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


  1. Why do I have this weird feelings you forgot Troy- isn't that an Oliver Stone movie? I thought it was...maybe I am mistaken! Anyway, great write-up, another chance to broaden my To See list :)

  2. @Diana Thanks! Troy was actually directed by Wolfgang Peterson, who made the equally dismal Poseidon and The Perfect Storm. But he also made the excellent In the Line of Fire and Das Boot.

    Anyway, Troy is kinda similar to Alexander, so maybe that's why you are confused...? At any rate, thanks for reading!

  3. I much prefer Salvador over Platoon though I think both are great films. Stone from '86 to '94 (w/ the exception of The Doors could do no wrong. Nixon was OK, U-Turn was quite fun, and Any Given Sunday was alright. After that, everything went to shit. I became indifferent towards his left-wing politics while his dramatic features became absolute shit.

    Alexander was yawningly boring with a truly awful cast, except for Val Kilmer. World Trade Center was too drawn-out due to a bad score and a bad subplot with Michael Shannon. W. tried to be overly serious only to end up like a bad SNL parody. Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps was too heavy-handed in its discussion of finances while the drama involving Shia LaBeouf and Carey Mulligan was just bad.

    The Doors is without a doubt, one of the worst films ever made. It's overblown, it's extremely inaccurate, and portrayed Jim Morrison as an incompetent drunk. The Indian scenes didn't make any sense and the Ed Sullivan scene was badly directed. I fucking hate that movie.

    If Savages becomes another shit film, the fucking cunt should retire!

  4. @thevoid99 Whoa, preach brother, preach!

    As far as his post-Any Given Sunday career is concerned, we’re mostly in agreement, although I thought Michael Shannon’s subplot in WTC was the best part of the flick. Everything else I can do without.

    Obviously The Doors is were we disagree most. I love that movie. But, to each his own.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on Natural Born Killers and JFK, as they are easily his most polarizing flicks. I take it you like them?

  5. JFK I think is one of Stone's most essential films.

    Natural Born Killers... well... I still have my 2-VHS copy of the Director's Cut since the DVD doesn't have Oliver Stone's intro to the NIN video "Burn".

    That is in fact, in the director's cut form, my all-time favorite Oliver Stone film. It's fucking insane. It's all over the place. There is no bad performance in that film. If I can get a great copy of that Director's Cut on DVD/Blu Ray with all of those original extra features. I would die happy.

  6. I never really fully appreciated Stone until I saw NATURAL BORN KILLERS. I fucking love that film. I think it's one of the best American movies of the last 50 years. I could go on about it all day.

  7. Glad you liked Natural Born Killers, it's one of my all time favorites. The way Stone captured the heat and the insanity with editing and music is amazing. My second favorite by him is U-Turn, that movie is just crazy and has one of my favorite endings.
    Great article!

  8. Great post, although I'm not a huge Stone fan. There's a huge chunk of his filmography that I haven't seen. Wall Street is great and I've seen most of JFK and like it.

    If I'm thinking of the same cameo from WS2 - I hate it. Character essentially replaced by the actor portraying him.

    I should watch The Doors, Nick from the blog - who is a big Doors fan - loaned it to me and it's been sitting on my shelf for a while.

    Savages looks crazy.

  9. Born on the Fourth of July is my pick for Stone's best film. You pretty much wrote out my exact thoughts about Cruise in this film. It's still his finest performance in a movie.

  10. @Tyler I love it too man, fucking brilliant in its lunacy. Although I must say, I'd KILL to be able to see Tarantino's version of the material. (sigh) Oh well.

  11. @Sati. U-Turn is one I go back and forth on. I think some of it is ingenious in that batshit crazy Stone way, but some of it is just too much. Definitely a worthy guilty pleasure, for me.

  12. @Robert I think that's exactly the reason I LOVE that cameo in WS2. I definitely rolled my eyes when I saw it, but I thought it worked hilariously.

    Give JFK a fresh run through sometime. You know, when you've got a spare 3 plus hours haha.

  13. @Chip Lary That's a movie I love more everytime I watch it. Because of that and Magnolia, Cruise gets a career pass in my book. He's just flawless in both of those movies.

  14. It really does seem like Oliver Stone is very hit-or-miss. I haven't seen quite a few of his 90s movies for some reason, but Platoon remains the best Vietnam War film in my eyes. Wall Street is good 80s fun, and it's too bad the sequel was a waste.

    Savages looks intriguing.

  15. @Eric I'm glad most all of us can agree that he's definitely hit or miss. Platoon is a masterpiece, second only to The Deer Hunter as the best Vietnam War film ever, in my opinion. Same war, two completely different themes.

    Savages looks NUTS!

  16. I never really think of myself as an Oliver Stone fan. But then I look at his work and I'm like shittt, I love that! And that! And that! So many great films, thanks for the reminder.

    I really like your blog -- it's clear how much effort and care you put into each post, fantastic!

  17. @The Kid In The Front Row Thank YOU for reading and commenting!

    About Stone, I'm the same as you, only opposite. I've always considered him one of my favorite directors, but when you look at everything, you have to acknowledge that he's made some crap. But again, the brilliance outweighs the shit, for sure.

  18. JFK leads the way for me. Stone's body of work is amazing. No other director packs as much energy and information into a frame as he does. Of course JFK looks JFK due to the brilliance of Robert Richardson. Well that is not any way taking the credit of Stone. I think JFK as a movie does to the history what hundreds of books couldn't do. As for historical accuracy, I don't think Stone's intention was to be historically accurate, as he says on the commentary, the Warren Commission was a myth and this is my counter-myth. That sums it all. But on the whole, I like the way you have summarized the movies. Keep it coming!

    1. Thanks so much for your kind and insightful comment. I agree, I don't JFK was ever meant to be a play-by-play of historical accuracy - it's Stone's take on what happened. Accurate or not, the flick is fucking fascinating.

  19. Replies
    1. Very much. Hoping it's a return to form for him.

  20. What do you think about JFK's directors cut and the audio commentary of JFK and Natural Born Killers?

    1. I love them all. Stone is one of my favorite director's who does commentaries. These are two of his most controversial films, and I love the way he passionately drones on about them. He never sounds emotional or defensive, which is actually quite a skill.

  21. If I felt strange for liking Killer Joe I feel sick for loving Natural Born Killers. It Is far more fucked up and crazy than I’ve heard. I want to re-watch it, it's such a blast. And I need to see it with the audio commentary on. The film was so fucked-up without repeating itself, that's something. And I also loved Robert Downey Jr. accent, it was so so funny and Tommy Lee Jones just was so...(insert another word than amazing, great or fantastic).
    This film was so overlooked, for acting, for directing, for writing, for cinematography,...for pretty much everything. If it had been released in '70 it would have be nominate. It's right now my second favorite film of 1994 (top 5: Pulp Fiction, NBK, Ed Wood, Lion King and The Shawshank Redemption). Hell, it may be one of my all time favorite films. It's just amazing on every level. I really consider to make an profile for Oliver Stone for how amazing the film was (if JFK is nearly as amazing as this film, I'll do it).

    1. NBK is such a brave of fucking crazy ride. I still can't believe Stone got away with it. I mean, it's SUCH a risky film. But I love it too. RDJ is hysterical in it. That promo reel he has for his show is hilarious.