Monday, April 30, 2012

the Directors: Ang Lee

I can think of no contemporary filmmaker who is as successfully diverse as Ang Lee. In his 20-year career, the man hasn’t come remotely close to making the same film twice. He’s tackled Chinese family dynamics, Jane Austen, ‘70s American social commentary, comic book heroes, gay cowboys and Woodstock all with varying fervor and receptiveness.

Unlike many of the other directors I’ve profiled in this series, you can’t necessarily tell that you’re watching an Ang Lee film, as he has no real stylist stamp. But, for better or worse, his work is always different. He’s had a few missteps, sure, but damn if the good doesn’t outweigh the bad.

Note: I have tried desperately to locate Lee’s first film, Pushing Hands, to no avail.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

My Favorite Scene: The Godfather

I want to tell you all a story. Six summers ago, my mother and I went on our annual beach vacation with several of her college friends. The set-up is pretty basic: it’s like The Big Chill, with kids. There’s seven adults, and seven of us kids, all males, and, in that year, all weeks away from being 21 (if some weren’t already).

Friday, April 27, 2012

Pacino vs. De Niro: An Exhaustive Showdown

Since the birth of their careers, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro have had the distinct misfortune of being compared to one another.  When you think about it, on the most basic level, it’s completely unfair to compare the work of two different actors, simply because they come from the same place and have a penchant for playing similar characters.

Or is it?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

As a movie lover, one of the main rules I set for myself while walking into a theater is to go into it with no preconceived notions. Forget what you know or what you think you know. Leave it outside.

That said, it’s a little difficult for me to completely disregard everything I may think I know about a movie like The Cabin in the Woods. I had seen the trailer a few times, and laughed mockingly at each viewing. I didn’t enjoy Thor at all, so I was unimpressed by the casting of Chris Hemsworth, and, while I respect the career of Joss Whedon, his work (on shows like Roseanne, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Angel, and Dollhouse) is simply something that does not appeal to me.

So, basically, I had no reason to see The Cabin in the Woods. That is until the power of film criticism came into play. And make no mistake, we here, us film bloggers, have a distinct ability to drive people to, and keep people away from, movies. Granted, I’ve never in my life read a film review before seeing a movie, but one can very quickly get a sense of buzz surrounding a flick. Buzz is what The Cabin in the Woods received, and buzz is what I capitalized on.
Let’s get down to brass tacks: The Cabin in the Woods is everything it shouldn’t be. It’s an ingeniously crafted horror thriller that never pretends to be smarter than it is, which, in this rare case, is very. It constantly managed to stun and amaze me beyond my wildest imagination. It very quickly broke whatever preconceived barriers I had set for it. I know I have a tendency to be hyperbolic with my sarcasm concerning movies I detest, so please, don’t take this review the wrong way. Just know that The Cabin in the Woods is, by far, the very best film I’ve seen so far this year.

You know why I laughed at the trailer? Because it is generic and awful. Do you know why it’s generic and awful? Because it has to be. If the trailer revealed what the movie reveals early on, then that would take the piss out of the whole experience. In that regard, I applaud first time director Drew Goddard (who co-wrote the film with producer Whedon) and Lionsgate, the studio releasing the film, for exercising discretion in their marketing material. They didn’t give anything away, and neither am I.
All too often, I am given remarkable amounts of shit for being too “snobby” with my film tastes, for not appreciating certain films for what they are. I’m told I’m unable to enjoy summer blockbusters or comedies or horror films because they “aren’t nominated for Oscars.” (Shame wasn’t nominated for any Oscars either, but I’m straying.) Those people couldn’t have it any more wrong. I’m not a snob, I just like good movies. I don’t give a shit who’s in it, who made it, or what it’s about – if it’s good or different or unique, then I can dig it.

The Cabin in the Woods couldn’t be more tied to its horror/action genre roots, which, granted, is usually a death sentence for me. But, alas, the film is good. It is different. It is unique. Actually, to be more accurate, it is rather fucking brilliant. A-

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Please Permit Me to Rave About Girls

I viewed the pilot episode of Girls with completely subjective sensibilities. I literally knew nothing about it. I had seen no preview, viewed no one-sheet, read no review – nothing. And the best way for me to describe how I felt about the pilot was that as soon as it was done, I watched it again.

A breath of fresh air.

You hear that term a lot in the world on pop culture criticism, but that’s exactly what Girls is, especially when you take into context the clichés that muddle practically every other sitcom on television right now.

That first episode of Girls was, to be clear, insightful, probing, jaw-dropping and utterly hilarious. Its razor-sharp cynicism laced with middle-class, twentysomething angst propelled what is (by far) the most accurate conversational dialogue currently on television. The second episode was even better, upping the squirm factor ten-fold, and with gusto. Girls is, in a word, refreshing. But, as I’ve recently discovered, it is also polarizing.

As soon as I finished the pilot for the second time, I got online to see how other people felt about the show. What I found was mostly positive, ecstatic even, but digging deeper, I learned that people not only dislike Girls, they fucking loathe it. Why? At the risk of being presumptuous, I can venture a few guesses.
Allison Williams, daughter of NBC's Brian Williams,
is one of the Girls destined to become a star 
Girls is real. Like… really real. And, if film box office numbers are any indication as to what audiences like to consume on a massive level, people don’t want real. Shame is real. Trust is real. So is We Need to Talk About Kevin and Another Happy Day and Tyrannosaur and Beginners. But how many people saw those movies? I mean really? Critics and dedicated indie fans, and who else? My point is, real has never equated to good, at least not in the eyes of 90 percent of the people watching television and/or movies.

People want their vampires and wizards and modern families and Aquaman movie stars. They want to watch four women who rule New York City with their fashion, money, and prowess, not four girls who want to rule New York City with their dry humor, awkward sex and lack of funds. The last HBO show that was really real was called The Wire, which is widely considered the best show ever produced for the television medium. But how many people actually watched The Wire live for five consecutive seasons? I didn’t. I heard the hyperbolic hype and jumped on the bandwagon late in the game, only to catch up on DVD later.

So, yes, I think the biggest turnoff for Girls is its dedicated accuracy. While myself and damn near every major critic may eat the show’s poignancy up, most people just don’t want to be reminded that life can, you know, be shitty.
But accuracy is only one of the “problems” here. The other major one, so it seems, is the show’s apparent lack of diversity. I’m not black, and it would be offensively unfair for me to say that the fact that Girls does not contain one black lead doesn’t really matter. All’s I can offer on the issue of race is exactly what Woody Allen offers his naysayers regarding the same exact subject. It appears that creator/director/writer/star Lena Dunham is drawing from her personal experiences, and maybe (and again, I’m being presumptuous here) she didn’t share her struggles before, during, or after college with any people of color.

I equate Girls’ lack of diversity to that of the majority of Woody Allen’s films, and, as Allen told Stig Björkman in the book Woody Allen on Woody Allen, Allen’s films don’t contain many black characters because he writes about rich, over privileged, Jewish, upperclass New Yorkers.  This isn’t a fault of Woody Allen’s, nor is it a fault of Lena Dunham’s; they’re writing about what they know. Similarly, Tyler Perry’s movies aren’t bad because they don’t have any white people. Tyler Perry’s movies are bad because they’re bad.

You’ll have to forgive me, this has been as far from a standard review as one can get, but that’s kind of the point. I haven’t even described what Girls is about. How it openly mocks Carrie and Co. and is proudly asserting itself as the anti-Sex and the City. About how Dunham’s main character, Hannah is juggling life in Brooklyn after being abruptly cut off financially by her parents. How Hannah and her smart, or floosy, or wound-tight friends deal with money, sex, and life.  Hell, I haven’t even discussed Dunham’s inspirational career. How she graduated from college and financed, wrote, directed and starred in a tiny movie called Tiny Furniture that made a splash at the festival circuit before nabbing an Indie Spirit Award and being released commercially by The Criterion Collection.
Girls creator/writer/director/star Lena Dunham
I haven’t even gotten into the fact that, at the ripe old age of 25, Lena Dunham has done more for herself based on a flawless work ethic than most people do in their entire artistic careers. In the opening episode of Girls, Hannah tells her parents that she thinks she could be one of the voices of her generation. That may seem like self-congratulatory praise to haters, sure, but that’s exactly what Dunham herself is: a unique voice.

Make no mistake, watching Girls is like watching a History Channel miniseries 20 years from now that’s dedicated to examining the emotional, cultural, and physical effect of America’s current fuckups on contemporary youths. There’s nothing soft or flimsy about Girls – the show is exactly what it aims to be: raw, brutal and sparsely tender.

Girls is realer than reality TV. It’s also the best show on television. My only hope is that HBO has the stones to allow Dunham to tell the stories she wants to tell, for as many seasons as she wants to tell them. It’d be a goddamn shame for this show to go away simply because people aren’t ready for it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Ten Best Actors of All Time Relay Race

So here’s the skinny on The Ten Best Actors of All Time Relay Race: a month and a half ago, Nostra from My Filmviews started a blogathon in which the 10 best actors of all time were listed at random, then passed to a new blogger. From there, the new blogger must remove one actor, before adding an actor to the list.

Having been passed the mantle by Chris from movies and songs 365, I’m the 10th blogger to get a crack at the list. Here is Nostra’s official breakdown of the blogathon:

"So what’s the idea behind the relay? I’ve created a list of what I think are the best actors. At the end of the post I, just like in a real relay race, hand over the baton to another blogger who will write his own post. This blogger will have to remove one actor (that is an obligation) and add his own choice and describe why he/she did this. At the end the blogger chooses another blogger to do the same. The idea is to make this a long race, so that enough bloggers get a chance to remove and add an actor. We will end up with a list (not ranked in order) which represents a common agreement of the best actors.

It will also mean that those who follow this relay race will get to know new blogs as well!"

And here is the progression of the list since March 13:
     Flix Chatter
       Time Well Spent
        The Warning Sign
          And So it Begins...

Here are the actors who have been selected:

Robert De Niro

Daniel Day-Lewis

Charlie Chaplin

Gary Oldman

Marlon Brando

Christian Bale

Gregory Peck

Paul Newman

Anthony Hopkins

My Addition:
Max von Sydow
Choosing an actor to add could go any which way. There’s Denzel, Penn, Nicholson, Pacino, Hackman, Fonda, Lemmon, you name it.

But Chris made a very good point: where are the foreigners? The possibilities are endless, but I’d simply be remiss if I didn’t include the always-superb Max von Sydow to this list.

The man’s filmography reads like a call sheet of masterpieces. The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, Hour of the Wolf, The Passion of Anna – are all excellent films, and, more importantly for our purposes, all contain masterful von Sydow performances. But those are just a few of the movies he made with Ingmar Bergman. The Exorcist, Hannah and Her Sisters, Awakenings, Pelle the Conqueror, Minority Report, Judge Dredd (just kidding… maybe), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Shutter Island – he’s amazing in them all.

Most recently, von Sydow was nominated for an Oscar for his silent performance in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a film I hated, but thought he was wonderful in.

But now for the hard part.

Who I Removed: 
Leonardo DiCaprio
Jaina from Time Well Spent added Leonardo DiCaprio to this list a few weeks ago, and it is with great hesitation that I must replace him.

DiCaprio’s filmography can really be broken down into three distinct sections: there’s pre-Titanic, which I mostly enjoy (examples: This Boy’s Life, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and especially The Basketball Diaries), post-Titanic, which I mostly hate (examples: Man in the Iron Mask, The Beach) and his “please take me seriously” phase that he’s in now, most of which I love.

For me, the turning point was The Aviator. I enjoyed him in Catch Me if You Can, thought he was as bad in Gangs of New York as he was in Titanic, but with The Aviator, I became a believer. Since then, he’s been solid in Blood Diamond, Body of Lies, Shutter Island, and Inception, and been flawless in The Departed and Revolutionary Road. He was good in J. Edgar, but the movie itself failed his performance dramatically.

At any rate, I’m a fan, and I know he’ll kill in The Great Gatsby and Django Unchained.

So, again, no dissing Leo, but if I’m comparing the careers of von Sydow and DiCaprio, it’s really no choice at all. Hopefully von Sydow sticks around as the blogathon continues!

Speaking of which, now that’s it my turn to pass this thing off, and I think Sati at Cinematic Corner is the perfect blogger to take this thing over. Have at it!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Earrings: Filming Part 2

Around 2 p.m. on Wednesday, as I tracked Catherine walking hurriedly down the darkly-lit hallway of a large hotel, I told her to slow her pace, before I stopped recording. I put the camera down, looked at her and said the single best three words a filmmaker can say: “That’s a wrap.”

She put up her right hand, gave me a high five, and that was that, Earrings was wrapped.  According to Catherine, who makes a practice out of keeping very detailed notes, we spent 25 hours filming the movie over the course of five days. That’s not including time to prep the set and get the cast and crew ready for whatever we were shooting. 25 for 5, not half bad.
Andrew and Catherine taking a break from filming at Fryman Park
Filming this movie was one of the most difficult and demanding things I’ve ever done. Sleep was rarely afforded for more than a few hours a night, mountains were traversed at 5:30 in the morning, the sound produced by helicopters was a constant source of agony, and on and on. I’m hard pressed to think of a time in which so much was demanded from me throughout five consecutive days. But with all that in mind, I’m elated that the film is in the can. I haven’t the slightest shred of a psychotropic substance in my body right now, but damn do I feel high.

In my last Earrings post, I described the insurmountable frustration of filming an eight page conversation on top of Fryman Park. It’s a long scene to get through, anywhere from six and a half to seven minutes, depending on the pacing of the actors’ line deliveries. And nearly every single take, in one way or another, was ruined by outside factors. Helicopters, airplanes, chatty walkers, dogs, you name it. So, after posting the blog entry, I did what I was dreading – I watched all of the footage we shot of that scene. And midway through the third take, I knew we had to reshoot. This meant several things needed to be amended right away. A new location, extended shooting times, tweeks in the dialogue, and so on. It was an extremely tense evening, but I can confidently assert that the first take we shot of the scene the following day was the happiest I was during the shoot.

As the actors delivered the final lines of their exchange, a few tears swelled in my eyes. I knew we had it, and I was ecstatic.
A still from the reshot conversation scene
Truthfully, there were dozens of moments like that while shooting this thing. I’ll save most for another day, but let me just say that if you run your lead actress to the point of exhaustion for four straight days, expect her to actually fall asleep when you’re shooting a scene in which she is required to wake up from sleeping. 

Shooting Earrings has, in no uncertain terms, been one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life. In a brilliant circumstance of timing and chance, a few of us involved in the film are currently at the Coachella music festival. I’m considering it our three-day wrap party. I’ll be back to blogging full time on Monday, but for now, I have some celebrating to do.

Thank you all SO MUCH for your continued support. Every tweet, text, e-mail, every Facebook message and phone call – they’ve honestly kept me going. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


This is going to be one of the most difficult film reviews I’ve ever written.  I’ve lobbied hard for Bully. When the MPAA slapped it with an R rating (for six non-sexual utterances of the word “fuck”) I did whatever I could to try and amend that decision. I blogged about getting the film appealed to a PG-13 rating, signed petitions, marketed the cause to friends, and so on. It was important for two reasons: one, the MPAA has long since needed a very hard kick in the ass, and Bully was the perfect opportunity to dish it out. Secondly, I fought for the film because Bully was a movie people needed to see. It was going to be hard hitting and honest. It was going to change things.

And here’s where the difficulty of this review comes into play… while the MPAA certainly was given a thorough ass kicking (Bully was recently re-rated PG-13), the film, I shamefully report, is nowhere near as good as it should be. It’s timid, clumsy, and most significantly, void of any form of resolve. It is a noble misfire if there ever was one.
Bully chronicles a handful of stories of bullying throughout small town America. There’s Alex, a 12-year-old kid who clearly doesn’t comprehend the full horror of his situation; an athletic, straight A student who brought a loaded gun on a school bus to get bullies off her back; a lesbian who was denounced by her school and town for coming out; quiet parents grappling with the recent suicide of their son, and so on. The stories themselves speak volumes – make no mistake, Bully documents pure adolescent hell that may very well move you to tears.

It also, rather flawlessly, captures how ill-equipped many school officials are at handling extreme cases of bullying. There’s an assistant principal in the film, for example, who delivers the most terrifying performance I’ve seen in a movie in years. She’s a woman so far out of her depth, without the slightest clue on how to handle adolescent aggression, that she should immediately be removed from her position and not allowed within 100 yards of children for the rest of her life. In one heartbreaking scene, she tells an innocent, bullied kid that he is the one responsible for attracting aggressors (which could not be further from the truth).
So, don’t get me wrong, Bully aims to do great things. What it manages to catch on camera is rather frightening. Alex, for instance, is the victim of several horrendous acts of violence on his school bus. They’re so bad that I’m wondering who filmed the scenes, and how. (Did a child have the camera? Was an adult sitting there the whole time?) But the problem of the film is that it doesn’t push its issue hard enough.  It’s almost as if director Lee Hirsch elected to pull his punches and not show really how bad it can get. This is an unspeakable shame. Hirsch clearly had unprecedented access to the hallways of the American public school system, and what he came out with is a few cuts and bruises, when he should’ve been going for the jugular. Alex, in my opinion, is an American hero, and his story deserves better.

A final quarrel: I don’t watch documentaries to have a message impacted on me. If a film does have a message, that’s fine, but I don’t think it’s a requirement of the genre. Knowing that, Bully does virtually nothing to help cement its stance. Are bullied kids supposed to play nice and warm up to their bullies? Are bullies supposed to know better? Are parents supposed to step in more? Is violence the answer? I have no idea, and neither does Hirsch’s film.

Tweets like this, as it were, could not be more accurate:

Bully is a well intentioned film that may have changed the MPAA’s failed position on foul language in movies, but the film itself is far too reserved to be labeled as anything but mediocre. Remember, a noble failure. C

Monday, April 16, 2012

Earrings: Filming Part 1

Making a movie is hard. You want everything to go right, but you have to be willing to accept that some things won’t. Every single step of the filmmaking process is, to me, about translating the vision in your head into a coherent final product. There are hiccups and hurdles and frustrations, but, when you’re the crazy son of a bitch responsible for the whole thing, it’s important to step back, breathe, and remember. Remember that, hell, making movies sure does beat working.

But more on that later.

To be clear: filming for Earrings is going fantastic so far. We’re halfway through shooting, with two more days of principle photography to get in the can, and I couldn’t be in a better place emotionally and creatively. Translating ideas onto the page has never been difficult for me; by the time I’m completely finished with a script, I’m always confident that it is the story I want to tell. Shooting a film is different. There are so many outside factors that appear to want nothing more than to damage the vision you set for yourself. But there’s a trick to trumping the curveballs: hire people who know what the fuck they’re doing.
An "untouched" still photo from filming
Catherine and I have been friends for many years, so we have a vernacular on set, or lack thereof, that is completely cohesive during the shooting of a movie. I can say very little about how I want her to play or tweek a scene, and she is able to translate that flawlessly onto the screen. She doesn’t forget lines or gestures or mannerisms – she improves upon them.

Yesterday was the most difficult day emotionally of shooting. We spent the majority of the evening filming several scenes that required her to give everything, which she did, and then some. There’s really not much more I can say about the work she’s doing other than I simply cannot wait to share it with you all. Switching the lead role of this movie from a man to a woman was the smartest thing that could’ve been done. Period.
Another still image from set
Likewise the talents of Martin, Andrew, and Nathan, the three other major players of the cast. Each have taken my direction incredibly, and have never once given the slightest shred of pushback if some of those outside factors are fucking things up. For example, this morning I spent six hours on top of a mountain in Los Angeles filming a very lengthy conversation between Catherine and Martin. But because of the helicopters and airplanes and dogs and women on their cell phones, capturing the sound was a nightmare. They had to do it over and over and over and over. Throughout this, they never presented the faintest shred of frustration. I simply couldn’t ask for a better crew.

Which brings me to another point. Film is often considered a visual medium. Think about it, how many times do you find yourself talking about that excellent piece of sound mixing? Hardly ever. You discuss cash registers being thrown through convenience store windows in slow motion. Or the magnetic way half of Liv Ullman’s face matches with half of Bibi Andersson’s face. I’m an extremely visual person, and it has taken me until this movie to understand the importance (no, the necessity) of capturing crisp sound on a movie set. I’ve never pretended to know much about the art of recording sound, but I can tell you, after spending a few days with Dan, my sound engineer, I have a newfound respect for people who make a living holding boom mics.
Dan and I have polar opposite methods of filming. I’m fast and raw and speak my own language. Dan is patient, decisive, and is in dire need of hearing the words “action” and “cut.” I’ve never, literally never, begun a take with the word “action” and ended it with “cut.” It seems so… snappy to me. As in: Perform, now! But I’ve learned that many crew members on a set need those words to do their jobs. Basically, having someone like Dan around, someone with completely different philosophies on cinematic capture, has been remarkable. I’m not annoyed that he does things differently, I’m enlightened.

A final note on those hiccups and hurdles. After the 12th take of Catherine and Martin’s long conversation was ruined by the persistent sound of airplanes, I put the camera down and walked away. I needed a minute to shield my aggravation. Everyone was performing so well, and to have their work ruined by things we couldn’t control was just crippling. So I looked out.

I looked out over Wilacre Park. Over Studio City resting miles below. I took in the bright blue sky, the plush green trees and the 80 degree sun. I closed my eyes and reminded myself aloud that if I wasn’t here, shooting a movie under the Los Angeles sun, then I’d be behind a desk wondering when I’m going to make my next movie. I opened my eyes and looked back at Catherine, Martin, and Dan, who were all waiting for me to come back and say “action.” Which I did. I know no better feeling than that.

Friday, April 13, 2012

the Directors: Oliver Stone

Auteur and provocateur are two mutually exclusive character descriptions when describing Oliver Stone, the artist. The man is responsible for some of the most searing and controversial films in the history of cinema. His unapologetic frankness has allowed him to become, and remain, one of the most revered American directors to ever step behind a camera. But his penchant for pushing the envelope has also been his biggest downfall.

Truth is, for every masterful Stone film, he has produced at least one less-than-mediocre movie. But when taking in Stone’s entire body of work into account, those missteps simply do not matter. Stone has given a voice to the silent and an understanding to the judged. And, more often than not, he’s done it with a frenzied style that is unmistakably his own. Love or hate the man, there’s no denying the power that lies within his best work.

Seizure (1974)
Seizure, as is the case with many debut films, is a complete and utter farce.  A few friends go on a weekend cabin getaway and get offed one by one by mysterious evil beings, one of which is played, for no apparent purpose, by a dwarf. At least I think that's what happens.  

Seizure plays like Stone and his friends went away for a weekend, dropped acid and decided to put cameras on and make an impromptu horror movie (which, let’s be honest, may not be too far off.) A completely absurd waste of time. D-

The Hand (1981)
Not a whole hell of a lot more advanced than Seizure, The Hand is a horror film about a comic book artist who loses his hand, only to discover that his lost appendage is killing people. Yes, the hand crawls, climbs, strangles, etc.  There are hand POV shots, awful shrieking music, and a horrendous, phoned-in performance by Michael Caine.

Temporarily saves itself with a groovy ending, but all in all, a complete B-movie bore. D

Salvador (1986)
For his first film as a serious filmmaker, Stone told the story of a photojournalist who travels to the titular war zone to document its current Civil War.  In the course of his journey, the photographer (an arguably career-best James Woods) becomes enamored with both sides of the conflict.  Chaos ensues, hell breaks loose, and we’re finally able to see what Oliver Stone is all about.

I know people who swear by Salvador and go as far as to call it Stone's best film. Strong words. Me? I’m not nearly as taken with it.  While Woods is nothing less than superb, the film is overly long and becomes diluted with its confusing politics.

Sign of redemption: the film's ending, which is so utterly mortifying and accurate (without being graphic) that it makes any faults of the film nearly excusable.  That climax shows the true hell and unexpected chance of war.  I just wish the rest of the film could keep up. B

Platoon (1986)
Platoon is funny, yet terrifying; moving yet infuriating. From its opening credit sequence deep in the heart of the jungle onward, Stone immerses us in a world many would prefer to turn their back on.  A particular scene to highlight (well, other than this one) is Stone’s recreation of the My Lai Massacre, which includes some of the most brutally honest moments of war ever put on film.

The characters in Stone’s masterpiece breathe and glisten with life – their mannerisms, ways of speaking, and specific attitudes and opinions on damn near every topic make the film flourish. Thrilling action sequences help, as does the Stone’s haunting, reoccurring use of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings

I could go on for hours about Platoon, it is an essential component of the cinematic medium. A+

Wall Street (1987)
In Wall Street, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is a young, ambitious broker who becomes captivated by the infamous Gordo Gecko (Michael Douglas), a Wall Street hustler motivated by greed.

Michael Douglas, in an Oscar winning role, is as good as movie villains get.  The character is beautifully written, fully realized, and of course, masterfully portrayed.  Charlie Sheen as Bud, and Martin Sheen as Bud’s father, are also quite good, but the film as a whole gets slightly muddled down with unnecessary details, most frequently related to a useless love interest subplot.

At any rate, Wall Street is necessary viewing for anyone in need of a full, balanced scope of Stone’s body of work. Besides, if you haven’t seen Douglas’ truly iconic performance, you’re seriously missing out. B

Talk Radio (1988)
In Talk Radio, character actor Eric Bogosian plays shock jock Barry Champlain, a guy who makes a living verbally kicking ass and taking names, with little regard to the opinions of outsiders.  He’s a real son of a bitch, but he’s an admitted son of a bitch, which makes Bogosian’s performance that much more amusing.  As is the case with most of Stone's best films, Talk Radio has the ability to shift tones impeccably, beginning primarily as a comedy but never shy of turning deadly serious.

Take, for instance, the scenes in which Barry talks (on the phone and finally in person) with a possibly crazed fan (played by Stone regular Michael Wincott, who, save Christopher Walken, may have the best movie voice in the history of contemporary cinema).  Bogosian and Wincott's scenes together are humorous, until they’re not. There’s always a lurking danger hidden between the wiseassness of their exchanges.

Talk Radio is a breezy, (mostly) fun film.  One that deserves far more attention and credit than it’s ever gotten.  B+

Born of the Fourth of July (1989)
For the second film in his Vietnam War trilogy, Stone tells the true story of Ron Kovick, a good ol’ boy who enlisted in Vietnam, lost the use of his legs, and ultimately became one of the war’s most outspoken critics.

Born of the Fourth of July gets right what so many biopics get wrong: it shows us the man with unapologetic openness. Stone isn't interested in idolizing a man just because he literally gave part of his life for his country, he wants to explore the darkness and depravity.  This is achieved as a result of many things, none more relevant than a revelatory Tom Cruise, who, up until that point, had made career playing amusing wise asses.

Take, for example, the scene in which a recently returned Ron has a drunken argument with his mother.  What starts as an alcohol-infused disagreement quickly evolves into a gut wrenching moment of utter despair.  It’s the finest scene of Tom Cruise’s career, and something I cannot watch without being deeply shaken. Cruise was a shoe-in for the Best Actor Oscar, and in a lesser year (he appropriately lost to Daniel Day-Lewis for My Left Foot) he would’ve won without breaking a sweat.

No matter, Stone and Cruise’s encapsulation of Kovick is nothing short of astounding. A great, heroic film about great, heroic man. A

The Doors (1991)
A few years ago, I was completely indifferent toward the music spawned by Jim Morrison and his wildly popular band, not to mention Val Kilmer’s overall capabilities as an actor. Now, I’m an insatiable Doors fan and find value in much (but not all) of Kilmer’s acting choices. Why? Oliver Stone’s The Doors.

The mark of a good biopic can be assumed by many things, chief among them is the notion that you can enjoy the film without being particularly keen on its subject. And believe me, in no way do you have to be a fan of The Doors to appreciate Stone's all encompassing biography. The film chronicles The Doors from their garage-band folklore to sold out crowds at massive venues. Along the way, the film shows how Morrison (played uncannily by Kilmer) convinced his bandmates that using psychedelic drugs could make their music more effective, which opens itself up to a host of gloriously Stoneian montages.

But really, The Doors is about more than Morrison’s much-hyped drug use. It’s about his inability to function sexually as a man, his desire to rebuke any form of authority, his thirst for narcissistic control – it’s about a guy who lived and died on the top, without giving a damn what other people thought. Detractors may find the film overly long and misguided. I couldn’t disagree more; it plays like an extended acid trip through one man’s inner turmoil. A

JFK (1991)
For my money, Oliver Stone’s exhaustive, poignant, controversial, beautiful, maddening retelling of the aftermath of JFK’s assassination is an American masterpiece of cinema. Is it 100 percent accurate? I certainly doubt it. Do I care? Not at all. I don’t watch JFK (or any other narrative film, for that matter) for an accurate history lesson, I watch JFK to be enthralled, which this three-hour epic offers no shortage of.

The controversy surrounding JFK has long-since outweighed the brilliance that is contained within the film itself. And make no mistake, JFK is as good (and as heated) as everything you’ve heard. The acting, for one, is faultless by every participant involved, no matter the size of the role. (Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, Joe Pesci, Kevin Bacon, and Jack Lemmon could’ve easily occupied every spot of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.) But beyond that, Robert Richardson’s fluid cinematography, Stone and Zachary Sklar’s punchy script, John Williams’ restrained score, and much more, all contribute to this film’s greatness.

If JFK has flaws, it is in its historical accuracy, which I don’t concern myself with, and thereby cannot comment on. As a film, it is indeed flawless. A+

Heaven & Earth (1993)
Arguably Stone’s most unknown feature film is this devastating conclusion to his Vietnam War trilogy. Where Platoon captured the hell in country, and Born on the Fourth of July chronicled the hell upon coming home, Heaven & Earth documents the dual hell of the war and its aftermath seen through the eyes of an innocent Vietnamese girl, Le Ly.

Le Ly’s life can be categorized by different stages of agony. First as a kid living in an impoverished village, then as a scared-shitless young woman fighting to stay alive in the midst of war, and finally as an adult woman who is coming to terms with the fact that the American Sergeant who rescued her from war-torn Vietnam is clearly not the man he said he was.

Heaven & Earth is real, raw, and evocative in all the best Stone ways. Oh, and did I mention that it’s all 100 percent true? A must see. A-

Natural Born Killers (1994)
Jumping headfirst back into scandalous notoriety, Natural Born Killers is one the most controversial American films ever made. Polarizing in both story and execution, the film joyfully depicts two crazed lovers killing, raping, and robbing whoever they come in contact with as the travel across America. The film is divisive for many reasons – for the jubilance displayed by Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) throughout their killing spree, and also for the numerous alleged copycat crimes that the film spawned.

But I can’t afford to get bogged down by things like that. If psychopaths who shoot up their school claim Natural Born Killers to be one of their leading motivators, then, yes, that is tragic, but to say the movies are to blame is grossly inaccurate. (Again, a movie review is probably not the best place to discuss this topic.)

Anyway, if you haven’t seen Natural Born Killers, believe me, it’s far more fucked up and crazy than you’ve heard. But it’s also rather remarkable. Using every feasible type of filmic style (the movie ingeniously implores black and white, animation, ‘50s-style sitcom, laugh track, color filters, and more), Natural Born Killers is a film so unhinged yet aware of what it’s doing, that you can’t help but appreciate it. The final act of this film, in which the mad lovers lead a prison riot, is some of the best filmmaking Stone has ever put on screen. Remember: unhinged, yet aware. A

Nixon (1995)
Trying to capitalize off the success of JFK, Stone’s Nixon, while a worthy, exhaustive venture, was a box office failure that remains Stone’s most critically acclaimed, but commercially ignored film.

Don’t get me wrong, Anthony Hopkins is miraculous as Richard Nixon, he gives the man more depth and complication than you could possibly imagine. And the rest of the cast, including Joan Allen, James Woods, Paul Sorvino, Ed Harris and especially Bob Hoskins (playing J. Edgar Hoover as an out-and-out queen) are all stellar, but the film is simply too long and uneven. Making a movie longer than three hours isn’t the issue, it’s keeping our full interest and attention for that time (as JFK does) that matters.

Nixon is full of remarkable scenes that document the addiction of power, my favorite being Nixon quietly approaching his unsuspecting protestors at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, but if the film were 30-45 minutes shorter, those scenes would be that much more impactful.  Again, in no way a bad film, it’s just too much film. B+

U-Turn (1997)
Back to Natural Born Killers territory, U-Turn is a warped mind fuck of a flick in which Bobby, a big-city drifter played by Sean Penn, gets stranded in a small Arizona town on the wrong side of nowhere. Within hours, Bobby is wrapped up in a scheme that involves incest, kidnapping, murder, money, sex for murder, sex for money, and the direct opposite of small town hospitality.

While I enjoy the frenzied madness of U-Turn, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle said it best when he described the film as a demonstration of “a filmmaker in complete command of his craft and with little control over his impulses.” Natural Born Killers is too much for the sake of benefiting its feverish material, U-Turn is too much for the sake of being too much. There are certain aspects I enjoy (Billy Bob Thornton’s idiotic mechanic is a real highlight), but for the most part, U-Turn is an exaggerated exercise into the minds of the demented. C+

Any Given Sunday (1999)
I consider Any Given Sunday the best sports film ever made. Period. (This is made possible by not considering Raging Bull a sports film, which it isn’t.)

The clichés that bog down the sports movie genre, especially as it relates to football films, is enough to keep me off the cinematic gridiron forever. But what Stone did (or, more accurately, does, as this movie continually feels alive) with Any Given Sunday was singlehandedly reinvigorate a dead genre by injecting it with caffeinated lunacy.

Any Given Sunday pulsates to life with manic editing, dizzying cinematography, thunderous music, dynamic acting, and so on. You can take most any scene and spend hours breaking down the editing cuts alone. Take, for example, the epic argument that head coach Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino, who hasn’t been as good since) has with star quarterback Steamin’ Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx, in a star-making role). Their verbal battle of ego and vanity is grand enough, but Stone heightens the tension by brilliantly crosscutting their argument with the notorious chariot scene from Ben-Hur. (This also makes Charlton Heston’s cameo in Any Given Sunday that much more inspiring.) This scene, like most of the movie, should in no way work. It should feel exhausting and laborious, like watching two and half hours of Top 40 music videos, but Stone is simply too skilled to let the film get out of control.

Let me put it this way: I’m not fan of professional football. At all. So to say that the final football game of this film is one of the best sequences of the 1990s is to say quite a lot. A

Comandante (2003)
Oliver Stone has that polarizing Sean Penn quality about himself – the notion of not being able to separate the opinionated politician from the artist. But for someone as politically apathetic as myself, Comandante is a rather riveting documentary in which Stone aims to get answers from within the heart of the lion’s den.

The only information I have concerning Fidel Castro has come from the mouths of Americans. So, to me, watching Stone interview Castro for roughly 100 minutes is insightful and probing. Do I agree with everything being said? Not necessarily. But at least we’re hearing it from the actually man, not talking heads. B

Alexander (2004)
I was really quite excited to see Stone’s Alexander. I was eager to view Stone’s decades-long passion project come alive on the screen. But roughly 30 minutes into the film, that initial enthusiasm had completely vanished, instead replaced by continually rolling eyes and an occasionally dropped jaw.

There’s no need to go about this delicately – Alexander is an awful film. And, save the final Battle of Hydaspes, there is nothing to take away from the most disastrous movie of Stone’s career. When Stone released a shortened Director’s Cut on DVD, I was curious, but reviews indicated that the cuts made no difference. And while I have a very slight interest in seeing his final, definitive three and a half Alexander Revisited, I have a suspicion that it simply won’t be worth it. D

World Trade Center (2006)
World Trade Center caught a tough break. It was presented as clean and endearing from a guy who usually does just the opposite. But it also had the misfortune of being released just months after Paul Greengrass’s masterful United 93.

Maybe comparing the two films isn’t fair, because while they deal with the same event, they tell very different stories. Greengrass went for the jugular and never hinted at letting go. Stone chose the more sentimental route, getting exceptional performances by every single person in his cast (Michael Shannon and Viola Davis are highlights for me).

Would I value or appreciate World Trade Center more had I seen it before United 93? I doubt it. It’s a noble accomplishment, but a glossed over one at that. B

(Note: Am I the only person who finds it interesting that a film about one, if not the, darkest day in American history marks Stone’s first PG-13 rated movie?)

W. (2008)
Taking the balls-out approach of commercially slamming a current President, W. is an amusing, inspired biopic that ultimately feels misguided and empty. Every single member of the cast deliver superb caricatures of their respective characters, namely Josh Brolin, who, all things considered, probably should’ve been nominated for an Oscar, but W. is simply too uneven to be labeled great.

Excellent sequences, like Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) making it clear that once the US enters Iraq, there is no reason to leave, are muddled and lost in silly scenes like the choking pretzel bit. Did George W. Bush joke on a pretzel while watching television in the White House? Yes, he did. But are there more pertinent episodes from Bush’s life to depict here? Yes, there are. B-

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)
My main problem with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is its inability to break down its material for those of us who don’t spend our free time watching C-SPAN. Basically, I didn’t have the slightest clue what all the white guys in really expensive suits sitting around really expensive oak wood conference tables were talking about, and, if executed correctly, I wouldn’t have cared.

Like I said in my original review, I have no idea how to diffuse a bomb, but that doesn’t make The Hurt Locker any less interesting. This Wall Street seems too concerned with telling the WHOLE story, as opposed to one that makes coherent sense.

Beyond that, I found it wildly unnecessary to include all the subplots (the mentor, the mother, the motorcycles) in what is essentially a movie about a young kid trying to make good on a hustle. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps definitely has its moments (a particularly inspired cameo comes to mind), but I could just as easily live without it. C-

South of the Border (2009)
Much like Comandante, Stone, and his documentary South of the Border, has been criticized for being sympathetic to a heinous leader. But, much like my opinions on Comandante, I find Stone’s interviews with Hugo Chávez to be engaging and informative.

As a film, South of the Border is better put together than Comandante, and the knowledge the film derives from its interviews are refreshing in their candor. If you’re remotely interested in Chávez and/or Stone’s filmmaking, South of the Border is a completely worthy venture. B

Savages (out July 6, 2012)
Stone has been in a bit of a slump as of late, and I’m hoping this drug crime story will be a return to feverish form. The trailer is pretty badass, so here’s to hoping. 

In Summation
Born of the Fourth of July
Natural Born Killers
Any Given Sunday

Talk Radio
The Doors
Heaven & Earth
World Trade Center

Wall Street
South of the Border

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Just Plain Bad
The Hand