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The Films Of Oliver Stone: A Retrospective

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 5, 2012 at 11:05AM

Oliver Stone loves his country, but he is also its loudest critic. Whether tackling history head-on in films like "Platoon" or "Born On The Fourth Of July," or profiling presidents in "JFK," "W." and "Nixon," and even in seemingly genre-centered material like "Natural Born Killers" or "Any Given Sunday," Stone views America in his own unique, if sometimes contradictory ways. His track record is certainly marked by tremendous highs, definite lows and curious middles (mostly with genre excursions like "U-Turn," "Any Given Sunday" and "The Doors") but he is never one to sit still. For evidence of Stone's constantly changing priorities one can look to his last few films — "World Trade Center," "W.," "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" — and truly get a sense of a director driven both by passion and finance, and by a love for his country that is also pained by its failings.
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Talk Radio
"Talk Radio" (1988)
Oliver Stone found a compatriot in Eric Bogosian, whose play and performance supplies much of the grunt work in this tightly wound drama. Essentially a one-man show, Bogosian is aces as Barry Champlain, a shock jock whose passion for spitting vitriol at anyone unfortunate enough to cross his airwaves is matched only by his own self-aggrandized caustic personality. Stone follows Champlain through a sweltering, nerve-wracking day, whirring his camera around the sound booth like a madman but maintaining a firm grip on Bogosian’s exacting performance (despite an over-reliance on sarcasm that typically goes hand in hand with the nervy Jewish film stereotype), while Leslie Hope, Alec Baldwin and Stone regular John C. McGinley all do solid work behind the scenes. "Talk Radio" must have been a passion project for Stone, and it shows — this is personal work for both author and filmmaker, but Stone renders it just conventional enough to stay on the rails, speeding to a surprising and saddening conclusion. Like Barry Champlain, Oliver Stone likes to go all out, but his direction here thankfully shows noticeable restraint. [B+]

Born On The Fourth Of July
"Born on the Fourth of July" (1989)
We cannot pretend to know Oliver Stone the man, but if his films are any indication, Vietnam is a festering wound constantly aching at the soul of the director. With "Born on the Fourth of July," Stone finds an outlet altogether different from the ideological jungle hell of "Platoon" or the straight-laced drama of "Heaven & Earth." The story of Ron Kovic, based on his memoir (an honest and heart-breaking read, seek it out), it stars Tom Cruise as the paralyzed Vietnam vet, struggling to come to terms with a life-changing condition and a country that labels him a hero almost out of desperation. Cruise goes for the (pardon the pun) gold, delving heart and soul into Kovic. Spending most of the film in a wheelchair, Cruise is believable and relatable as a young man unwilling to rehabilitate and assume the role everyone wants him to play. Kovic’s attempts to come to turns with his sacrifice and a costly mistake he made on the front are engrossing, and the supporting cast is as good as they come, with Willem Dafoe again making his mark as another wheelchair-bound veteran who whisks Kovic away to a temporary paradise. Stone’s stylistic choices are right on the money here, whether he’s using color temperature to separate flashbacks from the main story or a brief display of slow motion to capture the incident that permanently upends Kovic’s existence. "Born on the Fourth of July" is an outpouring of emotion, and a well-earned one at that. [A-]

The Doors
"The Doors" (1991)
Oliver Stone's semi-factual look at the life and times of Jim Morrison and his acid-rock band, The Doors, infuses the standard tripped-out and conspiracy-laden Stone rhetoric. Who was Jim Morrison, and why did he fall apart? These seem to be the basic questions posed by Stone, but in the end the viewer is left wondering why they cared in the first place. With mere glimpses of twisted, half-baked memories from Jim's early years, it's hard to understand the evolution of this man, whom Stone seems hellbent on approving of and having us fall in love with. Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll were key notes of the 1960s, but what Stone left out of this film is any of the soul or art that usually coincided with them. It's shot and edited like a TV movie, or worse, a film school project, and there are too many throwaway characters to give the film any real biographical merit. On the positive side, Val Kilmer is sensational as Jim, psychotically engulfing himself in his role, and he made it difficult for many to think of Jim Morrison without conjuring up his portrayal. What could have been an interesting and in-depth look at a tortured musician battling America's prudish and naive idealism, became two hours of whining rock star shaky footage. Stone adores deconstructing and critiquing social norms, and has had great success with it previously, but this picture completely missed the mark. The rise and fall of one of the most noted bands of the 1960s is not captured in "The Doors," and Stone missed many opportunities to make this more than just a drug addled, sad sack story of indulgence and narcissism. It's watchable, if only for the soundtrack, an underutilized Kyle MacLachlan as Ray Manzarek, and Kilmer. [C-]

This article is related to: Oliver Stone, Features, The Essentials, Savages


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