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The Films Of Oliver Stone: A Retrospective

by The Playlist Staff
July 5, 2012 11:05 AM
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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." (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

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  • easy company | July 6, 2012 10:53 PMReply

    his best film-born on the 4th
    my favorite-the doors

  • Chris138 | July 6, 2012 4:38 PMReply

    Born on the Fourth of July is far and away Oliver Stone's best movie to date, with Nixon not too far behind it. I also liked JFK, but I still don't understand how Tommy Lee Jones got an Oscar nod for his rather forgettable work in that film (at least to me it was). I thought Gary Oldman was far more memorable and deserving of his nomination that year.

    Platoon is his most overrated, and I'm glad to see it not getting as high of praises here as it does elsewhere. There are definitely some powerful moments contained within the movie, but overall the experience comes off as heavy-handed and even a bit stodgy at times. I'm well aware that subtlety has never been one of Stone's strong points, but I feel it comes off more annoyingly in Platoon than in a lot of his other work. It just hasn't aged well to me, especially compared to other Vietnam classics such as Apocalypse Now.

  • Tobias Bowman | July 6, 2012 9:00 AMReply

    Excellent retrospective. Oliver Stone has always been hit and miss for me, I lean more towards his biopics. There is a theme running through most of the films that fell down, the scripts were written by Stone on his own or with a weaker writer. Most of the great films Stone directed were co-written with stronger writers or technical advisers. E.G JFK - awesome - Zach Sklar a journalist and a professor of journalism/U-Turn - missable - John Ridley - jobbing TV writer. Savages is with Don Winslow and Shane Salerno, which points to the fact it is going to be poor.

  • JD | July 6, 2012 5:49 AMReply

    You guys got so many things wrong here that it would take longer then the director's cut of Alexander to list them (just a few: ignoring Stone's work as a screenwriter, except for one mention of Scarface; forgetting Seizure and The Hand; labeling Platoon as "irrelevant"; saying Natural Born Killers has no story; describing The Doors as being "shot and edited like a TV movie" (!??!?); however, you recognize Nixon as being Stone's unacknowledged masterpiece, and that alone justifies this entire article.

  • Matthew Dowd | July 6, 2012 1:09 AMReply

    Matthew Dowd says: Oliver Stone is CIA.

  • AS | July 5, 2012 1:57 PMReply

    Talk Radio has always been my favorite of his. I also love Natural Born Killers, JFK, U Turn and 2/3 of Nixon.

  • Ken | July 5, 2012 1:46 PMReply

    In my view, Platoon, Wall Street, and JFK are undeniable classics. Natural Born Killers is Stone at his most psychotic and (in my opinion) enjoyable. Born on the Fourth of July is great too. The rest of his filmography is spotty, but he was like Rob Reiner and Barry Levinson. Filmmakers who could do no wrong in the '80s and early '90s and then fell off.

  • tristan eldritch | July 5, 2012 12:58 PMReply

    "What could have been an interesting and in-depth look at a tortured musician battling America's prudish and naive idealism...."

    I'm a huge Morrison fan, and Stone's film remains a guilty pleasure for me since I was a kid. The fact is, Morrison simply wasn't a "tortured musician battling America's prudish and naive idealism"; he was a narcissistic, booze and drugs-drenched ROCK STAR, and Stone's film is somewhat closer to the reality for not trying to make him into some kind of Lenny Bruce.

  • Phil Esteen | July 11, 2012 3:38 PM


    To be a 'huge Morrison fan,' your view of the movie seems a little dismissive and simplistic, but this isn't personal because I believe most Stone movies are panned by reductionists who are uncomfortable with Stone's tenacious and uncompromising grip on a subject. Oliver Stone does not use a soft and delicate stroke like Rembrandt, he's more like LeRoy Neiman.

    Nonetheless, reducing Morrison to a drug-addled rock star doesn't seem fair at all. I'm not a big Morrison fan, but the guy was an obvious poet who was both sickened by the excesses of the rock star lifestyle and enamored of the whole Dionysian legend. Morrisson was proud of his poetry, not so much of his shenanigans. This conflict captured Stone's imagination for Jim Morrison and it is one of the details about his life that he wanted to translated to the screen.

    I adored the movie, but I certainly understand a certain wariness about Stone's approach.

  • Marrrk | July 5, 2012 3:37 PM

    I've always found the best part of The Doors to be the way the band's music is used and interwoven throughout the film. Completely seamless, and always the right choice made between original album cuts or live cuts, Kilmer or Morrison, etc. Plus, many call-outs to instances in the band's music history only a serious fan would recognize. Many a music bio-pic director should take note.

  • daniel | July 5, 2012 1:43 PM

    I agree. Still hate that movie though.

  • brian cardio | July 5, 2012 12:57 PMReply

    Seizure was Stone's debut.

  • rotch | July 5, 2012 11:27 AMReply

    No mention of The Hand? One of my favorite bad horror movies ever, and Michael Caine is pretty solid in it. Also: pretty much agree with all the grades on this list.

  • 1% rule | July 5, 2012 11:15 AMReply

    American imperialism? Fuck off Playlist. Was there no way to add this 1% or 99% bullshit in this? Stone, like you fucks, is just an out-of-touch lib.

  • James | July 5, 2012 5:41 PM

    Ouch! Sensitive on this topic, are you? The lady doth protest too much, methinks... It's not possible to intelligently discuss Stone's films without bringing this topic up.

  • AS | July 5, 2012 1:56 PM

    Right, cause you don't sound out-of-touch at all...

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