Three ”lesser” works of great directors on video
Imagine for a moment that you are Oliver Stone, Oscar-winning film director, it’s early 1996, and your three-hour biopic Nixon is tanking at the box office. Your previous picture, Natural Born Killers, a formally chaotic meditation on contemporary violence and the media’s complicity in same, may have been a minor hit, but prior to that you completed your Vietnam trilogy with another commercial disappointment, Heaven and Earth. People just don’t seem to be flocking to your Grand Statements the way they used to. What do you do next?
Answer: Take a breather by making a small, conspicuously frivolous picture. It’s worked for world-class directors in the past — from golden-era vets like John Huston to contemporary dynamo Martin Scorsese. U-Turn, Stone’s quick ‘n’ dirty neo-noir exercise, which appears on tape Mar. 31, belongs in this ”battery-charger” genre of comparatively slapdash movies that are often as good as, or even better than, the more ”serious” ones for which their directors are best known.
Huston, after making an adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage, the classic-to-be The African Queen, and a biography of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Moulin Rouge) in a frenzied two years between 1950 and 1952, chose to direct the offbeat, slyly mocking Beat the Devil, a subtle parody of the then-prevalent international-intrigue picture. Scripted by Huston and the young Truman Capote, and starring Humphrey Bogart as yet another dissolute, morally ambiguous rascal, it strings together a boatload of schemers of varying nationalities plotting to get their hands on uranium-rich land in Africa. But while the film begins with an apparently straight face, and can certainly be enjoyed as a conventional potboiler, its tone gradually becomes wackier and its narrative more patently ludicrous with each reel. The dialogue metamorphoses from garden-variety witty to out-and-out hilarious (Bogart: ”Doctor’s orders are that I must have a lot of money — otherwise I become dull, listless, and have trouble with my complexion”), and some of the minor characters, like a serene Italian purser who strolls into the frame occasionally to cheerfully announce impending disasters, seem to have wandered in from a Coen Bros. movie that won’t be made for another several decades. Huston followed Devil with the epic Moby Dick, but it’s the delightfully droll ”minor” film that’s grown monumental in memory.
Martin Scorsese went the quick-fix route after initial financing for The Last Temptation of Christ (eventually completed in 1988) collapsed during preproduction in 1983. Looking for something breezy that he could shoot in a hurry, in part to keep his cinematic muscles from atrophying, Scorsese happened on a paranoid nightmare written by Columbia University film student Joseph Minion and turned it into one of the most visually playful and arresting movies in his remarkable oeuvre, After Hours. The story is blissfully simple: Lonely guy Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne, brilliantly frazzled) descends into SoHo for a date with a woman (Rosanna Arquette) he’s just met in a coffee shop, then finds it impossible to get out of SoHo when the date goes sour. Paul’s Kafkaesque odyssey (the scene with the bouncer at Club Berlin is a paraphrase of a scene from Kafka’s The Trial) is terrific, sadistic fun, but what’s most invigorating is the sheer vitality that Scorsese invests in virtually every shot. His camera is in almost constant motion, restlessly careening or creeping, and he photographs even the most potentially banal moments in striking ways — Scorsese literally lunges at him with the lens to express Paul’s growing desperation. The result is perhaps the most entertaining limbering exercise in the history of the medium.
U-Turn isn’t exactly lightning-paced at two hours and change, but it’s far and away the least pretentious, most purely enjoyable picture Stone has made since 1986’s Salvador (a political film, yes, but scarcely grandiose). Adapted from John Ridley’s novel Stray Dogs, and scripted by Ridley, its plot is actually similar to After Hours’: Sean Penn plays a weaselly loser, en route to pay off a vengeful loan shark, whose car breaks down in the dusty, nowhere burg of Superior, Ariz.; he spends the rest of the movie doing everything possible to get the hell out of Superior, but finds himself thwarted at every (heh) turn. Thankfully, Stone tones down the migraine-inducing avant-garde jitters for once (there’s but a single shot in grainy black-and-white — though that’s still one too many), concentrating instead on the performances and narrative. The story, which finds the increasingly frantic Penn entertaining mutually exclusive be-my-hit-man offers from a warped husband and wife (Nick Nolte and Jennifer Lopez), is ultimately disappointing; the various double crosses and betrayals seem contrived. But the digressions involving the other strange denizens of Superior — a devious mechanic (Billy Bob Thornton) who makes the term grease monkey a laughable understatement; a dim-witted Patsy Cline fan (Claire Danes) and her equally lunkheaded, ferociously jealous boyfriend (Joaquin Phoenix); a blind, incoherent-philosophy-spouting Indian (Jon Voight, unrecognizable) — make the journey worthwhile. Call me a heretic, but I prefer this lightweight anomaly to every movie for which Stone has ever won an Oscar. He may have intended it as a temporary diversion, a battery charger, but this is one moviegoer who’s hoping he doesn’t make a U-turn back to pompous, grandstanding ”superior” cinema. Beat the Devil: B+; After Hours: A; U-Turn: B-