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

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

Are you, by any chance, in a trance now, Mr Morrison?

The Doors (1991) (SPOILERS) Oliver Stone’s mammoth, mythologising paean to Jim Morrison is as much about seeing himself in the self-styled, self-destructive rebel figurehead, and I suspect it’s this lack of distance that rather quickly leads to The Doors becoming a turgid bore. It’s strange – people are , you know, films equally so – but I’d hitherto considered the epic opus patchy but worthwhile, a take that disintegrated on this viewing. The picture’s populated with all the stars it could possibly wish for, tremendous visuals (courtesy of DP Robert Richardson) and its director operating at the height of his powers, but his vision, or the incoherence thereof, is the movie’s undoing. The Doors is an indulgent, sprawling mess, with no internal glue to hold it together dramatically. “Jim gets fat and dies” isn’t really a riveting narrative through line.

Did you not just hand over a chicken to someone?

The Father (2020) (SPOILERS) I was in no great rush to see The Father , expecting it to be it to be something of an ordeal in the manner of that lavishly overpraised euthanasia-fest Amour. As with the previous Oscars, though, the Best Picture nominee I saw last turned out to be the best of the bunch. In that case, Parasite , its very title beckoning the psychic global warfare sprouting shoots around it, would win the top prize. The Father , in a year of disappointing nominees, had to settle for Best Actor. Ant’s good, naturally, but I was most impressed with the unpandering manner in which Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton approached material that might easily render one highly unstuck.

I can do in two weeks what you can only wish to do in twenty years.

Wrath of Man (2021) (SPOILERS) Guy Ritchie’s stripped-down remake of Le Convoyeur (or Cash Truck , also the working title for this movie) feels like an intentional acceleration in the opposite direction to 2019’s return-to-form The Gentleman , his best movie in years. Ritchie seems to want to prove he can make a straight thriller, devoid of his characteristic winks, nods, playfulness and outright broad (read: often extremely crude) sense of humour. Even King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has its fair share of laughs. Wrath of Man is determinedly grim, though, almost Jacobean in its doom-laden trajectory, and Ritchie casts his movie accordingly, opting for more restrained performers, less likely to summon more flamboyant reflexes.

So the devil's child will rise from the world of politics.

The Omen (1976) (SPOILERS) The coming of the Antichrist is an evergreen; his incarnation, or the reveal thereof, is always just round the corner, and he can always be definitively identified in any given age through a spot of judiciously subjective interpretation of The Book of Revelation , or Nostradamus. Probably nothing did more for the subject in the current era, in terms of making it part of popular culture, than The Omen . That’s irrespective of the movie’s quality, of course. Which, it has to be admitted, is not on the same level as earlier demonic forebears Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist .

Fifty medications didn’t work because I’m really a reincarnated Russian blacksmith?

Infinite (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s as if Mark Wahlberg, his lined visage increasingly resembling a perplexed potato, learned nothing from the blank ignominy of his “performances” in previous big-budget sci-fi spectacles Planet of the Apes and, er, Max Payne . And maybe include The Happening in that too ( Transformers doesn’t count, since even all-round reprobate Shia La Boeuf made no visible dent on their appeal either way). As such, pairing him with the blandest of journeyman action directors on Infinite was never going to seem like a sterling idea, particularly with a concept so far removed from of either’s wheelhouse.

I’ll look in Bostock’s pocket.

Doctor Who Revelation of the Daleks Lovely, lovely, lovely. I can quite see why Revelation of the Daleks doesn’t receive the same acclaim as the absurdly – absurdly, because it’s terrible – overrated Remembrance of the Daleks . It is, after all, grim, grisly and exemplifies most of the virtues for which the Saward era is commonly decried. I’d suggest it’s an all-time classic, however, one of the few times 1980s Who gets everything, or nearly everything, right. If it has a fault, besides Eric’s self-prescribed “Kill everyone” remit, it’s that it tries too much. It’s rich, layered and very funny. It has enough material and ideas to go off in about a dozen different directions, which may be why it always felt to me like it was waiting for a trilogy capper.

You got any Boom Boom Lemon?

Kate (2021) (SPOILERS) The dying protagonist subgenre is a difficult one to get right. The customary approach is one of world-weary resignation on the part of the poisoned or terminally ill party that sweetens the pill, suggesting they’re being done something of a favour. It’s also a smart idea to give them some sort of motive force, in order to see them through the proceedings before they kark it. Such as a mystery to solve; there’s a good reason D.O.A. is generally seen as a touchstone in fare of this ilk. Kate fumbles on both counts, leaving the viewer with a rather icky poisoning – you don’t want to be too distracted by that sort of thing, not least because suspension of disbelief that the already superheroic protagonist can function at all evaporates – and a lead character with the slenderest of relatability working for her. Most damningly, however, is a revenge plot that’s really rather limp.