Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: Introduction & Intial Ranking

On, they have a Movie Lover’s Questionnaire that all of their reviewers have answered to let readers get to know them and their movie going tastes, preferences and experiences. One of the questions on that quiz is: “What's the first movie that made you think, "Hey, some people made this. It didn't just exist. There's a human personality behind it"? My answer to that question would be Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) – which I saw at the tender age of 11 – on a long bus ride back from one of my brother’s hockey games. Despite seeing it on a tiny bus TV screen, the movie blew my 11 year old mind at the time – and has remained one of the most memorable movie watching experiences of my life – and most likely started me down my movie lover’s path. A few years later – in 1994/95 – Stone became, alongside Quentin Tarantino – the first director I truly fell in love with. That was when I saw both Stone’s Natural Born Killers and Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (both 1994). Tarantino had written the first draft of Natural Born Killers as well – and hated what Stone did with it, and the two filmmakers have taken some pot shots at each other ever since. To me though, they were both masterpieces – and that was when my movie obsession came on full bore. Scorsese, the Coens Kubrick, and Paul Thomas Anderson came in the next few years – but it started with Tarantino and Oliver Stone.

What I didn’t know then was that Stone was just finishing what would easily become his greatest era. In fact, I think there are few filmmakers in history who can claim to have as great of a 10 year stretch as Stone did between 1986 and 1995. During that time, he made 10 films, won two best director Oscars (for Platoon in 1986 and Born on the Fourth of July in 1989), made a few films I would consider to be masterpieces (at minimum JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon (1995) – and perhaps Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July as well), and never made a bad film. Sure, Wall Street (1987) has aged – and not well – in the decades since, and The Doors (1991) is wildly uneven, and I’ve never loved Salvador (1986) the way some do – but none of them are bad films in the least. Talk Radio (1988) and Heaven & Earth (1993) are less well known than some of his other films of that era – but both are great films in their own right, and deserve to be more widely seen and talked about.

Before 1986, Stone had directed just two films – Seizure (1974) and The Hand (1981) – both of which I will be watching for the first time as part of this series (when I was obsessed with Stone, I don’t think either was available). In the 20 years since 1995, Stone has only directed 7 additional features (along with some documentaries – with another, Snowden, due next year). None of these films has garnered Stone the kind of recognition he had during his peak – and while I like nearly all of them, and even love a couple, it’s easy to see why. Stone, who used to be the most controversial filmmaker in Hollywood, has hard time drumming up that kind of controversy in the past couple of decades – or perhaps, he just tired of it, since really only 1 of those films (2008’s W.) courted controversy in any real way.

To a certain extent, Stone has been a victim of the vanishing “middle class” movie – movies that exist in budget ranges below blockbusters but above Indies – which is where he did his best work. Studios aren’t much interested in those anymore. Part of it is unquestionably Stone’s fault as well though – the one hugely budgeted film he has made in this time was 2004’s Alexander – a massive critical and commercial failure. He rebounded somewhat with his follow-up – World Trade Center (2006) – which got respectable reviews and box office (which is impressive when you consider it was made during a time when pretty much every movie about 9/11 or the War on Terror was bombing). Perhaps it didn’t help that World Trade Center seemed so unlike an Oliver Stone movie – it almost seems like a Ron Howard film at times, even if I doubt Howard would have painted Michael Shannon’s heroic character in such a dark way (had the entire movie been about him, it may have been a masterpiece).

Perhaps it’s something even simpler than that though. Stone, whose best films seem to be documenting America in the 1960s and 1970s – perhaps ran out of things to say about that time period. Three Vietnam War films, a film about the JFK assassination, and one about Richard Nixon, what else is left for him. Stone certainly had things to say about the 1980s – in films like Salvador, Wall Street and Talk Radio – and I would love to see Oliver Stone’s Reagan – but despite the fact that Stone made one of the great films about the 1990s in Natural Born Killers, he is on shakier ground when dealing in the present. The exception for me is his under rated W., which came out during the tail end of George W. Bush’s Presidency, and was largely greeted with a shrug – probably because to Conservatives it was too much of a hit piece, and for Liberals not enough of one. That film is nowhere near as complex as Stone’s Nixon – but for a very good reason: George W. Bush is nowhere near as complex as Richard Nixon. Stone saw a seemingly average – not stupid – man who got into the White House to prove himself to his dad, which he could do because of who his dad was, and was woefully over the head the entire time.

At this point, I find it hard to see Stone ever truly returning to form again. The type of movie that he is best at making, is the type of movie that doesn’t get made anymore. Perhaps Snowden will do it – I certainly hope so, but we’ve been down this road before.

Stone does, however, remain one of my favorite filmmakers for those films that meant so much to me as a teenager. They meant so much to me in fact that I’ve actually avoided watching many of them for the past decade or so. I have certainly seen JFK and Natural Born Killers in that time period, as well a re-watch of Wall Street before the ill-advised sequel, and I seem to recall a viewing of Talk Radio a couple years ago for some reason. Part of the reason I haven’t re-watched them is simply time – I tend to get wrapped up in the current year’s movies, and don’t watch as many from the past as I probably should. But also partly, I think, I’ve been avoiding them in case I don’t love them the same way now I did as teenager. I’ve certainly changed as a movie lover over the years, so perhaps what once seemed so great, no longer would, and would end up tainting my memory of them. I hope not, but you never know.

So, before Snowden hits next year (when I started re-watching, it was supposed to come out at Christmas – had I known it was going to be next year, I may have put this series off – but, oh well), I plan to go back and watch all 19 of Stone’s previous feature films. I considered added his screenwriter credits as well – Midnight Express (1978 – for which he won an Oscar), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Scarface (1983), Year of the Dragon (1985), 8 Million Ways to Die (1986) and Evita (1996), but adding another six films to the list seemed like a little too much (for these retrospectives, I tend to prefer directors with 15 films or less – they’re easier to get through, and I don’t burn out on them as easily, so 19 films was already pushing it). I also considered adding his documentaries – Commandante (2003), Persona Non Grata (2003), Looking for Fidel (2004), South of the Border (2009), Castro in Winter (2012), The Untold History of the United States (2012-2013), Mi Amigo Hugo (2014) – but that caused the same problem, along with two additional ones – finding 12 hours to watch The Untold History of the United States, and sitting though the docs (most of which I have seen) again. For the most part, I think Stone gets a bad rap for being overly didactic in his films, as I think normally he provides more complexity than he is given credit for (for example, the sympathy he shows for Nixon the man in Nixon, but not Nixon the President) – but that’s a complexity he is either unwilling or unable to show in his docs, which I find rather insufferable at times, despite their good qualities.

So, that leaves 19 features to revisit (or in the case of Seizure and The Hand, watch for the first time). I’m looking forward to this, with equal parts excitement and trepidation. As always in these introductions, I provide a preliminary ranking of the 17 Stone features I have already seen – based on my memory – along with a few thoughts. At the end, I will provide an updated ranking – and yes, some things always change.

17. Alexander (2004) – I’ve only seen this film once – in theaters – so it’s obviously based on the theatrical cut of the film. For this retrospective, I’ll watch the so called “Final” – which is 214 minutes (I would choose the 207 minute “Ultimate Cut”, which Stone says will be his final one – it is his 4th – but as far as I can tell, it’s not on Canadian iTunes, and even Bay Street Video doesn’t have it – I cannot say I blame them, they have the Theatrical Cut, Directors Cut and Final Cut version, for a movie no one really wants to watch)– which may be a colossal mistake. I will say this though for Alexander – whatever it’s (many) flaws are, being boring or unambitious are not among them, so while I may well think it’s Stone’s worst film, I actually am looking forward to watching it again.

16. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) – I actually remember liking this film back in 2010, even if I can barely remember it now, just five years later (and no, I have never had the urge to revisit it). Probably the only film on Stone’s resume I could describe as wholly forgettable.

15. World Trade Center (2006) – The film is actually very well made – and had the film focused on Michael Shannon’s, heroic true believer (who Shannon gives dark under currents to, even if we never see him do anything not heroic) it may well have been a masterpiece. The main thrust of the story is rather forgettable though – which should be possible considering what an incredible true story it is based on.

14. Wall Street (1987) – Michael Douglas’ Oscar winning performance remains great – not much else about the rest of film does however, which is a quintessential 1980s Hollywood film, in ways both good, and bad.

13. Any Given Sunday (1999) – Yes, at nearly 3 hours, the film is too long. And no, Stone’s portrait of professional football as being mainly about greed is not overly shocking. Still, it has some great performances (Jamie Foxx can probably thank Stone for his Oscar, since his “serious” career started here), the bone crunching football sequences are fun to watch, and Al Pacino rips into the scenery just enough to keep his coach from being a caricature, but still be a hell of lot of fun. I rarely think about this film – but every time I see it, I like it.

12. Salvador (1986) – James Woods’ excellent, Oscar nominated performance elevates this movie, about a cynical American reporter in El Salvador, just as the country seems ready to explode. Surprisingly for a Stone movie, it isn’t all that interested in politics – the movie actually gets awkward when they try to discuss them directly – but is rather a character study. On that level, it works fine – and Woods, as mentioned, is terrific. Still, it is in many ways another movie where a white character is at the center of a story that barely involves him – while the darker people who should be at the core, are shunted to the side.

11. Savages (2012) – Stone’s most recent film, is a straight ahead genre piece – an action/thriller about two pot growers/dealers, who end up in the middle of a war between different drug cartels and a corrupt DEA agent. As that, and only that, it is a hell of a lot of fun – although I have to admit the trio at the center of the movie (Aaron Taylor Johnson, Taylor Kitsch and Blake Lively) aren’t nearly as interesting as the supporting cast – Benicio Del Toro, John Travolta and especially Salma Hayek.

10. The Doors (1991) – An uneven movie to be sure, but when the film works, it is amazing – and Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison truly is terrific. Part of the problem, as Roger Ebert pointed out, is that there isn’t much of an arc to Morrison’s life – he was born, got stoned, made some great music, and died. What Stone does do in the film – which makes it somewhat different than many rock biopics, is not overly romanticize Morrison – seeing him mainly as a selfish prick – which is an odd choice, but one that works.

9. U-Turn (1997) – The film that marked the end of Stone’s run on top, was a bomb both critically and commercially back in 1997, and hasn’t earned a lot of fans since. But damn it, I like it for it’s insane weirdness, and willing ensemble, who embrace all that craziness. You meet 10 people who have seen U-Turn, and 9 will hate it. I’m the other guy – and occasionally I come across a fellow traveler who feels the same way. What can I say – we’re weird.

8. W. (2008) – Throughout the George W. Bush years there were a lot of jokes about how dumb he was – but I never thought he was dumb, and neither, really, does Oliver Stone’s film. Instead, it sees him as an average man, born into an extraordinary family, and in an effort to prove himself worthy, he ends up the President of the United States of America, where he proceeds to screw everything up, by letting everyone around him walk all over him, like they have his whole life. Josh Brolin gives a great performance in the central role. No, this is not a complex movie – but W. isn’t a complex man, so it’s a fitting one.

7. Heaven & Earth (1993) – The least well known of Stone’s Vietnam war trilogy, Heaven & Earth deserves to have a much wider audience. Stone doesn’t really portray the Vietnamese people in either Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July – instead, locking in on the American perspective. In Heaven & Earth, he corrects this – telling the story of a Vietnamese woman (a wonderful Hiep Thi Le), who sees her country destroyed – ends up marrying an American soldier, and moving there, to a land of even more confusion. There have been a lot of American movies about the Vietnam War – Heaven & Earth is one of the only ones to tell a story from the other side – and as a result, it should be far better known.

6. Talk Radio (1988) – Talk Radio gets my vote for the most underrated film of Stone’s career – a screen adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s play, starring Bogosian, as a controversial talk radio host, with a death wish, who pokes and prods the jackasses in his audience to respond. Stone avoids almost all of the traps of stage to screen adaptations, and makes an intelligent, funny, brilliantly acted film. Somehow, in the middle of his most well-known period, Stone made this under the radar gem, and not many noticed. That’s a shame.

5. Born on the Fourth of July (1989) – The story of a true believer, who goes to Vietnam, comes back paralyzed from the waist down, as well as bitter, angry and cynical – who tries to drown himself in drugs and alcohol, before he recovers, and comes back to the land of the living. The film functions brilliantly as a companion piece to Platoon – which was about the war itself, whereas this one is about the aftermath of it. As is true of many Stone movies, there is a great performance at the center of the film – this time by Tom Cruise, who has arguably never been better.

4. Platoon (1986)
Platoon was the Best Picture Winner of 1986 – and it has aged better than practically any other film to win the prize that decade (only Amadeus is really in the same class). It is a Vietnam war film, based on Stone’s own experiences, who went over there as a true believer, only to become disillusioned by what he saw there, and torn between two mentors – Tom Berenger’s win at all costs, hardnosed sergeant, and Willem Dafoe’s, drug using hippie, who is still smarter than Berenger. The film is appropriately chaotic, and shows how a young man becomes confused and disillusioned. The film remains one of the best Vietnam War films ever made.

3. Nixon (1995)
Stone’s long (192 or 212 minutes) movie about the life of Richard Nixon is perhaps the greatest film ever made about a real life President. It shows some scenes of Nixon as a boy – but it mainly concentrates on him as a man, and politician, brilliantly played by Anthony Hopkins, as a man driven by his need to be loved to become the President – who is then destroyed by his hubris. It’s a Shakespearean story – brilliantly directed by Stone to be sure, and also brilliantly well written and acted. An utter, and complete, masterwork.

2. Natural Born Killers (1994) – This is perhaps the film I have seen more than any other – not just Oliver Stone film, but any of them. This chaotic, nightmarish vision of hell is over the top and violent from the first frames, and just keeps getting crazier. The film almost plays like its channel hoping, from one demented vision of America to the next – painting a portrait of lovers/killer on the run as heroes, villains and everything in between – but mainly as a product of their violent surroundings – and how they really are the quintessential American couple. Natural Born Killers was a favorite of mine in the 1990s – and continues to look better and better as the years pass.

1. JFK (1991) – Quite simply one of the most stunning films ever made. You don’t need to agree with Stone’s theories in the movie – just like you don’t really need to see Nixon or George W. Bush the same way he does to like those movies. What Stone captures in JFK is the massive sense of loss America experienced when JFK was assassinated. Yes, Stone is spinning a counter narrative here – and whether you see it as true, or the paranoid rantings of a madman, I really do not care. The skill in which Stone makes his argument, the mastery of style is stunning. One of the greatest films ever made.

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