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Can't Stop the Movies

Oliver Stone: World Trade Center (2006)

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Oliver Stone seems an unlikely choice to tell the first mainstream drama about 9/11, but here he is with World Trade Center.  This is the story of two officers trapped in the rubble of the tower (Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena), the efforts of those outside to rescue them (Michael Shannon and Stephen Dorff) and their families attempts to stay hopeful (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal).All together nowAndrewCommentaryBannerI don’t envy the task that was laid before Oliver Stone with World Trade Center.  Our media environment has sped up the rate in which we can deal with tragedy or triumph through entertainment.  But the wounds from 9/11 were still very raw and had changed our overall national worldview in such a drastic way that the insanity we delved into afterward.

Stone is not suited to make most of the film we see here.  He was hired to make a stirring tale that serves as a tribute to the survivors and the rescuers who were lost and recovered as a result of 9/11.  That means that Stone has to delve into hopeful emotions and, honestly, he is not capable of that as a creator.  The many flashback and exposition scenes that Cage, Pena, Bello, and Gyllenhaal reek of a schmaltzy Americana that feels unnatural in the context of the film, let alone Stone’s overly colorful renditions of these moments.

The moment’s where Stone’s strengths shine through cycle between painfully awkward and effective.  The awkwardness is never more clear than in any scene involving Michael Shannon.  His talent for intensity and paranoia is perfect for Stone, but not so perfect for the saintly Marine that he is intended to be.  Shannon’s performance is like asking the original Terminator to get a cat out of the tree.  He’s focused to the point that his selfless actions take on an uncomfortable edge and the eventual rescue feels less of a triumph because of that.

Stone’s predilection toward nightmares is better suited to the moments where Cage and Pena are desperately trying to keep themselves invested in their own lives.  The twisted mess of concrete and steel recalls a man-made jungle that is not too far removed from the hell of Platoon.  A moment that could have been cheesy, and I think you found it this way, was when the perfectly formed fireballs threatened to incinerate the two desperate men.  I loved the visual because it shows that, on some level, Stone is presenting this story as a man-made disaster.

Those moments of effectiveness don’t make up for the other shortcomings.  All we need is to look to Stone’s past and see how his involvement in this film was a mistake.  He has had no use for heroes, especially where war is concerned, and I have to wonder who he thought the hero really is in this film and what purpose they served.  At the basest level of plot the five men we open the story with accomplish nothing aside from getting killed and then rescued.  Their rescuers are people like Shannon who growls at his coworkers that “We’re at war and no one realizes it.”  A much more difficult film could have been made from all these same components, but that would have required a level of courage and willingness to stare down professional suicide that no one here had in mind.


Oliver Stone: Looking for Fidel (2004)

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Oliver Stone returns to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro in the wake of the execution of hijackers in Looking for Fidel.To contemplate CastroKyle Commentary BannerLooking for Fidel is a more pointed, focused look at Castro's often controversial control and authority in Cuba—concerning itself with several hijackings in which Cuban citizens commandeered boats and planes to get out of the country and to the U.S.—and as such, it could have been a very different documentary than Comandante. Instead, it plays more like an appendix to that film — even though the interviews here he conducts about a year  later around specific recent events, Stone's cinematic approach is almost exactly the same, and watching it so soon after the earlier movie, we get the feeling that we're jumping in on an extension of the first conversations.

Again, the big difference here is that Stone has gone to interview Castro specifically about these hijackings, one of which the Cuban government declared as an act of terror and resulted in quick closed trials followed almost immediately by executions. Stone's questions this time around bring in evidence from Amnesty International, comparisons to due process as we understand it here in the U.S., and more of a push for Castro to explain how his actions fit within the larger idealized picture he paints of Cuba. He also departs a bit from the form of Comandante by interviewing Cuban citizens separately, though the majority of the screen time is still dominated by Castro. There is a clever sequence in which he and his team are interviewing a group of hijackers awaiting trail, asking them about their motivations, their previous attempts to leave the country, their treatment in jail so far, etc., and the camera eventually pans to show that Fidel is sitting at the head of the table, witness to the entire proceedings.

Scenes like these inject a bit more complexity into the portrayal of the man, because without trying to argue one way or another, they make it difficult for him to exert the full force of his personality on the viewer. When later in this sequence he tells the prisoners almost apologetically that “the state had to take measures” and he hopes they understand this, it's a little harder to see him as the genial old Grandfather Fidel that he's presented (and presents himself as) in Comandante.

With that said, I'm glad this outing limits itself to an hour. There are some interesting scenes here, but even in that short time we eventually start to drift toward some more of Fidel's rambling, philosophical tangents, and too much indulgence there would negate the effectiveness of the new material. I'd have liked to see Stone take a wholly different approach this time around—not necessarily to pull Castro out of the spotlight, but put him on equal footing with the other voices. As much as there is an attempt to get specific insights into what many would view as human rights violations in direct contrast to what he claims to represent, Castro still almost always gets the last word, and that leaves us with a lot of the empty rhetoric of before.


Oliver Stone: Alexander (2004)

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Oliver Stone returns to the world of fiction in this swords and sandals epic centered around the life and accomplishments of Alexander the Great.Look at my horse - my horse is amazingAndrewCommentaryBannerStone has run an impressive streak of films so far that, when they've been bad, have at least been ambitiously bad.  If U Turn was what Stone wanted to see when he was a teenager then Alexander is what happens when that teenager grows up and decides to see what it would look like to burn $155 million in effigy.  It looks like an incredibly uncomfortable Colin Ferrell sporting a back alley blonde dye job, and that's just for starters.

This film, ostensibly about the life and times of Alexander the Great, is a perplexing experience.  It's dull, then rouses itself with a few amazing images, poorly acted in the mains, but in the margins there are performances that redeem some of the more eccentric choices of the film. Silly moments have Angelina Jolie as Alexander's mother doing her impersonation of Natasha Fatale, then a second later Ferrell is staring at a lion with frame-skip activated. Better scenes have Alexander's pretty boy slave, Bagoas (Francisco Bosch), who has a wonderful tenderness in all of his scenes, and rises at least one endless party scene above the other boring dreck.  Then there are those occasionally staggering images, like Alexander taking one final charge in a good old fashioned round of horse versus elephant (which ends as well as you can expect) ending in a blood soaked jungle.

Stone shows that he has the chops to bind both character and image in the highs, but blends them with roughly five other plots and characters that add nothing to the film.   Rosario Dawson plays one of Alexander's many lovers and is basically there to remind you that Jolie is somewhere just off-screen vamping it up against some fruit doing more interesting, if confusing and terrible, things.  Anthony Hopkins narrates for what feels like forever while staring at the sky as I long for a quick inter-title or two because I can read faster than he can nobly intone.  Val Kilmer is Alexander's grumpy papa then gets stabbed, and Jared Leto plays yet another one of Alexander's paramours who makes googly eyes at Alexander in such a way that it reminds me of one of my favorite Onion articles about a different kind of romance.

The sad thing is, despite the nearly two hours all this extra stuff fills up, I understand the point Stone is trying to make.  Alexander is a common Stone protagonist, caught up in paranoia and rage while striving for an imperfect ideal that falters because of his inability to be satisfied.  The larger idea Stone is going for here, no matter how badly handled it is through Hopkins' narration, is that becoming a god in history is as much luck as it is skill and manic determination.

But the idea is lost in those perplexing performances and endless exposition.  Stone instead takes the unusual visual storytelling steps of having all but two of the big battles happen off-screen while Alexander stares at a pond in the rain.  Not exactly riveting stuff, and not helped by Stone's many weird image montages like when papa grumpers is stabbed and Stone cuts to...a map.  No explanation just blood then map.

There's so much more, but pointing out every weird decision in this 3 1/2 hour film would be both a chore and leave you with nothing else to comment on Kyle.  One last thought before you ravish history with your mighty pen, what did Stone think he was going to accomplish with the intermission?  The length certainly calls for one, but it's barely long enough to pee unless you can urinate so fast you achieve escape velocity.


Oliver Stone: Comandante (2003)

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Oliver Stone takes a break from fiction to spend three days interviewing Fidel Castro as he goes about Cuba in Comandante.Poppa C is gonna make it all okKyle Commentary BannerComandante is wonderful propaganda, and I don't necessarily mean that in a negative way. Stone forecasts his film as such from the earliest frames as a sort of response to the anti-Castro propaganda of the U.S. during the Communist hysteria of the '50s and '60s. The title sequence of the movie takes this form, looking like something from a newsreel with pulpy typeface and crashing dramatic music as “Comandante” wipes boldly across the screen.

While we do get occasional glimpses of real propaganda films from the '60s scattered throughout, Stone's approach is a bit more subtle, preferring mostly recorded conversation to do the work of the movie. Make no mistake, this about as one-sided as it gets—aside from a few very gentle questions on controversial events or policies (none of which ever involve more pressing or detailed follow ups), Castro is essentially given the stage to appeal to the audience for the entire running time. As a complex and nuanced look at a major and divisive figure, the movie would fail miserably, but Stone's goal—in certain ways more interesting—is to simply let the man present himself without a critical lens (or at least to make it seem this way). I have no doubt that he wants to portray Castro in a surprising and positive light, and he's a good enough filmmaker that his efforts to deliberately play into Castro's own manipulation of the audience make for interesting meta-viewing.

There are times where Castro is not only very convincing, but also very likeable. He comes off as a soft, almost naïvely humble man whose genuine goal is moving his country forward. There are other times, mostly later in the film, where this carefully cultivated persona risks cracking as his answers to Stone's questions become more vague and politician-speak starts to slip in more heavily. As soon as he is presented with a question that may lead into darker territory, he amps up the “what, me?” gentleness and deflects.

The interesting thing about the film is more how Stone takes a man who was once considered a prominent threat to America and paints him in a light where this idea seems utterly ludicrous. Scenes like one where Castro opens a box he “used to carry a gun in” to find candy inside, which he offers to the crew, are as funny as they are manipulative — showing the man's ability to engage in a friendly way with the film crew, people they meet in the streets, etc. proves nothing under any critical scrutiny, but, well, dammit he seems like such a nice guy.

It also helps that Stone has a likeable and significant screen presence when we see him, because to some extent that makes the illusion that we're seeing the “real” Castro more believable. A transcript of the more politically focused conversations would read like a timid student interview for a college newspaper—but with the careful ordering of scenes, the way we're introduced to Castro not as a political figure but as a nice old man, and the way Stone plays with editing as a distraction during his answers, we're pushed to take everything as a casual conversation between friends, and all the more trustworthy.

None of this is in support or condemnation of Castro, because again, the movie isn't interested in providing a full or complex enough picture of the man to have an argument one way or the other. But in posing as an effort simply to give him a platform to present himself, it becomes an interesting document.


Oliver Stone: Any Given Sunday (1999)

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Oliver Stone gathers a host of his regulars for another genre film in Any Given Sunday.  This time Stone's wandering eye hits on sports films.  Here he shows the rise of Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx), plucked from the third string by coach Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino) and seasoned for the greatest commercial effect by team owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz).Another lonely warriorAndrewCommentaryBannerWe've talked a lot about the mythical editor that could have ridden in on the metal rims of a Moviola to salvage some of these last few films.  I bring this up not because Any Given Sunday is bad, it's actually the first entertaining film he's made since JFK, but because it's bloated.  The run-time is nearly two and a half hours for a story that could have been a killer at an hour and forty or less.

I don't want to underwhelm the movie with half-hearted praise of a running time that could have been because we've done that way too much recently, so here's the good stuff.  Stone's style works surprisingly well for the physical impact of football.  We've seen how well he does more intangible ideas, like paranoia, but I was riveted by the on-field stuff in Any Given Sunday.  Considering the speed of each play it makes sense to have a wide-angle shot of the team, followed by quick cuts to each snap, then a shaky first person view, then back to a medium-shot of the coach, and finally a barely glimpsed impact before the camera wobbles end over end.  It's coherent, blistering editing really forces you to engage physically with the game in a way I don't think any other football film has.

Off the field there's a lot of good going on thanks to the performances.  I loved the performance by Stone favorite John C. McGinley in a delightfully fey turn as a sportscaster.  Then there's Al Pacino in full-on late '90s screaming mode but he's in the right environment for it.  Jamie Foxx is pretty good too in a role that helped bridge his earlier Booty Call days with the quiet, confident intensity that would fuel his run in Django Unchained.  Even Cameron Diaz is great, chewing up whatever scenery Pacino leaves over.

So there's a good bit for me to praise, but still leaves too much left over to criticize.  I liked that Stone at least tried to comment on the way that sports essentially makes slaves out of its participants even if the idea is pummeled in with images of Ben Hur whirring away in the background of more intense moments.  But it's the only real idea that Stone tries to develop off-field, and the rest of the screenplay is devoted to a lot of petty bickering and go-nowhere party scenes that seem like leftover ideas from The Doors that Stone decided to put into overdrive.

It's another genre exercise, one that seeks to entertain and not disgust or, mostly, enlighten - and it's all the better for it.  His time in the controversial spotlight has come to an end and despite the energy he actually seems more confident and relaxed with this film back to the point where he put himself in front of the camera again.  I can handle a B-picture at this point, even if everyone should be operating a grade higher.