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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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World Trade Center
"World Trade Center" (2006)
Considering his reputation as a provocateur and political firebrand, many were dreading Stone's take on the still-recent events of 9/11. But, following hot on the heels of Paul Greengrass' masterpiece "United 93," the biggest surprise was how conventional a melodrama Stone's film proved to be. He clearly needed to play nice after the tanking of "Alexander," but no one was expecting anything close to the Lifetime movie-of-the-week that "World Trade Center" turned out to be. It's not without its moments: Stone stages the attack itself strongly, albeit in a way reminiscent of 1970s disaster movies, and few directors are as adept at handling male bonding, which makes up much of the second half of the film. But, particularly when put up against Greengrass' picture, it can't help but come across as a somewhat cynical, dishonest piece of work, taking a tragic day and mining a happy ending from it. The political subtexts are a little disturbing (Michael Shannon's character, who later served in Iraq, declaring that "they're going to need some good men out there, to avenge this"), the filmmaking unsubtle — witness the soft focus flashbacks from Nicolas Cage's character, or the religious motifs — and Stone's total inability to depict women has rarely been so demonstrable as in the short shrift given to Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal as the stricken spouses. We're sure that Stone's heart was in the right place, but it comes across as "The Green Berets" of the 9/11 era, rather than the "Born On The Fourth Of July." [D]

W
"W." (2008)
The most striking thing about “W.” is what it isn’t. After wildly embellished movies like “Nixon” and “Natural Born Killers” (even “Any Given Sunday” is pretty weird), “W.,” the third film in his unofficial “president trilogy,” feels positively square. Straightforwardly told and edited, the story of one of history’s most reviled presidents, the war-startin’, election-stealin’, torture-endorsin’, grammar-ignorin’ George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) plays more like a mundane human drama than the toothsome take-down you might have expected. Part of this has to do with the almost limitless amount of humanity Brolin brings to the role, part of it is the sensation that the movie was really, really rushed (because it was). It’s the first movie in Stone’s oeuvre that seems to be crying out for another, definitive director’s cut, one with all the flourishes you’d expect, but alas, it isn’t meant to be. Instead, we’re stuck with this half-formed film, which isn’t without its pleasures (like seeing Richard Dreyfuss mumble his way through a Dick Cheney impression), but there’s not a whole lot to hang onto at the end of the day. It’s a minor effort, for sure, not as totally limp as “World Trade Center” but far from the firing-on-all-cylinders glory of “JFK” or “Nixon.” [B-]

Wall Street Money Never Sleeps
"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" (2010)
Never look back; we covered, back in the day, why many-years-later sequels are rarely ever a good idea, and Stone's sequel to one of his best-known pictures is further confirmation of that. It's easy to see why the film came to pass: the 2008 economic crash made the original seem particularly prescient, and it seemed like the time was ripe for Stone to turn his lens back on the financial world. And his same feel for that environment does return, while Michael Douglas, reprising arguably his most iconic turn, doesn't miss a beat, giving a lovely ambiguity to Gekko's quote-unquote rehabilitation. It's one of his slickest looking films, too, thanks to some sleek cinematography by the great Rodrigo Prieto. But the whole thing just feels rather unnecessary: Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff's script never really scratches the surface, failing to add much insight to what was in the original. And it suffers from a lead -- Shia LaBoeuf's Jacob Moore -- much less interesting than Charlie Sheen in the original, with a half-baked revenge motivation and an insipid romance with Gekko's daughter (an entirely wasted Carey Mulligan). It's not so much that "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" is bad; it's perfectly watchable, and you're unlikely to feel particularly cheated, especially if you're a fan of the first film. But it never really makes a compelling case for its existence, either. [C]

-- Mark Zhuravsky, Drew Taylor, Nick Clement, Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Danielle Johnsen, Kevin Jagernauth, RP

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


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