problem is not that the movie doesn't care about telling a story about people. The problem isn't so much that it's not art, but rather that it claims to be artistic. It's full of literary references, it takes itself completely seriously, and it's simply too well thought-out and meticulously planned to be anything else than a cynical con on anyone who watches it. The joke is on us, the audience. It's a "serious" film that has no interest in artfully showing humanity at it's best (or worst). It's the worst kind of con, too: we thank the filmmakers at the end for pulling the wool over our eyes. The rush that the ending provides feels similar to the sort of emotional resonance that one might get from watching a heartfelt film like, I don't know, The Elephant Man. Only The Elephant Man isn't trying to fool us into thinking that the reaction that a film provides is anything other than at face value. There's something deeply insidious going on in Suspects, and the con is executed so perfectly that one doesn't even realize it until much later, if ever.

I generally consider myself a cynical person, but this movie is a few steps too far for me: the film is hollow and manipulative in the extreme, with nothing at the core. The twist is well-executed, although the necessary precursors to make it work weaken the film to such an extent that it barely works as a genre piece. If one were to take The Usual Suspects, cut out the last five minutes, and show it to an audience of people, it is hard to see more than a few people enjoying the film. Despite some intriguing ideas, I must condemn Suspects as perhaps the most cynical enterprise upon which Hollywood has ever embarked. And that is saying something.