Friday, February 4, 2011

Oliver Stone Career Retrospective

Oliver Stone used to be one of my favorite filmmakers, but I lost interest in his films after he stopped making movies that looked appealing. Watching Wall Street 2 the other day didn't really change my opinion of his recent run of films (since it totally sucked), but it did rekindle my interest and appreciation for the man's films. Or, anyway, it made me want to look back on them all and share my opinions.

So, here is my (directorial) Career Retrospective on... Oliver Stone:

Seizure (1974)
Never seen it, never heard of it. Apparently it's about a writer who is terrorized by characters from his novels. It stars Jonathan Frid, who people may know better as the star of that TV series Dark Shadows. Um... or maybe not. Anyway, it sounds cool. I'll check it out and get back to you later.

The Hand (1981)
This one I've actually seen, and it wasn't that good. It's about a guy who loses his hand in a car accident (or something), and then it comes alive and starts to terrorize him. It stars Michael Caine, which sounds impressive, but back in the mid 80s Caine was making a lot of shit. This was way before Cider House Rules put him back on top as a notable movie star. Still, Caine is always dependable and Stone's talents as a director make this better than your average B horror movie.

Salvador (1986)
Stone followed up that piece of shit horror movie with an absolute masterpiece. Salvador is seriously one of the best movies from the 80s, and the first great movie made by Oliver Stone. It's a historical fiction about a photojournalist who covers the atrocities happening in El Salvador during the mid 80s. It's harrowing, gripping stuff, featuring an amazing central performance by James Woods, who went on to be an Oliver Stone favorite.

This was only Stone's third film, but his screenplay earned him an Oscar nomination (he had already won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for the 1979 film Midnight Express). James Woods was also nominated for Best Actor, but he lost to Paul Newman for Color of Money. Paul Newman is one of the best actors of all time, but James Wood deserved the award that year. Anyway, great movie. Check it out.

Platoon (1986)
This was the film that made Oliver Stone a major player in Hollwood. Platoon was Stone's first movie about the Vietnam War, and it was so popular and influential, that it ushered in a renewed interest in the war, and helped to give most American's a better appreciation for the troops and what they endured over there. After this movie, everybody made movies about Vietnam, some of the more notable ones being Full Metal Jacket, Gardens of Stone, Hamburger Hill, and the TV series China Beach, among many, many others.

Platoon also garnered Stone his first Oscar as Best Director. His screenplay was also nominated, alongside his screenplay for Salvador, which may be some kind of unparalleled achievement for all I know. Has anybody else ever been nominated for best Director and Best Screenplay twice in the same year? Anyway, Platoon is an amazing movie that holds up as one of the best and most enthralling war movies ever made, helped in no small part because Stone himself was a veteran of the same war.

Wall Street (1987)
I already talked about this film in great detail in my review of the sequel, so I'll just say that this is another great film by Oliver Stone. In many ways, this film is kind of a retelling of Platoon, only set against the world of Wall Street instead of the Vietnam War. It stars Charlie Sheen as a young, idealistic man caught in a world he doesn't understand, being forced to choose between two father figures, one of whom represents good while the other represents evil. Was that a description of Wall Street or Platoon?

Anyway, this isn't my favorite of Stone's films, but only because the subject matter isn't really something that appeals to me. I love American history, so those are the films of his I love the best. However, this is a masterful film that holds up and still entertains today. Skip the sequel and just watch this one.

Also, Michael Douglas won the Oscar for Best Actor for his now iconic performance as Gordon Gekko, and it was absolutely deserved. He's great.

Talk Radio (1988)
Good, perhaps even great, film about, well, a talk radio host. Oliver Stone's direction is exceptional, but this is definitely Eric Bogosian's film, who wrote the screenplay based upon his own stage play and gives an electric performance as the film's lead.

This film didn't receive any Oscar nominations, which ruined the streak Stone had going since Salvador, which is a shame because Bogosian's screenplay and acting performance deserved to be nominated at the very least. This film is well worth checking out, and its views of the media and our obsession with talk radio (or TV, at this point) was astoundingly prescient. But it's not one of my favorite of his films, and it is so bleak and dark that it's almost hard to sit through for multiple viewings.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
This is as good a movie as I've ever seen. This is Oliver Stone's second film about the Vietnam War, dealing with the aftermath of true-life veteran Ron Kovic who was paralyzed during the war. This film was made before Stone went insane (we'll get to that), so while it is passionately anti-war, it is still even handed, fair, and exceptionally thoughtful and well done. This might be the best movie Oliver Stone has ever directed. This film earned Stone his second Oscar as Best Director (and, to date, his last).

Tom Cruise was nominated for Best Actor, but he lost to Daniel Day Lewis for My Left Foot. Whadayagonnado? Any other year, he would've won, and he would've deserved it too. I don't care how nuts Cruise acts on Oprah nor what crackpot religion he's buying into, he'll always get my respect for what he did in this movie. Even if you hate Tom Cruise, see this movie and I bet it'll change your mind.

Great movie.

The Doors (1991)
Oliver Stone followed up his biopic of one of our nation's greatest heroes with a film about one of our most obnoxious, overrated rock stars. I think it's great that Oliver Stone really loves the music of Jim Morrison, but why did he have to make us all watch a movie about it?

If you love Jim Morrison and think The Doors are one of the best bands of all time, you'll probably like this movie. Personally, I think Morrison was ok and I don't mind the music of his band, but I don't particularly love them either, and I think he was popular more because he was handsome than because he had all that much talent. Anyway, I certainly don't think he was a reborn Shaman who had anything of value to say or add to our culture. He was a just a drug addict who made some ok music.

So... I don't really care for this movie. About the best thing I can say about it was that Val Kilmer was probably really good as Jim Morrison, but that just made him annoying.

JFK (1991)
Ah... now we're back on track. I know I said that Born on the Fourth of July was Stone's best film, but this one is my personal favorite. In fact, this is one of my favorite movies of all time. I'd definitely put it in my top ten, but depending on my mood at the time it might even sneak into the top five. Who knows?

Is it historically accurate? Does it demonize people who had nothing to do with a conspiracy or create heroes out of people who probably weren't all that admirable? I don't know. Who can say? I think this was the start of Oliver Stone's descent into full blown insanity, and while that didn't necessarily make for a perfectly accurate or honest look at history, it definitely made for a brilliant, exciting, enthralling, and, ultimately, entertaining movie.

This is the film that really cemented Stone for me as one of my favorite filmmakers. The visual style he introduced in this movie was just amazing, with his signature style of rapid cuts, mixing in various different film stocks within the same scene, and his juxtaposition of imagery to show the emotions of the characters. Also, this film has the all time best cast ever assembled in one movie:

Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, John Candy, Kevin Coster, Kevin Bacon, Walter Mathau, Sissy Spacek, Newman from Seinfeld, Michael Rooker, Joe Pesci, Jack Lemon, Jackie from Roseanne, so many more that I couldn't even begin to name them all. 

Great movie. Stone was nominated for another Best Director Oscar, but he (and the film) lost to Johnathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs, which is also a great movie, but it's no JFK. Longtime Stone Director of Photography Robert Richardson won his first Oscar for this movie, and it was well deserved.

But I still don't think Clay Shaw killed Kennedy.

Heaven and Earth (1993)
I've actually never seen this movie, but I've always intended to. It's the last in Stone's Vietnam War "trilogy," and it's told from the point of view of a Vietnamese girl during the war. Also, Tommy Lee Jones stars. Other than that, I don't know much about it so I can't comment, but I'm sure it's great. Someday I'll see it.

Natural Born Killers (1994)
This one created a lot of controversy when it first came out, and rightly so. It's hyper violent, absolutely insane, and completely irreverent. It's also great fun.

It's ostensibly a satire on our culture's obsession with sex and violence, but who cares about all that because it's just so much damn fun. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis are serial killers going on a rampage across the country. I suppose it's loosely based on the lives of serial killer Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend. It is not for the faint of heart.

I had a friend who once said this wasn't a movie, so much as an experiment in cinematography, and I can't really argue with that. As a narrative, it really makes very little sense and serves no purpose, but it's just a thrill ride for the senses, containing a visual style that takes what Stone did in JFK and turns it up to a million. Anyway, this is fun movie, even if it it's also kind of awful in many ways. I dig it.

Needless to say, no Oscar nominations for this one.

Nixon (1995)
Another one of my favorites. This was Oliver Stone's take on the life of Richard Nixon, and it's brilliant. It's probably as historically accurate as JFK, which is to say... who knows? All I know is that it has the air of truth to it, and that it's super fun to watch.

A lot has been said about Anthony Hopkins in the lead role, but good and bad, but I thought he was great. He doesn't really look all that much like Nixon, but enough to sell the character, and he's such a great actor that he really captured the essence perfectly. He's at times sad, lovable, charming, hateful, and enigmatic. Hopkins was nominated for an Oscar, and so was Joan Allen for her role as Nixon's wife Pat.

I'm going to go ahead and say that this was Oliver Stone's last great movie. Check it out.

U Turn (1997)
I like this movie and think it's a lot of fun, but it's not one of his best.

This is just a weird, almost noirish movie about a big city guy who gets trapped in a small town... where awful things happen. It's funny, exciting, and full of great actors like Sean Penn, Billy Bob Thornton, and Nick Nolte giving insane performances, but it's also really... icky. This is the kind of movie that makes you want to take a shower right after you watch it.

If my friend Anna has read this far, I recommend she checks it out since it's right up her alley, but everybody else might want to stay away. It's just... strange. This movie earned Stone a Razzie nomination for Worst Director, but he lost to Kevin Costner for the Postman.

Any Given Sunday (1999)
In this movie Oliver Stone does for Football what he did for the Kennedy Assassination. If that sounds good to you, you'll love this movie, since it has Stone's distinct visual style and deals with every minute detail of the professional sports industry. I liked it, but I didn't love it, and I haven't seen it since I first saw it in the theater.

It's ok, but it seemed more like Stone's attempt to make a commercial film that would be a hit with the masses. That's not why I see Oliver Stone movies. It's maybe worth watching for Al Pacino, as well as the star-making performance by a young Jamie Foxx. Other than that, his one was just aiight for me, dawg.

Alexander (2004)
This movie should've been a homerun. Oliver Stone directing a period piece about the life story of Alexander the Great? How could that go wrong?

Well... by being boring for one, but it also didn't help that all of the acting performances were so mediocre. Colin Farrell simply didn't have the charisma and presence to pull off his performance as the titular character, but at least he wasn't as laughably terrible as Angelina Jolie, who was either playing his mother or Natasha from the Bullwinkle cartoons. I'm not sure which. The only performance I really enjoyed was Val Kilmer, was over the top as well, but at least he was fun to watch.

I'm not going to go so far as to call this movie bad, since it's full of thrilling sequences and lovely sets, but it just didn't really work. The storytelling was too straight forward for an Oliver Stone film, and it just wasn't very engaging or entertaining. This film earned Stone some more Razzie nominations, but he lost to Catwoman.

World Trade Center (2006)
I actually just watched this film the other day, in anticipation of writing this blog post. It's available for viewing instantly on Netflix, and it's well worth checking out. Had I watched it cold, with no foreknowledge about it, I never would've guessed it was an Oliver Stone film. There are no quick cuts, intermixing of film stocks, and no crazy revelations about how the Twin Towers were taken down by, I dunno, the reanimated corpses of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. So on those things, I was slightly disappointed.

However, this was still a very well made film chronicling the heroics of the 9/11 first responders. I enjoyed it, and certainly consider it Stone's best film since Nixon, for whatever that's worth. It wasn't nominated for any Oscars, but at least it wasn't nominated for any Razzies either.

W. (2008)
This was Oliver Stone's biopic about the then currently sitting president George W. Bush. This was a pretty good film, but ultimately pointless since it lacked bite, a real point of view, or enough historical perspective to make it all that meaningful or profound. It was basically just a dramatic reenactment of all the stuff we were seeing in the news at the time. But, it was also very entertaining and interesting enough to be worth checking out.

The best thing about this movie was Josh Brolin's performance as W. himself. He was fantastic, giving maybe the best central performance in an Oliver Stone film since Tom Cruise starred in Born on the Fourth of July.

I like this movie, but it's not all that amazing or anything. I came away from the theater entertained, but also underwhelmed.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)
You can read my full review here, but I'll save you the trouble: This movie sucked. I'm going to go ahead and say that this is my least favorite Oliver Stone film. It may not be as bad as The Hand, but it was more boring and just as dumb. But while the Hand was an early film that showed the promise of a young filmmaker, Wall Street 2 showed a once brilliant director who has lost his way.

Skip it.

And that brings us to the end of our look at the directorial career of Oliver Stone. He had only one truly bad film, and enough great ones that will stand the test of time. He is still polarizing and controversial, but I'll always love him and look forward to whatever he does next.


Justin Garrett Blum said...

Looking back on Stone's films, it is kind of weird how tame some of his more recent offerings have been. I was surprised, too, that W. was so "meh". Considering how penetrating his film about Nixon was, Stone really handled W with kid gloves by comparison.

About the only really controversial thing in the film was a scene suggesting that Cheney lied about a bunch of shit to get us into a war in Iraq. Well...duh.

television lady said...

I think I saw U turn when it first came out; I remember billy bob continuously ripping him off on car repairs, right?

Any Given Sunday could have been a great film without Cameron "WHERE'S YOUR INTENSITY, TONY?" Diaz. I'm barfing just thinking about it.