Skip to main content

Different skin, same suffering.

Heaven & Earth
(1993)

(SPOILERS) All credit to Oliver Stone for feeling a responsibility to portray the Vietnamese perspective of the Vietnam War, after so many depictions of the physical and mental traumas of GIs (even when inflicting suffering on the enemy) but from the evidence of the all but forgotten Heaven & Earth, the final part of his Vietnam trilogy, he wasn’t the guy to do it.

This is one of the few Stone films (also vaguely on the to do list is World Trade Centre) I hadn’t got round to seeing, interest dampened by the critics’ resounding negativity. Stone defiantly claims it as his favourite film, which is exactly the kind of behaviour you’d expect from him, but also indicative of why he was probably temperamentally wrong to take charge of the adaptation of the adaptation of Le Ly Hayslip’s (with Jay Wurts) memoirs When Heaven and Earth Change Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace. The director also adapted the books and handpicked Hiep Thi Le for the lead role (sadly, she died a couple of years ago).

Her performance is perhaps adequate, but the writing is such that the picture is never about her, merely her reaction to external forces. For much of the Vietnam section, Stone hampers any chance of immersive story telling through narrated ellipses that stodgily detail everything from the country’s history to the politics of her village. It doesn’t help either that he sets up the account with a depiction of her village as if they’re fantasy Gelflings just waiting for the terrible Skeksis to invade, with added treacle from Kitaro’s unchecked score.

There’s power here, in particular the depiction of those caught in the middle of both sides’ ruthlessness, but for the most part, the narrative is too broken to take hold. Rejected by her family and her village and with a child born from her employer (she gets the blame, naturally), Le Ly naturally seizes the opportunity of rescue when Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives on the scene. It’s only here, with someone with whom Stone can identify, that Heaven & Earth finds something approaching its feet, even if the depiction of Le Ly’s wonderment at American excess and opulence seems more based on recreating the contents of a ‘60s supermarket than real engagement with her viewpoint (this was, after all, the same director who insisted the Marlborough packets were the right shade in Platoon).

There’s nothing particular revelatory about a brutal man who can’t escape the urge to brutalise, as their “safe” life in America quickly deteriorates, but there are strong scenes here, even if they’re mostly down to Jones (his Thanksgiving tirade at his family – “So don’t expect Le to do handstands over your goddam turkey”). Ironically, though, they only emphasise her lack of agency, and that Stone’s in his element as a passionate, angry filmmaker, and accordingly needs protagonists who reflect that. Without them, he’s stranded. So it is that the strongest scene in the picture has Steve pointing a gun at her before confessing his nightmarish Black Ops existence (“The more I killed, the more they gave me to kill”), culminating in an attempt to top himself.

How authentic Le Ly’s consultation with the Buddhist monk who recommends she reconciles with Steve or they will have to work things out in the next life is, I don’t know (it seems a bit “Stone” in its lack of finesse), but once her husband has committed suicide, and we segue to a successful older Le Ly’s return to Vietnam with her sons, the limits of Hiep’s abilities become more unflatteringly evident (and the hair department can’t really compensate). Again, though, the blame for this is fundamentally at Stone’s door. There’s only ever a sense of the character being robotically manoeuvred from point A to point B to point C by her writer-director.

There’s strong support from The Killing Fields’ Haing S. Ngor as Le Ly’s father and Joan Chen as her toothless mother, but finally seeing the film simply confirms why it went largely ignored. It’s surely not a coincidence that this is the point where Stone lost his footing as a filmmaker, after a five-year spell where he could seemingly do no wrong. It’s as if he’d run out of things to get angry about, and when he did (Natural Born Killers), the results seemed artificially steroidal. Perhaps if his Mai Lai massacre film had got off the ground we’d have seen something of the old Stone, but there’s also the sense from Heaven & Earth that he’d already said everything he had to say about Nam.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

Would you like Smiley Sauce with that?

American Beauty (1999)
(SPOILERS) As is often the case with the Best Picture Oscar, a backlash against a deemed undeserved reward has grown steadily in the years since American Beauty’s win. The film is now often identified as symptomatic of a strain of cinematic indulgence focussing on the affluent middle classes’ first world problems. Worse, it showcases a problematic protagonist with a Lolita-fixation towards his daughter’s best friend (imagine its chances of getting made, let alone getting near the podium in the #MeToo era). Some have even suggested it “mercifully” represents a world that no longer exists (as a pre-9/11 movie), as if such hyperbole has any bearing other than as gormless clickbait; you’d have to believe its world of carefully manicured caricatures existed in the first place to swallow such a notion. American Beauty must own up to some of these charges, but they don’t prevent it from retaining a flawed allure. It’s a satirical take on Americana that, if it pulls its p…

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his …

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Kindly behove me no ill behoves!

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.

Is CBS Corporate telling CBS News "Do not air this story"?

The Insider (1999)
(SPOILERS) The Insider was the 1999 Best Picture Oscar nominee that didn’t. Do any business, that is. Which is, more often than not, a major mark against it getting the big prize. It can happen (2009, and there was a string of them from 2014-2016), but aside from brief, self-congratulatory “we care about art first” vibes, it generally does nothing for the ceremony’s profile, or the confidence of the industry that is its bread and butter. The Insider lacked the easy accessibility of the other nominees – supernatural affairs, wafer-thin melodramas or middle-class suburbanite satires. It didn’t even brandish a truly headlines-shattering nail-biter in its conspiracy-related true story, as earlier contenders All the President’s Men and JFK could boast. But none of those black marks prevented The Insider from being the cream of the year’s crop.