Sunday, 4 January 2009

The Cheap-Arse Film Review #14- "STAG."









PRICE: 99p

"But Daddy, why'd you have to call it... "Stag?""


That's a reference not many people reading this will get, but I had to get it out of my system. Sorry.

So, the nineties. They were odd, weren't they? I had a problem admitting that for a while, partly because I'm a sentimental bastard and look back fondly on alot of my childhood and early teen memories from that time, and partly because, unlike the other decades that my ilk readily make fun of, like the sixties and seventies, or even the eighties, I was there in the thick of it, a willing participant in the insanity. I owned one of those T-Shirts that changed colour with your body heat that never worked properly again after one wash. I had a line shaved into my head like Vanilla Ice. I fancied all the Spice Girls (yes, including Sporty, and I wouldn't say no to any of them now, thinking about it). I THOUGHT DAVID BADDIEL WAS FUNNY (strangely though, he's now one of my favourite writers and opinionists. I wonder if I'll change my mind about that in ten years time...). So in laughing at the nineties, I would have been laughing at myself. And I took myself far too seriously for far too long to be able to do that. But now, fuck it. Alot about that decade was absurd, and so was I. Still am. Look what I do for fun.

It was also the decade when we collectively seemed to become bored with happiness. Let me tell a story from my youth. When I was about 14, I was in Drama class, and we were all split into groups of about four or five and told to come up with a silent performance about a boxer and his girlfriend. To be original, our group thought it would be fun to have our version end on downer, with the girlfriend leaving with the boxer's opponent after the poor guy had been beaten. So the time came to show what we'd come up with to each other, and we went first. We did our bit, got a round of applause, then walked off stage. The then next group then went up and, other than a few minor details, performed the exact same story. So did the next group. And the one after that. The last group, I'll never forget this, actually had the boxer beaten to death as his girlfriend laughed at him from ringside. And when we were done, our teacher, and eccentric-but-lovely lady, sat silently in her chair for a few moments. I half expected her to start literally weeping for the future. She may have unknowingly witnessed the birth of Emo, come to think of it.

My point is, it was very trendy back then for stories to be depressing, and cinema wasn't immune to this. From about the mid-to-late nineties, we saw the brief rise of the misanthropic, occasionally mysoginistic, "Feel-Bad" sub-genre of dramas and dark comedies, such as "In the Company of Men," (two men plan to seduce and then destroy a deaf woman), "Your Friends & Neighbors," (this is the entire one-line synopsis from IMDb: "Unhappy couples fall apart and hop into other beds with other people." That pretty much sums it up
. Also this movie and the last one were both written and directed by Neil LaBute, which pretty much sums him up, too) "Very Bad Things," (which has more than a couple of things in common with the movie I'll be covering today, which is interesting because apparently "Stag," came out first...), before reaching it's logical conclusion just before the end of the century with "Fight Club," which somehow managed to find hope and optimism in nihilism, self-loathing and the end of the financial world (Christ, now there's a movie that's as relevent today as it ever was...). Sometime amongst all that, this movie was released, and true to form, it's plot isn't exactly rainbows, unicorns and hand-holding.

We begin with some aerial shots of a city somewhere in America. I don't know what city. I'm tempted to say New York, but that's what I'm always tempted to say, and one day I'm going to get it wrong and and get an angry email off someone. Tom Jones is playing over the top of this by the way, singing an upbeat, happy ditty which really does nothing to tell you what kind of movie you're about to watch. We then follow a car in the same manner until it pulls up outside a house and two men, one black, one white, both dressed in suits, get out. The white guy then waves to his neighbor as he's bringing down his American flag. We know this is his house because as he waves, he says to his friend, "That's my neighbor," which straight away seems like an odd thing to say, because if this is your your house, of course the person livng next door to you would be your neighbor. That's what neighbors are.

They go inside the house, and are talking about some kind of business they're doing, and the white dude suddenly finds himself in the middle of a surprise stag party with his friends old and new. The laugh, they hug, they share oddly sexualy-charged looks with each other, you know the drill. At this point, the movie introduces us to all the characters by way of freeze-framing on them and putting up a some text telling us who they are and some additional information. This is what we learn...

VICTOR MALLICK (John Stockwell); Entrepreneur of the year, groom
MICHAEL BARNES (Mario Van Peebles); Victor's business partner & attorney, candidate for City Council
TIMAN BERNARD (John Henson); Accountant, author of "Ethics in Business
TAYLOR RUNDGREN (Greg Alan Williams); Former football star, child care worker
JON DICAPRI (William McNamara); Soap oprah star, spokesman for "Stars Against Drugs"
PETE WEBER (Andrew McCarthy); Drug dealer, extortionist. Self-employed
DANIEL KANE (Kevin Dillon); Gulf War veteran, post traumatic stress disorder
BEN MARKS (Mark Blum); Owner of "Happy Home" greeting card chain
ED LABENSKI (Gerald Anthoney); Contractor, church treasurer
FRANK GRIECO (Ben Gazzara); Restauranteur, grandfather

I'm in two minds about this technique. On the one hand, I'm a fan of economic character establishment, of getting the basic nuts and bolts of who someone is out there as quickly as humanly possible, and this certainly does that. But at the same time, it feels a little bit, I don't know, lazy. Like they couldn't be bothered to establish who these people were within the context of the movie, so they just put some words up on screen and that was the job done. The only person during this sequence who really gets any additional development is Timan, who Pete discovers is secretly gay and leading a double life when he goes through his wallet. Some of them also either really signpost a few upcoming plot points (I wonder if the one that's the spokesperson for "Stars Against Drugs," will be revealed to have a habit?) or are just oddly worded, like when we're told that Daniel is "post traumatic stress disorder." What, is that his job now? Does he just walk around being Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Would it have been too hard to have stuck the word "sufferer," on the end? We find out that Ben Marks owns the "Happy Home," greetings card chain after he's said he's going to destroy his wife during their divorce, which was at least an amusing sight gag.

So the party goes on, there's drinking and other debauchery, and... WAT? Ed is now running around in women's underwear and suspenders wearing a red curly wig. Okay, what's going on? This is the forth dude dressed like a woman I've seen reviwing the last two movies. Is the cosmos trying to tell me something? Anyway, like with any good stag party, the strippers (played by Kelly McShane and Taylor Dayne) eventually show up, along with their male escort, all dressed like cops. I've been accused a couple of times recently of having a thing for, and I quote, "dirty blondes." And whilst I will hold up my hand and say a few of the women I find myself drawn to sexually fit into this category, I don't think it's fair to say they're my type, because these women right here really are dirty blondes, and I don't find myself attracted to them in the least. They both look a bit ragged and older than they probably are, which to be honest is probably good, because alot of stripper and/or hookers in movies look far too fresh-faced and chipper to have been doing what they do for any length of time. It's a hard life, and puts years on a woman very quickly. They start to perform, sucking on their chocolate guns (no, that's not code for anything, they really do have chocolate guns), remove their clothes, there's lap-dancing, some actual fucking, and I can't help but think this whole spectacle looks really... gross. They're all just a bunch of baying drunk idiots, some of whom are old enough to be my Dad. Being at a stag party is definitely more fun than watching one, I've decided.

Everything's going good, the guys are all getting their jollies in one way or another, then someone goes and does something stupid like accidently killing one of the girls whilst throwing her up and down in a blanket over a marble floor. There was no danger in doing that at all, was there? Their escort freaks out, and we find out that his gun isn't made of chocolate when he starts firing it, tagging Daniel in the leg, before he accidently shoots himself in the struggle. So this party now has a bodycount of two. We're really rocking now!

Her sister (oh yeah, I forgot to say, the strippers are sisters), comes back downstairs from fucking one of the old dudes after hearing the gun shots and, upon discovering the bodies, understandably begins to have something of a conniption. Do they attempt to calm her down and explain what happened? No, not really, it seems like a better idea to them to take her upstairs and duct-tape her to a chair whilst they figure out what would be the best course of action for them now. As was established by the text near the beginning, these people aren't Average Joes, most of the are very successful and have alot to lose, so the thought of just calling the cops isn't all that attractive to them. It's at this point that Pete really takes center stage as a complete and utter... I want to use the one curse word I've sworn to myself I'll never use, just incase my Mum ever reads any of these. You all know what it is. That dude behind the glass told Jodie Foster he could smell hers in "Silence of the Lambs." Getting back to Pete, from here on in he's the closest thing this movie has to a real antagonist, which is to say that whilst everyone else now turns into a dick, he turns into a great, big, swinging dick. When he first showed up, he looked just so stereotypically bad news, with a tattoo on the side of his neck and these horrible yellow teeth, that I thought it might be a red herring and that he'd actually end up being the hero. But no, the movie had his role all planned out, and he seemingly just dressed the part. Infact, he's worse than he looks, if that's possible. He's more than just a horrible person, he's virually a personification of pure evil, goading people to give into their dark desires and using their dirty little secrets against them. There's a bit later on where he's playing the piano with this massive grin on his face, and I swear, he looks like Satan himself. And the only real explaination for his behaviour we're given is that he was raped in prison on his Birthday. "Happy Birthday, bitch," one of the other characters mutters upon hearing this. Lovely.

From this point on, the movie becomes talky. Very, very talky. I suppose that's why the first 15 minutes or so were so gimmicky and frantic, because they felt that they had to hook the audience before the main body of the film began. Quite clever, really. But I will say this part of the movie isn't that interesting to recap. I tried, but I then reread what I'd wrote and realised all I was doing was making a transcript of the screenplay. There are a couple of moments worth mentioning, like Frank recalling the time he and a friend of his got away with shooting a man dead during an armed robbery in his youth (whilst staring at the thong-clad backside of the dead girl, for reasons I really don't want to think about), and Daniel telling Taylor about his experiences in Iraq (to which Taylor responds, "Man I don't need to be hearing this flashback bullshit," which I think may be the best line in the screenplay). You also get a good look at the acting abilities of all the men really for the first time. Most of them just give eh performances really, nothing special. There are a couple of good ones. Kevin Dillon's alright, although this movie is a testiment to just how typecast he now is, as I'm not the biggest "Entourage," fan in the world, I've probably only seen a couple of episodes, but when I saw him on the front of the box, I found myself thinking, "Wow, Johnny Drama's in this." And Andrew MaCathy has a ball as Pete, but then playing the panto villain who gets to munch on the scenery is always fun. There are also some real stinkers, too. Ben Gazzara as Frank is awful, every line of dialogue he utters is so over-laboured and filled with BIG DRAMATIC EMPHASIS. I cringed everytime he said something. William McNamara doesn't come across much better either. Some of that might be down to the character he's playing, who might be the biggest loser of all of them, but his big puppy-dog eye and the open-mouthed, gormless facial expression he wears in every scene makes it hard for me to give him the benefit of the doubt. And Mario Van Peebles... I can't decide if he gives a bad performance or not, in all honesty. He plays William in a very reserved, constantly nervous way, even before the shit hits the fan. I don't know if it's a strange performance, of if it's just strange seeing him play a character like this, which isn't something he normally does. It's memorable, I'll give him that.

Its during these scenes that Daniel is positioned as the sort-of hero of the film, by making everyone agree that they all have to agree with whatever plan is proposed before they go along with it. Victor's first idea is to blame the whole thing on Pete, but when that results in guns being pulled everybody quickly moves on. The best they can come up with is to dispose of the bodies and then pay the woman upstairs to go away and keep quiet, which she's not down with because, 1) these bastards just killed her sister and her friend, so fuck them, and 2) she has a son and isn't willing to uproot him. As this is going on, there are more deaths- Timan jumps into the swimming pool, drowning himself for apparently being so pathetic, and Daniel and Frank, who start being hostile to each other out of nowhere, get into a scuffle, with Daniel using his military training to overwhelm the old guy, causing him to have a heart attack (thank God). That's your hero, right there.

So things go on like this for a while. The neighbor we saw earlier comes over twice, both times setting off the alarm, causing them to have to shut it off and get rid of him. Incidently, the neighbor's played by Jerry Stiller, father of Ben, who seems really confused in this role, like he had no idea he was supposed to be in this movie until he was called to the set. Daniel finds the woman attempting to escape, and perhaps out of guilt over what he's just done, starts untaping her. This causes his supposed friends to turn on him and now tie him up. They're both brought downstairs, and what the've been uneasily dancing around for the last hour or so is finally verbalised- they kill the surviving stipper, and blame the whole thing on Frank, whose death is no being treated like an early Christmas present. They all go along with it, some of them reluctantly, except Daniel, whose vote they decide no longer counts. As a last resort, Daniel proposes aplan that lets her live, and it's this- they use their collective power to have her son taken away from her, have him placed in foster care, and if she ever says anything, they'll have him killed. I'll say it again, THAT'S YOUR HERO. His idea of saving this woman is to take away the last thing she has left to live for! And she says as much when he puts the idea to her, before telling them all to get bent.

Hearing enough, Pete goes to finisher her off, before Daniel breaks free and rushes him, seemingly kneeing him in the nards and taking his gun. He then offers it to all the other people in the room to se if they have the balls to shoot the girl themselves. They all say no, with the exception of Victor, who snatches the gun off him, says he has too much to lose, proclaims her, "just a fucking whore," and is about to pull the trigger when... his phone goes off. He answers it, and it's the alarm company, informing him that they've had the cops dispatched to his place due to his alarm going off. He tells them that it's nothing, and to call the police off, but they still pull up in his driveway anyway. The watch through the window, trying frantically to come up with a plan for when they knock, when they get a call on the receivers not to bother going in. They turn back, the guys celebrate, and the woman bursts into tears. She then notices that, like a bunch of morons, they've put down not one, but both of the guns, which she picks up and turns on them, shooting Pete in the knee and then firing both point-blank into his chest. The police then burst in (and inexplicably there's now alot more than the two there were just a second ago), shoot the woman, who dies in Daniel's arms as he looks at a picture of her son in a locket she had around her neck, and arrest everybody else, who are all blaming each other for what went down. As it turns out, it didn't matter what they said, as we find out that the last twenty mintes or so of them planning had been accidently recorded on the video camera they were using to record the festivities earlier, and we are informed by Daniel via voiceover that they all served jail-time, the harshest sentences going to Victor and William, who serve seven years. Daniel apparently uses the tape to get off with no charges, even though the tape must have recorded him proposing they kidnap her son, which must have broken some kind of law. We're then told that he feels bad about the woman's death (although he hasn't expressed any remourse for Frank, I want to point that out) that she shouldn't have died, and that he thinks about that every time he sees her son. Whether he now has care of the boy or if he just kept her locket, we're never told. Not that it matters.

I've said before that it's possible to make a cynical, spiteful movie that's actually entertaining to watch. And I stand by that. But if this movie proves anything, it's that there's an art to it. It is possible to write a morally repugnant character that it's fun to spend time with. Take, and this might not seem fair to some people, but take Daniel Plainview from, "There Will be Blood," for example. He's not a nice guy. He's a greedy, manipulative arsehole. But you enjoy watching him, because he's so charasmatic, and he's allowed a little complexity, especially with regards to the relationship he has with his adopted son. Or Tyler Durden! He puts across ideas and makes the case for things that most upstanding citizens would be repulsed by, but everyone who loves "Fight Club," be it the movie or the book, loves him, because he put forward said ideas in such a compelling way. Or... or... THE JOKER! Which one? Doesn't matter! Be it Nicholson or Ledger, he's a murderous psychopath, and he's adored. I went to see "The Dark Knight," with my family, and my mother- MY MOTHER!- said at the end that she thought The Joker was great and that he was her favourite character. So it can be done.

But it's not done here. Here, almost every single character is loathsome, and I hated every second I was in there company. I couldn't wait for this movie to end, and I couldn't wait to throw it away.



I'm actually surprised I'm binning this. I really thought I'd end up keeping it, because whilst I was looking over the box, I saw that my beloved Empire Magazine (and it is love, if I could marry one monthly publication, Empire would be the one, moreso even than Playboy, because I don't think I'd have alot in common with Playboy) had at the time of it's release given it four-stars-out-of-five and proclaimed it, "the best thriller of the year."

That, ladies & gentlemen, that is what you would call a sign of the times.

Until next week, I'm The Cheap-Arse Film Critic, and you're a hooker!


zesty pete said...

We at The No Show like the cut of your jib, sir. Ever considered a career as an occasional and unsalaried guest blogger on our website? Only stipulation: you can not have seen the films you review. Let us know (and well done for adding another voice to the film reviewing morass - we like your stuff).

Redunbeck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Redunbeck said...

You had me at "Andrew McCarthy". Somehow, I was unaware his career had survived after Mannequin.

But, uh, yeah...I cringe when I think of these 90's wannabe-nihilistic kinda "edgy" anti-happiness movies that think they're all smart. They're just so...stupid. The kind of stupid that makes me embarrassed for everyone involved (and God I hate that feeling). At least this doesn't sound as bad as, say, Gregg Araki movies like The Doom Generation or the poetically-titled Totally Fucked Up, but still...This just sounds like a really perverted and, frankly, kinda sexist diatribe from an angry swinging dick posing as quasi-art. Something for me to avoid (thanks for warning me with this review!).

Link_ said...


Chilli Con Carne?

I'm pretty sure it's that.
If it isn't, I sound like a right fool!

The Cheap-Arse Film Critic said...

You are indeed right, sir.

iain said...

Fantastic post mate!

Rachel Tamed said...

Dig the sign off :)