Sunday, September 26, 2010

Oeuvres: Oliver Stone

When many people think of Oliver Stone, the first word that comes to mind is "controversy." The first word that comes to my mind is "frustrating."

There is no doubt that Stone is a very skilled director. The trouble is, Stone himself often seems to doubt that.

Time and again in his films, Stone stages brilliant visual sequences, with his early- to mid-90s work being especially enthralling. Using hallucinatory imagery and innovative cutting, Stone's movies in this period were often hypnotic and mesmerizing.

However, his biggest flaw in all his movies is, he doesn't trust his own instincts. He'll do a great job pf making a point visually, then he'll beat the viewer over the head with truly ham-fisted dialogue that dilutes the power of the film. Sometimes the man just doesn't know how to get out of his own way - and more to the point, doesn't know when to shut the hell up.

When Stone does control his excesses, however, he's one of the best directors working. Here's my overview of his films I've seen, which excludes his early work. Given what I've heard about The Hand, that's probably all for the better. A review of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps will follow soon.

Salvador: The first part of a terrific one-two punch that established Stone as a director. The storytelling (and indeed the story itself) is a bit high strung, but James Woods' outstanding work as Richard Boyle carries the film. GRADE: B+

Platoon: If Salvador put Stone on the map, Platoon is the movie that made him an A-lister. Despite some overwrought dialogue, this is still the best Vietnam movie ever made. Sorry, Deer Hunter. Sorry, Apocalypse Now. And sorry, Full Metal Jacket. GRADE: A+

Wall Street: A movie about insider trading might not seem a ripe subject for high drama, but Stone pulls it off by getting some excellent performances from the cast and crafting fine, Scorsese-like visuals in some scenes. If only it were a bit less dramatically obvious ... GRADE: B+

Talk Radio: Few people have seen what is essentially a one-man show with Eric Bogosian as a caustic radio talk show host, and more's the pity. This is one of Stone's most underrated films, with the director and cinematographer Robert Richardson crafting striking imagery out of a limited setting. GRADE: A-

Born on the Fourth of July: The story of Vietnam vet Ron Kovic starts out very well, and then loses its way in the second half once Kovic comes home and struggles with his demons, and Stone struggles to keep his dramatics from overheating. Still, one of Tom Cruise's best performances makes it highly watchable. GRADE: B+

The Doors: Denis Leary summed up the dramatic arc of this film very well. "I'm drunk, I'm nobody; I'm drunk, I'm famous; I'm drunk, I'm dead." A fine lead performance by Val Kilmer and some trippy visuals can't save it. GRADE: C

JFK: Here is the film that is most emblematic of Stone's career. He crafts an astonishing look and feel for the movie, brilliantly capturing the paranoia surrounding the Kennedy assassination - then he undermines it with dull homefront sequences and courtroom speeches that don't just beat the audience over the head - they pummel it with a jackhammer. But even if one thinks it's BS as a historical document, it's visceral power deniable only by the foolish. Sadly, the only version available on DVD is the longer director's cut, which magnifies the flaws and is worth only a B. The theatrical cut is good enough to rate an A-.

Heaven and Earth: Stone's third film in his Vietnam triptych is the least successful. There are good performances and individual moments of power, but the story simply isn't especially well told. GRADE: C+

Natural Born Killers: If the script were as good as the direction, this would be one of Stone's best. As it is, it's the old familiar tale: great visuals, painful sledgehammer storytelling, For the wild imagery alone, though, it's unforgettable. GRADE: B+

Nixon: Stone takes his unorthodox, hypnotic visuals and makes them work in a most unexpected place: a presidential biography. And for once, the script doesn't undercut the film too badly. Terrific acting also bolsters this attempt not to condemn or pardon Nixon, but to understand him. GRADE: A

U-Turn: Once again, the visuals are hypnotic and the cast is solid - but this time the story is so undercooked as to barely be memorable. GRADE: C+

Any Given Sunday: Stone's football movie has some good acting, particularly from Al Pacino and Cameron Diaz, who turns in a surprisingly tough performance. They make it worth a look, but again, the story doesn't stick. GRADE: B-

Alexander: Hoo boy. All of Stone's worst tendencies come to the fore here. And this time, not even the visuals are enough to save what is a long, slow, and improbably boring mess. GRADE: D+

World Trade Center: Stone redeems himself by exercising restraint and simply telling a story straight and telling it very, very well. Some might miss Stone's florid images, but a story this powerful has no need for them. Excellent. GRADE: A+

W.: Stone's second attempt to understand an often vilified president isn't as successful as the first, partly because of cheap psychology,  and partly because Bush was still in office when this was made and so was unfinished.  It's just compelling enough to work, and Josh Brolin's lead performance is outstanding. GRADE: B 

To be continued ...


Anonymous said...

Why didn't you like W as much as other critics?

Allison M. Dickson said...

My teen years were filled with Stone, from JFK to Born on the 4th of July to the Doors to U-Turn to Natural Born Killers. You're right about Stone's storytelling, and that's why I can never really call myself a Stone fan. I'm usually on the outside looking in. I admire his visual sense, but his movies usually wind up either boring me to tears or giving me a headache.

I haven't seen WTC yet, though.