(On DVD, September 2017) Every so often, Tom Cruise’s superstar stature and kooky personal peculiarities can make everyone forget that he can act. Fortunately, there are plenty of counterexamples throughout his career, few as hard-hitting as his performance in Born on the Fourth of July, as he goes from naïve high-schooler to disillusioned Vietnam veteran. Ably written and directed by Oliver Stone, this is a film that, in many ways, stands as a definitive statement on the experience of many Vietnam veterans—lured into service by idealism, wounded in combat, ostracized by American society. It’s not an easy film to watch, but Cruise is really good in the lead role and the movie acts as a witness to an inglorious period in American history that shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s a long movie, but then again it spans more than a decade in a young man’s life, and part of Cruise’s challenge is to portray both a naïve high-schooler and a grizzled veteran. Willem Defoe also shows up in a pivotal role. Born on the Fourth of July acts as a spiritual sequel of sorts to Platoon, and definitely ranks in the upper third of Stone movies.
(On TV, September 2017) If being tortured sounds like your idea of a great time, then rush to see Midnight Express as soon as possible. If not, well … never mind. The somewhat-true story of an American being imprisoned in Turkey after being caught smuggling drugs, Midnight Express aims to be a comprehensively awful depiction of a young man imprisoned in inhumane conditions. It really pulls no punches, and seemingly delights in making both protagonist and audiences miserable for as long as possible. All the while asking us to sympathize with an avowed drug smuggler. Alan Parker directs an Oliver Stone script, and the two-hour result feels much longer than it has any right to be. If you suspect that I wasn’t particularly thrilled by the experience, you’d be right—After doing my best to stay within the film for a while, I ended up escaping it by working on something else while the rest of the movie played along, glancing up at the screen at periodic intervals but not really being willing to invest myself any further in the story. Whether this counts as a success for the film should be obvious. Given the dour tone of much of the movie, the somewhat happy ending is a bit of a surprise.
(On DVD, May 2017) As someone who’s almost viciously opposed to conspiracy theories, I’m about as far as you can imagine from being someone predisposed to like JFK. As a self-conscious “counter-myth” to the official conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy, JFK multiplies outlandish claims and plot in order to present a messy version of history in which powerful interests conspired to kill a sitting president. From a substance perspective, JFK often feels like a big ball of nonsense, spitting in all directions and actively introducing bad ideas in the discourse. But the big surprise is that despite all of this, I really liked the movie. It is, in many ways, a triumph of execution. Much of it has to do with its hyperactive style of editing, which feels very modern even twenty-five years later. It’s even more remarkable in that contrarily to much of the rapid-fire digital editing since then, JFK’s editing makes sense both from a content and container perspective: it’s often used to fake documentary proof, distinguish between periods, introduce flashbacks (sometimes even flashbacks within flashbacks) and peer into the characters’ minds … and it almost always makes sense. Acting credentials as solid, with a solid Kevin Costner in the lead, and various supporting roles played by such surprising names as Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones (in a very atypical role), Donald Sutherland, Gary Oldman and many others who are not always instantly recognizable in their roles. It all culminates in a barnstormer of a speech that will leave even conspiracy-skeptics cheering for truth and untainted democracy. For a three-hour film, JFK flies by and impresses even as a propaganda piece. It’s kind of amazing, actually, that such a piece of firebrand cinema would be so closely associated with major studio Warner Brothers. The years have been kind to JFK, even though its theory seems increasingly dubious (twenty-five years later, and no deathbed confessions…), its craft seems just as solid now as ever … and perhaps a bit less disorienting as it must have been then.
(Video on-Demand, February 2017) I expect that we’ll continue to talk about Edward Snowden and whether he’s a hero or villain for a long while: Snowden is young, and currently being used as a pawn in geopolitical games … his place in history hasn’t been finalized yet. (I said the same three years ago about Julian Assange in the context of The Fifth Estate, and my opinion of Assange today is strikingly different than what it was back then—people’s lives aren’t limited to a single act.) Still, it takes someone like Oliver Stone to boldly delve into events barely more than three years old and try to come to some kind of a conclusion. As a look at Snowden-the-man, the film is definitely on its subject’s side: He’s shown as a disappointed idealist, a patriot whose opinions eventually diverge from the system he’s been asked to serve. Technical wizard, sympathetic boyfriend, fugitive of circumstances: Snowden is all of those and the film creates a clean dramatic arc for him as he’s invited at the centre of the American Intelligence Community and comes to dislike what he sees. Joseph Gordon-Lewitt is very good as Snowden, incarnating a real-life subject to the point where the film can afford to feature the real Snowden showing up in the film’s coda. It’s also kind of amazing to see Zachary Quinto and Melissa Leo play real people that we can recognize (respectively: Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitras). Stone’s direction is assured, and his script manages to make a complex subject matter accessible even to non-specialists: As an exploration of IT security matters, Snowden is better than most similar films, with acceptable deviations from reality as we know it now. (It’s also, crucially, consistent with Citizenfour.) It’s relatively entertaining, although not without a few lengthier sections and some overly dramatic moments. Snowden is not quite as visually daring as The Fifth Estate (nor is Snowden as fascinating/infuriating as Assange), but it’s a more controlled film, and one that, I suspect, will stand the test of time quite a bit better. But that will depend quite a bit on what happens to Snowden next…
(On DVD, January 2017) I won’t go so far as to say that time can forgive anything—including a wholly unnecessary invasion of a foreign country that ended up killing tens of thousands of people and upsetting the geopolitical balance of an entire region—but barely a week into the Trump administration, I’m far more receptive to a sympathetic portrait of George W. Bush. It took noted agitator Oliver Stone to do it as well, and he didn’t even wait until the end of Bush’s second term to release it. Watching W. ten years later, it’s remarkable how Stone seemed to have been on target even then. For all of the revelations of the past ten years, the events chronicled in W. (hopping in-between a quick biography of Bush’ life, intercut with crucial moments in the ramp up to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq) still ring truthfully, with the personalities of the people involved being immediately recognizable. For those who overdosed on political commentary at the time (myself included), there’s a treat in reactivating those near-forgotten neural pathways and being able to recognize public figures merely from the actors playing them. (Thandie Newton as Condoleeza Rice—woo!) Their portrayal seem harsh but fair—and having Dick Cheney deliver an impromptu presentation on the harsh realities of strategic geopolitics is enough to make one wish for an evil genius rather than an incompetent salesman in the White House. (But I digress … or do I?) Suffice to say that W. may not exonerate Bush from what should weigh on his conscience, but it does humanize a president that was easy to caricature, even though some of the dad/son dynamics in-between Josh Brolin (a fine Bush Jr.) and James Cromwell (a very good Bush Sr.) seem overdone. All I know is that I ended up enjoying W. far more than I expected, and not all of it has to do with validating pointless hours obsessing over American politics.
(On TV, November 2016) There have been many great movies about Vietnam, but for all of the respect I (and others) have for Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter or Full Metal Jacket, I think that Platoon is better than all of them in giving us a cohesive soldier’s view of the conflict, without necessarily building up to a larger metaphorical point. (Apocalypse Now happens in parallel with Vietnam, The Deer Hunter is about the scars it left and Full Metal Jacket is a collection of great sequences with a threadbare link between them.) Oliver Stone writes and directs from his own experiences, and the result has an authenticity that’s hard to shake off. From the first few moments when our protagonist (Charlie Sheen, baby-faced, sympathetic and humble) steps on the ground and sees the haunted veterans, it’s obvious that this is going to be a wart-and-all portrayal of the conflict. By the time our protagonist hooks up with the local drug users, we’re clearly far from pro-war propaganda pieces. Platoon is also canny in how it sets up a conflict between two senior soldiers (one, played by a suitably intense Willem Defoe, trying to be civilized about an uncivilized situation, and the other, played with even more intensity by Tom Berenger, surrendering to the madness) that compel our protagonist to choose a camp. Terrifying combat sequences all build up to a natural conclusion to our viewpoint character’s war experience. Lauded upon release, Platoon is no less effective thirty years later—largely because it sticks close to its own authenticity and doesn’t try to make more than what’s already a significant point about the combat experience.
(Second viewing, On TV, October 2016) I first watched Natural Born Killers on VHS two decades ago, given to me by a friend who thought it was quite the experience. He was right (for summers after, I’d refer to myself jokingly as “Natural Born Christian” whenever I shaved my head), and watching the film again today only highlights it. There isn’t much to the basic plot, as an abused couple goes on a crime rampage, are arrested, become unlikely folk heroes and then react to an attempt to turn them into TV stars during a live interview from the prison in which they’re held. But the way director Oliver Stone chooses to put together the film is special. Blending impressionistic techniques such as animation, double-cutting, various film stocks, repeated lines, colour shifts and tilted cameras (among others), Natural Born Killers aims to create a chaotic atmosphere and reach for bigger themes about violence and media amplification in American society. It still works remarkably well, largely due to solid performances and in-your-face direction. This was Woody Harrelson’s first turn as a quasi-villain, and it’s still creepily effective today. Meanwhile, Juliette Lewis is very good in a role very much in-line of her early persona role—and I say this as someone who doesn’t usually like that persona. Elsewhere in the movie, Rodney Dangerfield is brutally effective as the star of a demented expeditionary sitcom, while Robert Downey Jr. gets a small but memorable role as a ratings-obsessed TV personality. Natural Born Killer is noisy, confusing, exhilarating, depressing and sometimes even beautiful. It remains quite a viewing experience with a relevant message even more than twenty years after release. (Amusingly enough, the channel on which I watched the film at very low volume did not have fully working subtitles, adding to the messy chaos of the viewing experience.)
(In French, On TV, September 2016) There’s something unusual in seeing Oliver Stone delivering a small-town crime thriller like U-Turn: Stone usually takes on wider-scale topics, even in movies like Natural Born Killers where the crime spree is an excuse to talk about violence as a social phenomenon. Here, we’re down to a man (Sean Penn, not bad) unwillingly stuck in a small desert town and getting embroiled in the simmering madness of its inhabitants. Of course, this being a nineties Stone film, it’s quite unlike anyone else’s take on the same topic. Even as a small-scale dark crime comedy, it’s handled with multiple film stocks, quick cuts, impressionistic directing and a dream-like effect. It’s as if Stone reused the Natural Born Killers bag of tricks in service of a B-grade thriller just to see what would happen. As a result, U Turn may not be a classic, but sure holds our attention. It helps that there’s some terrific casting here. Billy Bob Thornton is menacing as a mechanic with uncommon power over our protagonist; Nick Nolte is imposing as a man willing to have his wife killed; Clare Danes and Joaquin Phoenix show up as a dangerous couple, while John Voigt pops up as a blind Indian beggar. But the film partially belongs to Jennifer Lopez, cranking up the heat as a femme fatale. (Being arguably miscast as a Native American doesn’t matter much given the craziness quotient of the film.) As a sunny noir thriller, U-Turn is wild, expressionistic, exploitative and overwhelming, but it’s never dull.
(On-demand Video, November 2012) Oliver Stone certainly knows how to handle criminal mayhem, and if Savages isn’t as good overall as some of its strongest individual moments may suggest, it’s a fairly strong entry in the “California noir” thriller sub-genre. Strikingly contemporary with references to legal marijuana, omnipresent technology (including criminal IT teams) and America’s latest two wars, this efficient adaptation of Don Winslow’s hard-hitting novel is a colorful blend of upstanding criminals of all stripes. Central to the tale is the happy ménage-à-trois between two dedicated drug entrepreneurs and the woman who loves them both, but Savages’ best moments come from the peripheral players: A completely corrupt DEA agent played by John Travolta, a merciless enforcer incarnated by Benicio del Toro and a powerful drug baron handled with icy grace by Salma Hayek. All of them seem to be enjoying their turn to the dark side, so much so that the nominal protagonists of the film seem to fade away. What doesn’t fade, fortunately, is Stone’s attempt to translate the energy of the novel onto film, with self-assured choices, a colorful palette and plenty of narrative forward rhythm despite Savages’ 140-minutes running time. Alas, he also chooses to end on a double-triggered ending that gives unfortunate credence to the stereotype that every ending is happier in Hollywood, ruining a perfectly adequate conclusion with one that may unsettle even happy-ending fans. (Yes, it’s sort-of-prefigured with some narrative warnings at the very beginning of the film. No, it’s still not all that effective –a more powerful film may have been produced by flipping the endings.) Also unfortunate: Blake Lively’s inert voiceovers that seem to be taken from laborious readings of trite material, and the way some subplots seem abandoned mid-way through. Still, there’s a lot to like in the way those modern criminals try to gain advantage over each other, various methods and tricks all eventually leading to a desert confrontation. It’s a bit of a treat for thriller fans looking for something a bit more ambitious than the usual straight-to-video suspense film. Stone may have trouble focusing, but despite significant missteps, Savages frequently clicks when other thrillers chug along, and that’s enough of a distinction to warrant a look.
(In theaters, September 2010) As someone who’s on record as writing that the original Wall Street was “the definitive film of the eighties”, it goes without saying that I had been dreading the idea of a sequel: why mess with quasi-perfection? As seductive as the idea was to revisit those characters in the context of another financial meltdown, there’s no need to say that the idea of a sequel was entirely useless. After seeing the film, I still feel the same way: While director Oliver Stone’s film (he didn’t write it, curiously enough) is a lucid treatment of the 2008 financial crisis and has some interesting things to say about the shared hallucination that are today’s financial markets, it merely plays on the existing Wall Street brand and quickly becomes bogged down in a superfluous romantic drama featuring perhaps the blandest young couple in contemporary cinema. (Shia LaBeouf’s continued acclaim remains a mystery to me given his lack of on-screen personality, but he’s a charismatic powerhouse compared to Carey Mulligan.) With serial numbers filed off, Wall Street 2 is a lucid high-stakes drama skillfully dramatizing a difficult subject… but as a sequel, it lacks some oomph and magic. Still, occasionally, it shines a bit brighter than usual. One fascinating facet of the film’s direction is the blatant use of infographics to illustrate what the characters are saying, reflecting the way our world has become far more abstract since 1987, to a point that we even think in information being presented as computer graphics. While Gekko’s character has been considerably softened (a good creative choice, given the character’s age and his prison experience), Michael Douglas’ august performance still makes him one of the film’s chief attraction –to say nothing of a delightful cameo from another character in the Wall Street universe. What may be missing from the film, however, is the kind of dripping popular outrage that keen observers of the recent meltdown have felt at the way corruption, sociopathy, greed and sheer criminal behaviour are endemic in the financial sector. Wall Street 2 never gets angry the way the original did, and seems content to play with money as long as the right people get some. But wouldn’t that, in itself, be the most damning indictment of our times as seen from 1987?
(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2007) I’ve often maintained that this film should end up being the definitive film of the eighties, and another look at it just confirms my suspicions: It’s ageing really well, with just enough period detail to make it look grounded (ah, mid-eighties technology…) while the film itself is driven with a solid grasp of contemporary filmmaking techniques. The dialogue is delicious, Michael Douglas’s Oscar-winning Gordon Gekko is a fantastic antagonist, the narrative drive of the film just keeps going… oh yes, this film holds up well even today. Even the blank characterization of Charlie Sheen works well up to a point, since the character is supposed to act as our stand-in for the film. Less successful are the lacklustre performances by the two female stars of the film, neither of whom do much to distinguish themselves in underwritten roles. Writer/Director Oliver Stone’s audio commentary is spectacular, informing us about the making of the film, the problems that Stone had in dealing with the actors, reactions to reviews of the film and a deeper look into the thematic intentions of the film. (Hint: It’s all about fathers.) Unfortunately, the documentary featured on the disc is a bit long, relies too much on clips from the film and covers some of the same ground as the commentary. But otherwise, the DVD is an excellent showcase to a great movie.