The Films of Oliver Stone Archives - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Oliver Stone: The second-half descent

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Kyle and Andrew foreverKyle and Andrew complete their look at the films of Oliver Stone.  The second half comprised a depressing array of Stone's worst fiction but a few promising documentaries.  Our new director feature starts next week but, for now, enjoy the podcast!

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Stone with text


Oliver Stone: Savages (2012)

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In Oliver Stone's latest, and to-date last, feature film Savages, he tackles the drug trade with his exuberant style.  O (Blake Lively), has been living and loving Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) since they returned with potent marijuana seeds and started a respectable empire.  A drug lord (Selma Hayek) makes their life hell after they refuse to join together and attracts the attention of a dirty DEA Agent (John Travolta).Role playingKyle Commentary BannerThe setup of Savages involves two friends, Chon and Ben, who run a phenomenally successful pot operation out of southern California while involved in a three-way relationship with O (played by Blake Lively), though for all the differences Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's monotonous performances lend the two, she may as well be involved with one guy whose hairstyle changes rapidly and without warning. Since O is played as if a random selection of clips from the O.C. joined together and became a person via black magic, I considered the possibility that the men could each only handle half of the relationship, and that their arrangement was one of self-preservation. You know a movie that's trying to be provocative isn't working when you start checking your email during the sex scenes.

As the movie begins, a Mexican drug kingpin played by Selma Hayek is demanding to partner with Chon and Ben to expand her business in the States, and they refuse her offer, because they are witless morons. Setting into motion the events of the rest of the movie, Lively's character is kidnapped by Hayek's henchman (played as one of the few highlights of the movie by Benecio del Toro), and when that happened I cheered. Out loud. I cheered, alone in my living room, at my TV. I don't think that's the reaction Stone was going for.

Most of what makes Savages so bad, in fact, is the trio of performances at its center, the awfulness of which bafflingly grows stronger the more of them are on-screen together—it's like a talentless Voltron. The supporting roles by del Toro, John Travolta, and Selma Hayek are all far more interesting and well-played, and once the movie gets it's setup done there are a handful of scenes that generate at least some momentum solely because Stone finally gets Chon, Ben, and O off the screen for a few minutes. I especially liked a scene where Travolta's crooked FBI agent is visited at his suburban home by del Toro's slimy enforcer (whose loyalties shift by the minute), and the two negotiating multiple agreements all at once.

At times, Stone seems to want the movie to be a gritty crime tale where everyone is double, triple, and quadruple-crossing everyone else, and then at others he wants it to be a morality fable (complete with Lively's hilariously melodramatic updates on the story, delivered in a horrendous voice-over). Mostly he seems to want it to be a slick and shallow action movie, which is perhaps the strangest part. Benecio del Toro here especially deserves a better movie, Travolta deserves more screen time, and Blake Lively deserves to be in nothing ever again.

I hate Natural Born Killers, which I find unwatchable thanks to the style, but it has something it wants to say (even if we disagree on how substantial that thing is)—Savages is a bit less grating in its basic structure (a bit), but it has nothing to say, and it says nothing aggressively. It's bloated, over-directed, tone-deaf, and underwritten. It's like Bad Boys 2 without Michael Bay's delicate touch for style and humor.


Oliver Stone: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

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Oliver Stone returns to the economic battleground of Wall Street in Money Never Sleeps, the 2010 sequel which takes place during the crash of 2008.  Shia LaBeouf and Carey Mulligan star opposite a returning Michael Douglas to see if greed is still good.Spelling it outAndrewCommentaryBannerWhen we were first starting out in this partnership with Akira Kurosawa you and I tried to place his movies into historical context where appropriate.  There's no avoiding it with Oliver Stone's movies because what he creates is so tied with what is going on in America at that time.  Keeping this in mind, releasing a sequel to Wall Street right after the horrific '08 collapse seems like he's playing an Ace he's had hidden for years and considering the way our action films evolved into schizophrenic paranoia with their editing he could have slipped into JFK mode along the way and might have had another cultural touchstone.

Instead, that same historical context morphs the film from one that is pleasing if dull to one that earns my hatred.  If you divorce this film from American history and Stone's filmography it is a well acted tale about how elder's put up a false front to protect the innocent and those that don't know any better.  Gordon Gekko, once again played by the commanding Michael Douglas, becomes someone who teaches these youngin's a lesson in hubris and how quickly all that money can go away.  Carey Mulligan continues to charm and Shia LaBeouf gets through the film without taking any embarrassing pratfalls.

But the film plays as an optimistic distraction in light of Stone's career and the hardships under the recession makes it intolerably naïve.  Instead of writing the screenplay himself the task was given to Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, responsible for such hard-hitting films like So Undercover and The Switch, and they completely defang Gordon Gekko.  He's a caricature now, a once prominent businessman who squeaks out "Buy my book" and someone willing to abandon his pregnant daughter the next.  Loeb and Schiff completely abandon the consistent menace of the "Greed is good" Gekko and write him with no consistency to offer blunt emotional impact depending on what each scene needs.  Mulligan and LaBeouf's characters are entirely dependent on Gekko to move from A to B so whatever they bring to the table is negligible.

The worst part is that there is almost none of Stone's signature style to this film outside of what he, expectantly, lifts from his earlier film.  Visually the setting starts in opulence and stays that way so we don't even get the story of progress seen in the background of Sheen's tale.  There's nothing as outrageous and sudden as the big success makeover and most of the film takes place in what feels like the same room with the same characters whispering about money under dim lighting conditions.  I suppose there's a meta point that could be made where a film about greed is also about the same old horrible people making the same decisions leading us to the same conclusion, but that would need more acknowledgement of history than Gekko showing up and reminding us how great Douglas is.

Considering this is a man who had recently been making a lot of documentaries, Stone really should have known better.


Oliver Stone: South of the Border (2009)

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ChavezKyle Commentary BannerI have a growing feeling that when we get to Stone's third Castro documentary, all I'm going to be able to do is put up a picture of Cuba as my response. South of the Border is more interesting than the documentaries we've watched previously, but most of that's due to the form. Here Stone interjects his own opinions and some historical narration as a framing device rather than just listening to the subjects speak—it livens things up just long enough for you to realize that he's still not delving too deeply into any complexities inherent to the situations he's documenting.

I really don't have much to say here. Stone is captivated by men whose ideologies and passion bring them into great power and how that power complicates the pureness of the first part. It's a fascinating topic, but these documentaries can't strike the right balance between critical exploration and giving a voice to their subjects.

There are some interesting moments where Stone begins to outline some of the specific ways media or U.S. involvements attempt to alter the course of history in these countries, and an even more interesting comparison could be made between these efforts (made often in the dark or deliberately obscured) and the revolutions themselves, also struggles for control but made in the open. The essential aspect of public involvement and support is a theme throughout this and the previous documentaries. I want to see more of how that support evolves once the leaders are in place, and Stone keeps shying away from it.


Oliver Stone – W. (2008)

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Oliver Stone continues his tradition of trend of biopics by looking at the life of our 43rd President, George W. Bush.  Josh Brolin leads another star-packed ensemble portraying the life and moral decision making of the younger Bush.VictoryKyle Commentary BannerW. isn't a bad movie, but it is a strangely tame one. While it does have moments of intense criticism, they're presented in a goofy and obvious way. Stone wants to criticize the Bush administration, but can't seem to come up with many new ways to do it, and he ends up giving us a movie that tells us things we already know but with most of the bite removed.

The tone is a problem for me here because most of the time it seems verging on outright satire — not political satire with well-placed barbs hidden in the dialogue and interactions, but more broad, as if Stone didn't want us to view the world of the film realistically. Brolin's performance contributes to this throughout, as he plays Bush as essentially a clueless man-child one step away from Will Farrel's take on Saturday Night Live.

It's not that the exaggeration is out of place, but it's also not new or surprising, and this level of silliness prevents him from saying anything truly interesting. If he were to go one step further with it and make this a view of the Bush-era presidency that played up all the common notions of the man and his administration to farcical levels, it may have been more entertaining. If he had reigned it in a bit to attempt to offer a more complex view of Bush's presidency, his underlying criticisms would hit harder and speak deeply to how basic human faults can have far-reaching ramifications. Again, while I don't think this is a bad movie, Stone can't have both.

What does work in a kind of endearing way about W. is Stone's tendency to portray Bush as a man out of his depth who often doesn't even realize the political schemes being constructed around him. He seems to have sympathy for the former president, showing him as a man incapable of living up to his father's enormous expectations and continuously making the wrong choices in a lifelong effort of appeasement. The argument that extends from this is that Bush was a pawn of a corrupt political system, with colleagues of his father using him to enact their own will and plans while he scrambled just to keep up.