Edition #3 looks at some great horror v. non-horror comparisons + some popular horror paralleling each other.
Talk Radio. 1988. Directed by Oliver Stone. Screenplay by Stone & Eric Bogosian; based on the play by Bogosian & Tad Savinar, which is based on the book Talked to Death: The Life & Murder of Alan Berg by Stephen Singular.
Starring Eric Bogosian, Ellen Greene, Leslie Hope, John C. McGinley, Alec Baldwin, John Pankow, Michael Wincott, Linda Atkinson, Robert Trebor, Zach Grenier, Tony Frank, Harlan Jordan, Anna Levine & Allan Corduner. Cineplex-Odeon Films/Ten-Four Productions.
Rated 14A. 110 minutes.
Disclaimer: parts of this review will spoil the finale, which is obviously huge. So I urge you to check the movie out, then come back. If not there’s an intense moment near the end that’ll be totally ruined for you.
Oliver Stone is a filmmaker whose catalogue of work can easily divide people. Then there are hardcore supposed Stone fans that don’t like his movies that aren’t like Natural Born Killers or JFK. They don’t want him unless he’s on full-throttle Stone style, whatever that is. Because for me, he is a versatile director and storyteller. He is always slightly political, if not completely politically minded. But there are many facets to his in your face style of filmmaking. First and foremost, Stone is continually concerned about the truth. His films are a way of examining the truth, and sometimes various truths, about life, politics, history, and everything else in between.
Talk Radio is perhaps one of his most poignant films, for many reasons. Despite what he says about his own work. First, the screenplay was written by Stone and also star Eric Bogosian, based on the stage play Bogosian wrote with Tad Savinar. In turn, that play is further based on Stephen Singular’s biography about radio host Alan Berg. So there’s a very interesting aspect to Stone’s film that captures part of the stage play, in the sense we stick close to lead character Barry Champlain, and many of the extended scenes are relegated to the radio station’s main room. With Stone’s talent, and a blockbuster performance from Bogosian in a role that he already knew but was able to flesh out onscreen, Talk Radio becomes a highly personal, emotional journey that’s also a part of a larger conversation about freedom of speech and difference of opinion.
Oh, and Barry Champlain (Eric Bogosian) is the reason I like to use the word ‘meatball’ in reference to idiots. Frequently.
At his basest level, Barry is searching for passion. Even if it’s the wrong kind, he’s seeking those who feel strongly. When his ex-wife comes back into the picture he realizes she’s likely the only person who actually cares about him. However, she has moved on. But the audience hasn’t, not just the people who like listening to his show, also the ones who hate him. The audience cannot move on, not like his ex-wife. Even his ex-wife is drawn to him, despite remarrying, and though she knows he’s toxic there’s something that keeps her coming back. And the audience is the same. Because at the bottom of it all a guy like Champlain is needed. He inflames both the right and left, and anybody, everybody in between. He constantly and consistently challenges the status quo as an equally opportunity offender; he doesn’t care if you’re black, white, another Jew such as himself, or whoever.
In a day and age where freedom of speech is often at war with people and their differing values, Barry isn’t dated. He is fresh and unique. He represents the right to say what you mean, as long as what you say has merit. This is clearly, easily represented in the way he screens his own calls. Whatever comes through the line, stupid or profound (most of which falls into the former category), Barry takes on. Sometimes he has things to say, other times he’ll just hang up. Because he has things to talk about, he has legitimate ideas that are built around fact and not solely on opinion. Barry draws a line in the sand which ultimately explains what free speech is all about. In that yes, you can say what you want, at least as far as libel and such goes. You can’t just say anything without consequence, and you can’t just say anything without something to back it up. A little fact, a piece of tangible evidence to back yourself up. Without that, what is there? Opinion. It’s fine to have one. Although opinion isn’t truth.
HUGE SPOILER AHEAD: in the end, Barry pays for his truthfulness, his facts and the way he jams them viciously down peoples throat, sparing no one on either side of an issue if they’re not coming with anything credible. He gets gunned down in the parking lot coming out of his show. This is when the free speech bumps up against extremism. The problem with anyone on any side getting to a point of extremism is that they do not consider the fact they’re silencing the same free speech they likely champion for their wild perspectives. Here, the neo-Nazi, white nationalists are the hypocritical faction, at once calling for free speech and at the same time threatening Barry with bodily harm over his outspoken views.
Eric Bogosian transforms a character from a stage play into one that works just as well onscreen. He’s powerful. There are plenty of times he gets to monologue, including one mammoth speech in particular that’s wildly intense. A few of the more powerful moments involve when Barry is confronted over the phone by men who are clearly white supremacists. There’s an air of confidence, an abundance of it almost all the time. Yet underneath, Bogosian shows that Barry is afraid. Not necessarily of them, but of himself and how far he’ll allow it all to go, to what place he’ll eventually get and if he can come back. The whole character is complex, representative of many things. While so much of Barry is about free speech, he’s also about belief and how much a person’s beliefs mean to them. Right to the end he is strong, though to a fault. I can’t think of anyone better to have played him in the film.
This is possibly my favourite Oliver Stone film, right up there next to Salvador. Using the amazing stage play with which Eric Bogosian was associated is a stroke of genius. Much as Oliver Stone claims it inhibited him, in his mind. To me, it worked perfectly. This is one of the less Stone-like films in his own catalogue. Not in any bad way, as I love his style. But Talk Radio is a more straight up take on the subject. No less impressive and powerful. Through a fantastic central performance from Bogosian we’re able to access the inner life of Barry Champlain while simultaneously exploring all those themes he encompasses. There aren’t as many movies out there about freedom of speech that are as good, nor are there any that come so near to the danger in which free speech finds itself today, sadly, in the 21st century. Watching this now it takes on a whole new life. We need more people like Barry. To keep pushing the envelope, though not for one side or the other. Just simply pushing.
U Turn. 1997. Directed by Oliver Stone. Screenplay by John Ridley, from his book Stray Dogs.
Starring Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Voight, Powers Boothe, Laurie Metcalf & Liv Tyler. Phoenix Pictures/Illusion Entertainment Group/Clyde Is Hungry Films/Canal+ Droits Audiovisuels.
Rated R. 125 minutes.
Oliver Stone is an acquired taste. Always has been. I’m sure if I’d been a teenager when films like Platoon or later Natural Born Killers came out (almost made it for that second one), he would’ve been a filmmaker I’d flock to theatres for, over and over. He has a rebellious spirit. Perhaps why, when I was a teenager I eventually made my way into his filmography. In fact, going to film school when I did was partially inspired by Stone, whose movies and style I always found chaotic, vivid, and never less than incredibly interesting. So I devoured everything he ever made. Not to say each single movie is a masterpiece – no filmmaker is flawless – but he has an amazingly solid track record. His war-related pictures are rarely matched in intensity, and scope. Movies like Natural Born Killers and even The Doors are odd rides through madness, equally intense and every bit as intriguing as his political work.
U Turn falls into that second category – the weird and the wild. An adaptation of John Ridley’s novel Stray Dogs, this movie is quite different in story and plot than most of Stone’s previous films. Usually we see Stone take on, as I said, war or politics, often edging towards realism and many times based off actual true events. Yet this movie goes into completely fictional territory, though apparently the original book is loosely based on a real story about a drifter who wandered into a town and disappeared forever. Either way, Ridley’s story plays well with Stone and his style of filmmaking. Their forces combine into a fucked up movie that you won’t soon forget.
With Russian mafia on his tail, Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) is heading to Las Vegas. He needs to pay off a big debt, fast. Only trouble is, on the way over the highway Bobby encounters car trouble. This strands him out in a small town named Superior, Arizona. Even worse, the whole place is filled with quirky, and sometimes dangerous, characters with whom he has a varied number of encounters. Things start out weird enough, then slowly everything spirals into darkness. Coming across a beautiful young woman named Grace McKenna (Jennifer Lopez), Bobby believes he’s hit the jackpot. But then her husband Jake (Nick Nolte) arrives, catching them almost in bed together. Afterwards, Jake finds Bobby on the road and offers him a ride; as well as offers him thousands and thousands of dollars to kill Grace.
The nail in the coffin comes when Bobby ends up between a couple robbers and a grocery store clerk. His bag full of money gets blown away in the resulting gunfight, which puts him at even worse odds than the beginning. Expecting the mafia to find him, Bobby tries his best to get out of Superior.
Except it isn’t ever that easy, is it? Not for a guy like Bobby.
I’ve always love Stone’s frenetic, quick cut, quick edit style. Here, though, it may be on its best form. Honestly. The way he gives us the scene, but then edits and cuts bits and pieces around it from the same dialogue, the same scene, this technique almost puts us right in the place of Bobby Cooper. He’s seeing these people, talking to them. Simultaneously, Stone cuts these different reactions, often manic-like actions and laughter, which sort of paints these people as two-faced, strange, weird; all of which they certainly are. Sort of makes this a very unsettling movie, in that way. Each character is like a different breed, one you can never for sure get hold of, and at the same time you almost really know these people, especially if you come from a smaller area like myself. These small town, almost hickish people are recognizable, albeit strange and oddly curious, too. Either way, the technique Stone uses draws us into the web of these characters in an impressive, low-key sense.
The soundtrack and score, as usual for Stone, are lots of fun. We’ve got everything on the soundtrack from Johnny Cash to Peggy Lee, Sammi Smith (singing a song by Kris Kristofferson), to Ween and Gloria Lynne. Can’t forget the weird score to match all the other weirdness, by none other than Ennio Morricone. To be totally honest, I’ve seen this film about 20 times, or more, and I never once realized it was Morricone who did the composing. He’s a true talent, a varied and eclectic musician if there ever were one in the film industry. His music is a perfect addition to this plethora of oddities. At times, it makes things feel like a funhouse, right out in the open Arizona sun. Others, there’s a charming noir feel to the strings in the background, plucking away, ratcheting up the suspense and the tension. Great use of score and soundtrack, which again I often come to expect from a guy like Stone. He usually collaborates well with other artists.
The acting is top notch. A dark and comic cast of characters comes to life here. Penn does a great down-and-out performance, Bobby Cooper on the edge of oblivion, already missing a couple fingers and hoping not to have to give up any more. Though I find Penn a bit nuts as a person, I dig his acting and he’s a favourite of mine. Then, Nolte and Boothe each add a sort of veteran feel to the cast, men who’ve been in all sorts of movies giving their best to these odd little small town folks; Nolte is vicious and conniving, while Boothe is tough and stand-offish. Even J-Lo gives us a decent effort. And Claire Danes is around for a little bit, playing a hilarious, cute character, which adds just another dash of flavour to the pot.
Above everyone else, I have to mention two special names for putting in incredible work, albeit in relatively small, not even supporting roles: Joaquin Phoenix and Billy Bob Thornton. First, Phoenix plays Toby N. Tucker – a.k.a TNT – and this is such a nice role, lots of quirk, plus there’s a simmering charisma to the character. Even if he is an asshole. Yet it’s Billy Bob who truly shines, packing on at least 20-30 pounds to play a mechanic named Darrell who may be a bit slow, but certainly ain’t stupid. He has a way of speaking, a way of moving. Really, for such a small character Thornton leaned in hard and brought this one off the page. Again, these are touches which add the right amount to an already interesting story.
I’ve always considered U Turn a 5-star slice of cinema. It’s sort of trashy, and at the same time there is a great neo-noir thriller with a peppering of black comedy thrown in at every corner. While many probably dismissed this movie upon release, and plenty have/still do after, every time I get the chance I’ll watch it. There’s a sexy dangerousness about so many parts in the film. At the same time, the odd nature of the town, the characters, everything comes across completely, madly, and chaos fills just about every last frame. There’s not a single scene I don’t love and every watch of U Turn unsettles, disturbs and enthralls me. Leaving it ’till now to watch? Do yourself a favour. Pop this on, have a fucking weird night.