Tag Archives: Oliver Stone

Conan the Barbarian (1982, John Milius)

John Milius takes Conan the Barbarian very seriously. The occasional use of slow motion and the endlessness of Basil Poledouris’s cheesy score signal Milius’s dedication. So do the long and frequent sequences of shirtless Arnold Schwarzenegger playing with big swords. At the beginning of the film, when it’s the prologue and Milius strange approach actually feels like the 1970s maverick (or friend of the mavericks) making a movie with James Earl Jones in a wig, it’s okay. Milius’s commitment there, it’s misguided and silly, but it isn’t idiotic.

Shortly after Schwarzenegger shows up, it gets idiotic. There are probably ten reasonable minutes (or seven) with Schwarzenegger. Then it gets to be too much. Schwarzenegger, obviously, cannot deliver dialogue (so when Milius gives him a couple monologues at the end, when the film’s already causing bleeding from the eye and mass suicide among brain cells, it’s astounding), but he can’t even emote properly. Had any of Schwarzenegger’s opponents for governor just run clips from this film… I can’t believe he would have won. It’s almost cruel how Milius uses him.

Then the rest of the cast shows up–near as I can tell, Jones was solely cast for his name recognition and to deliver a “my son” line straight out of Empire–and it just gets worse. Sandahl Bergman gets most of the lines–her frequent cooing at Schwarzenegger is icky as opposed to romantic–and she’s awful. She’s probably better than Schwarzenegger, who really doesn’t have much dialogue (it probably all fit on a page… half a page if the repeated lines are removed), but it isn’t saying much. In some ways, she doesn’t embarrass herself because she’s not a real actor, like Jones. However, Mako does embarrass himself. Max von Sydow, on the other hand, does not. He’s only got one scene–most of his dialogue is in one shot–and he’s in a big goofy costume. I didn’t even recognize him.

Ben Davidson and Sven-Ole Thorsen, as the two secondary bad guys, are worse, acting-wise, than even Schwarzenegger.

The production’s all very ornate (even if the special effects are out of a TV movie) and somewhat impressive. But Milius’s script is just dumb. Bergman’s character’s never even named in dialogue. Milius didn’t stick much to the Robert E. Howard library except for some details–Jones’s villain is nothing more than a cult leader, something Milius created–but then, the stuff he does keep doesn’t work because his Conan is so limply written. Sure, Schwarzenegger can’t deliver real dialogue, but the character doesn’t make any sense. Most of the time, when people talk and Schwarzenegger is supposed to be listening, it really looks like he’s trying to understand a foreign language.

I actually didn’t realize Schwarzenegger made Conan before The Terminator. For some reason, I thought it was one of his subsequent vehicles. I can’t wrap my head around it being a hit–did 1982 audiences like being bored?–but it seems to have kicked off the idiocy of 1980s Hollywood action epics quite successfully.

And I suppose there is some amusement in the constant state of bewilderment… it’s just so dumb.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Milius; screenplay by Milius and Oliver Stone, based on stories by Robert E. Howard; director of photography, Duke Callaghan; edited by Carroll Timothy O’Meara; music by Basil Poledouris; production designer, Ron Cobb; produced by Raffaella De Laurentiis and Buzz Feitshans; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (Conan), James Earl Jones (Thulsa Doom), Max von Sydow (King Osric), Sandahl Bergman (Valeria), Ben Davidson (Rexor), Cassandra Gava (The Witch), Gerry Lopez (Subotai), Mako (The Wizard), Valérie Quennessen (The Princess) and William Smith (Conan’s Father).


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8 Million Ways to Die (1986, Hal Ashby)

About halfway through 8 Million Ways to Die, I realized–thanks to a boom mike–my twenty year-old laserdisc was open matte, not pan and scan. The widescreen zoomed suddenly made the shots tighter and crisper, regaining Ashby’s usually calmness. I suppose I should have stopped and went back to the beginning to see if it made any difference, but I doubt it. The first forty minutes of 8 Million Ways to Die suffer multiple plagues–summary storytelling, sometimes good but Jeff Bridges’s wife in the movie doesn’t even have a line when she’s on screen it’s all so fast; Alexandra Paul, who’s supposed to be playing a “wuss,” so maybe her crappy performance is intentional; and Rosanna Arquette. At the halfway point, moments after I saw that boom mike (it actually was a mike for Arquette), she changes. Goes from being bad to being good (sometimes great) in the rest of the film.

8 Million Ways to Die is a Chandler-esq “mystery” where the detective forces his way through the case instead of actually detecting anything. It’s solved because the bad guy comes shooting for the detective. But once the film gets going, the problems with the story fall away. Throughout, Jeff Bridges is absolutely amazing. It’s probably his best performance. Watching it, I wanted to rewind and watch him think about what to say next again. Amazing performance. And once Arquette takes off, Bridges is in good company. Supporting suspect slash good guy Randy Brooks is good and has some nice moments, but Andy Garcia’s great as the bad guy. It’s a wild, eccentric performance and Garcia doesn’t do these things anymore. He’s crazy; he’s great.

So Bridges and some Ashby’s real nice stuff in here–the studio the movie away from him but whoever cut it did a nice job fitting the music and sound (some shoddy cuts here and there though, lack of coverage and such)–but the really amazing thing about 8 Million Ways to Die is this five minute scene between Arquette and Bridges when they talk. They have coffee and wash dishes but they mostly talk and very naturalistic and it’s unlike most scenes in every other movie ever made. To say there aren’t scenes like it enough doesn’t go far enough, because seeing it suggests maybe all scenes should be like it. It’s beautiful.

I actually found 8 Million Ways to Die in a box of other unreleased-on-DVD laserdiscs I didn’t know I still had. It’s a shame it’s not out, but I can’t control Lionsgate or whatever likely lousy company owns the rights. But I did lose track of this film somewhere in the last eight or nine years and I really shouldn’t have.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Hal Ashby; screenplay by Oliver Stone and David Lee Henry, from a novel by Lawrence Block; director of photography, Stephen H. Burum; edited by Robert Lawrence and Stuart H. Pappé; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Michael D. Haller; produced by Stephen J. Roth; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Jeff Bridges (Matthew Scudder), Rosanna Arquette (Sarah), Alexandra Paul (Sunny), Randy Brooks (Chance), Andy Garcia (Angel Maldonado), Lisa Sloan (Linda Scudder), Christa Denton (Laurie Scudder), Vance Valencia (Quintero), Vyto Ruginis (Joe Durkin) and Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister (Nose Guard).


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Born on the Fourth of July (1989, Oliver Stone)

In the last ten years, Tom Cruise has turned in a number of excellent performances (well, four… four is a number) and a bunch of decent ones. He’s only been bad once (of the films I’ve seen). So, Born on the Fourth of July was a jarring reminder to the early period of Cruise’s acting career (before his wingnut career), when he was staggeringly awful. Cruise is so bad for most on Fourth of July, I actually had to look up a good adjective to use to describe that awful acting. Of course, Cruise’s inability fits Stone, maybe even more than Charlie Sheen’s inability fit him. Stone’s shot composition in Fourth of July is beautiful, but absolutely useless for a narrative. It’s slick and colorful, that neo-Technicolor Bruckheimer-produced films use. To get the film to move, since the shots don’t do it, Stone uses a lot of quick editing in Fourth of July, the same quick editing Bruckheimer appropriated a few years later. Maybe it was immediately (I never saw Days of Thunder).

Stone makes Fourth of July as melodramatic as possible, then bumps it up a notch. For a film based on a true story (I’ve read the actual book and a lot of the movie was a surprise to me), it’s beyond any reasonable license. Only at the end, in the last ten minutes, when the character finally gets to be a real person, does Cruise’s acting rise to being near-poor. It’s when the true story becomes somewhat worthwhile… but the film skips the character’s major personal development. There’s nothing about him becoming active in the anti-war movement. One minute he isn’t, the next he is, then the movie ends. Since it’s shed everything else we’ve had to sit through (his family, his girl, his relationship with other vets), Fourth of July hits a reset button and all of a sudden Cruise is a guy in a wig, not the guy who started the movie without the wig, then got it inexplicably later on. Still, it’s ten minutes and it’s laden with Stone’s idea of nuance, so it doesn’t help. It just gets better.

I was going to make note of all the people who starred in Fourth of July and went on to bigger things. Jake Weber even shows up for a shot. Then, I realized Stone used all three of the non-Alec Baldwin brothers and I decided against giving him any credit for casting discoveries. However, a handful of the performances are good. Raymond J. Barry is good as the father and Frank Whaley and Jerry Levine (Stiles from Teen Wolf–I recognized him but didn’t know who it was until I looked it up) are both good as Cruise’s friends. There’s a whole period where Cruise and these guys play their characters in high school and all of them look about ten years too old.

I keep trying to remember other things–the timeline goofs were obvious to me and I was born twenty years after the era depicted–but, in the end, I think I’m sad Oliver Stone doesn’t get to make his movies anymore. He still works, he still writes, but he doesn’t get to do this kind of film anymore and–good or bad–Born on the Fourth of July was a socially relevant piece. During the scenes in the awful veteran’s hospital, my fiancée turned and asked me what I thought vet hospitals looked like today. Stone had a real audience until Natural Born Killers and, while he did manipulate them, he did it for a good cause. I’m not sure there’s been any manipulative filmmaker since who’s been able to reach such a broad audience and actually had something good to say….

Those last few sentences are an observation, not a defense of or recommendation to see Born on the Fourth of July, though I do suppose John Williams’s hideous score needs to be heard to be believed. Oh, and I can’t forget this one. Stone rips off Coppola’s fan as helicopter blade metaphor from Apocalypse Now, but I guess it’s all right, since Spielberg went on to steal a flag shot from Fourth of July for Saving Private Ryan.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Oliver Stone; screenplay by Stone and Ron Kovic, based on the book by Kovic; director of photography, Robert Richardson; edited by David Brenner; music by John Williams; production designer, Bruno Rubeo; produced by A. Kitman Ho and Stone; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Tom Cruise (Ron Kovic), Kyra Sedgwick (Donna), Raymond J. Barry (Mr. Kovic), Caroline Kava (Mrs. Kovic), Jerry Levine (Steve Boyer), Frank Whaley (Timmy), Willem Dafoe (Charlie), Josh Evans (Tommy Kovic) and Jamie Talisman (Jimmy Kovic).


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