Monday, February 22, 2010

U-Turn (1997)

Oliver Stone has made a career out of dramatizing real events and almost never stops just to tell a story. Even Any Given Sunday and Wall Street are meant to expose our cultural institutions. I really enjoy his presidential trilogy (JFK, Nixon, W.), whereas his Vietnam trilogy is a bit hit or miss, with Platoon, a bona fide masterpiece and Best Picture winner, leaving nowhere to go but down in subsequent efforts Born on the 4th of July (it reeks of apple pie and cheese and I find it nearly impossible to watch Tom Cruise in anything but Magnolia these days) and Heaven and Earth (which I remember being painfully dull in my first and only viewing some ten years ago). It's the odd man out films in his oeuvre that I find easiest to love but they also are easy to overlook in context of the other more outspoken cinematic history lessons he's known for delivering. These are the rare character driven films that are just there to tell a solid story without the polarizing impact and creative limitations of the biopic genre. Two such films are 1987's Talk Radio (which I hope to get to some other day) and 1997's U-Turn.

U-Turn was Stone's next film after the brilliant (and as they say "highly controversial") films Natural Born Killers and Nixon. U-Turn, on a certain level, feels like a film he made to further explore the new visual techniques he had been developing in those two prior films, a sort of thinking man's MTV editing style full of odd angles, filters, saturated colors, varied levels of film grain, etc. You get slightly different performance takes sometimes, or a quick cut to some sort of archival footage, or in this case, the captivating splendor of the Arizona landscape. There were hints of it in JFK and The Doors, Natural Born Killers of course blasted the lid right off and Nixon was an excellent hybrid of his more traditional and wild visions. This style, in the hands of a master, is a magnificent, immersive sensory experience. Stone is a smart collaborator as well, in this case employing the legendary Ennio Morricone (who I'm familiar with mostly for his work on several Brian DePalma films, most famously The Untouchables). The film also boasts one of the most outstanding ensemble casts ever outside of a Robert Altman film.

“You think bad, and bad is what you’ll get” says Darrell (an amazing turn from a virtually unrecognizable Billy Bob Thornton) to our protagonist Bobby (an especially spot on performance from Mr. Sean Penn). At some point in my third or fourth viewing of the film, those words stood out to me as truly being the central theme of the film. Self-fulfilling prophecy is the game our “hero” is playing and while it’s easy to look at his experiences as a series of bad luck encounters (which on a certain level they are), a keen eye will detect something else going on here, a tale of karmic debts. Sean Penn plays likeable pricks with a singular flair. He's got a true gift for antagonizing people (even when playing someone sympathetic like his Oscar winning turn as Harvey Milk). Here he plays a former tennis pro who is on the run due to a gambling debt which, as we soon learn, has already cost him two fingers and is quickly claiming whatever's left of his ethics and integrity as he spirals out of control down the drain of bad karma and worse luck. This piece would grow ten times longer if I discussed all the actors and actresses and what films of theirs I like, but let me quickly entice you with the following names; Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Lopez, Jon Voight, Claire Danes and especially the aforementioned Billy Bob Thornton. It's a rough crew of shysters to be sure.

We get a glimpse of how uniquely doomed our hero is within the first 5 minutes when he not only crosses, but actually runs over a black cat and subsequently has his car instantaneously fail him mere seconds after he angrily shouts "fuck you" to a passing cop. There's a school of thought that encourages people to envision their goals and make their dreams come true through the power of positive thinking. The suggestion in this film (going back to that bit of free advice from Darrell the auto mechanic) seems to be that acting the opposite ("thinking bad") can cause the world around you to sling as much mud your way as humanly possible. Penn's character seems to egg on his fate and bring about his own disasters through his prevailing hostility, deception and overall bad manners. As he sits in his damaged car, Bobby quite literally finds himself at a fork in the road, the closest town is the ironically named Superior, Arizona, an off the grid type desert (and deserted) town where Darrell is the first resident we have the displeasure of meeting. I really can't say enough good things about Thornton's hilarious and slightly arch performance (and as an added bonus, fan's of musical group WEEN will recognize the sounds of "Piss Up a Rope" from their country album and have an instant feel for the kind of swarthy but playful mischief we have in store). Penn's prized 1964 1/2 Mustang Convertible has blown a radiator hose...and it will take a while to be ready. Not wanting to spend a moment longer in the company of Darrell, Penn walks into the thriving metropolis of downtown Superior.

Arriving in town, the film takes one of its few missteps as we have our first encounter with the blind prophet, a tired cliché not improved upon by Jon Voight's hammy Native American impersonation. Someone really needs to tell him that cheap accents and an unusual hairpiece do not in and of themselves count as acting (a lesson I would much more kindly suggest to Nicolas Cage as well). Still, the dialogue given to the character and the lessons he espouses are solid enough and Voight's mishandling of the performance does little to detract from the film as a whole. It is an intricately woven tapestry of a particular brand of small town life. The kind of swept under the rug dustbowl communities that feel entirely alien, populated by characters both immediately familiar and simultaneously, highly exaggerated and surreal. There's a kind of live wire manic energy coursing through the film, a constant forward momentum. Our "hero" is plunging headlong into the abyss of his own soul.

Fortunately (in 1997 at least) he has Jennifer Lopez to keep him occupied. She has never again approached being as interesting, sexy and dangerous as she is here in the guise of femme fatale Grace, a well written role with shades of Chinatown's Evelyn Mulwray. She's the young wife of town real estate mogul Nick Nolte (in full on grizzly bear mode here, aggressively chewing the scenery). She's also the object of lust for everyone who meets her it seems, from the town Sherriff (Powers Boothe) to, of course, Penn himself. If her later work in a slew of B-movies and nauseating pop tunes failed to convince you, there is a reason J. Lo's a star. I mean, I love Money Train as much as the next man but I've never been sold on her acting prowess. I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that it's the director bringing out the best in a performer like when Martin Scorsese guided Sharon Stone to her one and only brilliant turn as Ginger in Casino.

What I suppose you'd call the main plot begins after Nolte's angry husband bursts in on his wife Grace about to quickly advance from a stranger to a lover with Penn's drifter. After being punched in the face, Penn storms off back toward town but is promptly picked up by his assailant, Nolte, who makes an unsavory proposition. Would Bobby be willing to kill Grace in exchange for the princely sum of $50,000? While she may have pissed him off a bit with all the hot and cold behavior and mind games, Bobby doesn't need the money per se. He's got that and much more in his backpack. Money that's supposed to pay off the gangsters that cut off his fingers, money he quickly loses as Superior, Arizona's town grocery store is robbed at gunpoint, fate intervening and ultimately leaving a pile of bloody shredded money lying on the floor. So, now that he's desperate and has gangsters in hot pursuit can he dig deep enough into his damaged soul to find the murderer that Nolte spotted right away? Or, if Bobby can weasel around just short of murdering people, as double cross after double cross comes down, can he walk away with the money, the girl and his life? Or any combination of the 3 for that matter?

I've mentioned a surprise or two already but have stopped short of getting near the final act of this film or the many wonderful moments that occur along the way (Joaquin Phoenix as Tobey N. Tucker/TNT is, in these 5 minutes, doing the best work of his career as far as I’m concerned). So go see it will ya? It's a truly rare piece of cinema and one in a short list of films that manages to be a solid, entertaining genre picture on one level and a powerful, spiritual, brain tickler on the other. Grade: A- (knocked down a peg for giving Jon Voight's irritating character 3 or 4 times the screen time of "TNT" who I could frankly watch an entire movie about).

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

So, I'm going to go ahead and sign off on Matt Damon being the real deal. I suppose this is a fairly common opinion anymore, mostly in the years since Jason Bourne came to the silver screen. By all accounts he's a nice guy in real life and he's slowly built up a resume that showcases a true lack of vanity and a depth of emotional and physical range that I believe will have him entertaining audiences for years to come. I've seen him be hilarious in the slightly underrated comedy Stuck On You (which I must note also features an amusing turn from the incredibly underrated Greg Kinnear). I've seen him in his star making turn as the sensitive genius Will Hunting (and his subsequent fight to prove it's success wasn't a fluke...something Ben Affleck is still on trial for in the court of public opinion). I saw him, along with chuckling cohorts Clooney and Pitt, having significantly more fun than the audience in the Oceans films (although the chemistry between this crew is undeniable). I'm not necessarily proud to admit it, but I even remember him from the Brendan Fraser melodrama School Ties. The list goes on to include the universally beloved Bourne Trilogy, Courage Under Fire, little cameos in Kevin Smith films (a larger role in Dogma after he was a marquee name of course), Private Ryan, Rounders, The Rainmaker, Syriana and his recent, outstanding turn in The Departed. My favorite Damon performance of all, the one that keeps getting richer and richer every time, is that of Tom Ripley in 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley (or as the credits show, The Mysterious Yearning Secretive Sad Lonely Troubled Confused Loving Musical Gifted Intelligent Beautiful Tender Sensitive Haunted Passionate Talented Mr. Ripley, which would have been a better title if it was the least bit practical).

The Talented Mr. Ripley was not at all embraced by audiences when it came out. Damon was hot off of Good Will Hunting's recent box office and Academy Awards success. Saving Private Ryan was a hit but he was only a small (but crucial) part of it's success, Rounders I remember seeing and enjoying and feel like it had a decent critical reception but only lukewarm box office receipts. The late Anthony Minghella was following up his Best Picture and Best Director wins for The English Patient as well. There was every reason in the world for people to flock to see this masterpiece. I suppose it was just one of those typical pop culture moments where people seemed anxious to knock a rising star off his pedestal. Much like my prior featured film The Beach, this is an example of a serious actor trying to shed his pretty boy image as quickly as possible. In Damon's case, he chose to play a closeted homosexual serial killer and all around sociopath and in both cases, it seems their teenage girl fan base was not pleased.

As I mentioned in terms of Damon's performance, Ripley the film also gets richer and reveals more and more detail every time I watch it. It's one of those rare films where seeing it the second, third and fourth time, with the knowledge you now have of the character, reveals the numerous wonderful details threaded through Damon's brilliant performance. It reminds me of how much more exciting Kevin Spacey's performance is with each subsequent viewing of The Usual Suspects. We meet Tom Ripley as he is impersonating a piano player (the fact that he's impersonating someone else is a blink and you'll miss it kind of revelation that hints at a pattern in Ripley's life before the events of the film). He strikes up a conversation with Herbert Greenleaf (one of my favorite character actor's, Mr. James Rebhorn who I believe I mentioned in my Cat's Eye write-up from his appearance in the James Woods section and who you may remember as the "actor" Sean Penn's character kidnaps and uses to get into the secret headquarters in The Game or as Dr. Larry, DeNiro's friend in Meet The Parents who first appears in the breakfast scene when Stiller wakes up late). Greenleaf ends up hiring Tom for an unusual assignment. He wants him to go to Italy and convince his free spirited, jazz loving son Dickie to come back home. Ripley starts studying up on jazz records and makes his way overseas where he "runs into Dickie" on a beach and claims to know him from Yale. Dickie, as played by Jude Law is an incredibly magnetic, dynamic and charming young man. You can see why people are so drawn to his charisma, his good looks and his talent. Yet he too has his demons including being perhaps too careless with the fragile hearts of the many who depend on him for love and fulfillment. Jude Law has been on my radar ever since this dynamic performance and I've enjoyed him in Existenz, I Heart Huckabee's, The Aviator and another future blog entry Road To Perdition. I've heard nothing but great things about his work as Watson in the new Sherlock Holmes film as well.

The other main character in this love triangle (or perhaps quintangle when all is said and done) is Dickie's girlfriend Marge, who is inhabited by an especially wonderful and compelling Gwyneth Paltrow. Anthony Minghella must have enjoyed my prior blog entry Hard Eight as Paltrow is one of 3 performers, along with Philip Baker Hall and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who appear in both films. As long as we're gushing here, I will add that this is one of my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performances as well. As Dickie's fellow spoiled, millionaire, globe trotting 1950's playboy friend Freddy Miles, he shreds the scenery with his razor sharp shots at Tom, who he immediately sees right through and despises. Tom, you see, while failing Dickie's father, manages to insert himself very quickly into Dickie's life as a sort of live-in man servant and "best friend". But, as Marge explains to Tom later in the film, Dickie can make you feel like the center of the universe, like the sun is shining just for you and then leave you freezing in the cold when he takes that sunshine away. Much like DeNiro's Rupert Pupkin character in Scorsese's criminally underrated King of Comedy (a guaranteed future blog entry), Ripley genuinely loves and admires Dickie and desperately wants that respect and admiration in return, while simultaneously feeling entitled to have the things Dickie has and to be embraced by people the way Dickie is (and to occasionally prance around in Dickie's clothes and slippers when no one's looking). However, you can also see, in both Pupkin and Ripley, a sort of deep hatred of these men they have placed up on a pedestal (and both ultimately resort to violent acts as well).

The film really gets moving as a tension fueled nightmare as Dickie starts seeing cracks in the surface of this new relationship and unleashes verbal abuses on an increasingly clingy and pathetic Tom who, in the film's most gut wrenching sequence, violently murders Dickie, spends the night cuddling with the dead body and then goes on to begin impersonating Dickie around town. An act which helps him evade the law, helps him live the life he always wanted and helps him deal with the grief of losing his object of obsession by acting (and in a way believing) as if he is still alive. As I mentioned in my Blood Simple piece, I love getting swept up in the nerve jangling ride of a character's tangled web of lies. I feel feelings of pity and sympathy for Ripley at times and, just as often, I feel disgusted, absolutely revolted by his sick desperation and annoying third wheel persona. Watching Damon switch between the weak, emotionally crippled Tom and the suave, in charge Dickie Greenleaf is truly impressive. His face and body seeming to inflate or shrink as he flips the switch between the two. I don't want to spoil how the events unfold except to say that the film will haunt you with it's simultaneously bleak and deeply heartfelt emotional power.

So, we have a Single White Female style obsession thriller, a Crime and Punishment style, guilt ridden cat and mouse with the investigating officers and an American Psycho style high society serial killer all rolled up into one. Take the sneaky and charming double agent Damon played in The Departed and subtract the Jason Bourne badass and you've got Tom Ripley (American Psycho's Patrick Bateman minus Wall Street's Gordon Gecko also feels like a good equation). In all seriousness though, there's just so much to love about this film. The 1950's Italy setting is lively and vibrant and the costumes and sets allow you to step into a fully realized environment. My friend Aaron made a comment that it's one of those movie's that he gets sucked into anytime he catches a little bit on TV. I feel the same, it pulls you in and doesn't let up throughout a tightly orchestrated series of twists and turns. You know a film has to be good when it takes me this long to even mention the supporting work from Cate Blanchett, one of my top 2 or 3 favorite actresses of all time. She's sensitive and desperate and in love with the Dickie Greenlead version of Tom. I was also pleasantly surprised to realize that the sweet, tragic character of Peter Smith-Kingsley was portrayed by none other than Jack Davenport who I spent several hours with during the short-lived Wonder Years meets Boogie Nights TV drama Swingtown (a show I'd never seen before my previous viewings of Ripley).

So, if you, like me have caught enough Matt Damon roles to decide that he's the real deal, you would be doing yourself a true disservice to not have this film in your collection (or at the very least at the top of your Netflix que). I give The Talented Mr. Ripley an A+!