The Films of Oliver Stone
Salvador (July 16/18)
Based on true events, Salvador follows grizzled photojournalist Richard Boyle as he attempts to document the various injustices and atrocities occurring within the title locale. Filmmaker Oliver Stone, working from a script cowritten with Boyle, delivers a gritty and often grim narrative that's generally (and unfortunately) lacking in overtly compelling elements, as the movie's absence of an entry point makes it increasingly difficult to work up any real interest in or sympathy for the protagonist's exploits. This is despite an ongoing inclusion of standout (and stand-alone) sequences that fare better than one might've expected, and it's clear, too, that the picture benefits substantially from Woods' consistently engaging turn as the conflicted central character - although such positives are slowly-but-surely rendered moot by an episodic storyline that is, to a progressively problematic extent, more miss than hit. Stone's decidedly less-than-subtle approach to the material paves the way for an often needlessly heavy-handed and sententious cinematic experience, with the movie's underwhelming final stretch, which is capped off with hopelessly on-the-nose onscreen text, ensuring that Salvador ends on as disappointing and forgettable a note as one could envision. The end result is a well-intentioned misfire that could (and should) have been so much better, with the film's overlong running time essentially highlighting the various deficiencies within Stone and Boyle's shaggy screenplay.
Wall Street (November 8/10)
Directed by Oliver Stone, Wall Street follows green stock broker Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) as he successfully befriends a vicious corporate raider (Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko) and subsequently experiences a substantial bump in both his career and his personal life (ie he takes up with Daryl Hannah's Darien Taylor). There's little doubt that Stone does an impressive job of authentically establishing the movie's cut-throat world of high finance right from the outset, as the filmmaker, along with coscreenwriter Stanley Weiser, offers up a blisteringly-paced narrative that rarely pauses to explain exactly what the central character does or how all of this works. It's subsequently not surprising to note that Wall Street boasts (or suffers from, depending on one's perspective) long stretches of virtually incoherent instances of exposition and activity, with the viewer's interest primarily held by the refreshingly adult atmosphere and by Douglas' consistently mesmerizing performance. The inclusion of several admittedly electrifying sequences - ie Gekko's infamous "greed is good" speech - generally compensates for the periodically overwhelming narrative, although Stone's reliance on a progressively conventional structure, particularly in terms of Bud's familiar rise-and-fall character arc, ensures that the movie peters out as it approaches its far-from-unexpected conclusion. Still, Wall Street is an entertaining piece of work that, more often than not, provides an eye-opening behind-the-scenes glimpse at an almost alien landscape.
Born on the Fourth of July (June 10/18)
Based on true events, Born on the Fourth of July details Ron Kovic's (Tom Cruise) transformation from gung-ho, Vietnam-era American soldier to paraplegic anti-war and pro-human rights political activist. There's ultimately little doubt that Born on the Fourth of July benefits substantially from Cruise's engrossing and often electrifying turn as the tortured protagonist, as the movie, directed by Oliver Stone, suffers from a decidedly familiar atmosphere that's compounded by a palpably overlong running time - with Stone and Kovic's screenplay dwelling far too long on certain things and not long enough on others. (It does feel like, for example, that Ron's stint at a military hospital goes on forever.) It's nevertheless impossible to deny the power and impact of several key sequences (eg even that military hospital stuff possesses a visceral uneasiness that's impossible to deny), and yet it's equally clear that the movie's lack of momentum makes it difficult to wholeheartedly care about or sympathize with the central character's exploits (ie the film is really only effective and affecting in short bursts). The end result is a fairly middle-of-the-road war picture that could've used a great deal of streamlining, with the movie, on the whole, succeeding more as a showcase for Cruise's top-shelf performance than as a fully-realized and consistently entertaining piece of work.
Heaven & Earth
Natural Born Killers
Any Given Sunday (May 17/01)
As of late, Oliver Stone's wildly over-the-top style of (over) directing his projects has gotten to be a little tiresome. But here, within the context of a far-from-subtle a football drama starring Al Pacino as driven coach Tony D'Amato, it really works. The filmmaker's bizarre juxtapositions and even weirder use of sound effects actually enhances what would have otherwise been standard (and dull) scenes of sweaty guys tossing around the pigskin. Stone turns each football match into a balls-to-the-wall, Saving Private Ryan-esque battle for life and death. And even if Stone's rapid-fire style of editing and filming the many football scenes don't appeal to you, there's got to be at least one or two actors in this cast that'll float your boat. Everyone from James Woods to Aaron Eckhart to Charlton Heston pops up at some point, and they're all good. But let's face it, this movie belongs to Pacino. As Tony, Pacino imbues this guy with such raw anger and emotion that it's easy enough to see how he got to where he is. Only Diaz seems like she's out of her league, as the actress spends much of the movie unconvincingly yelling at people - though her anger feels forced. Had Any Given Sunday been about an hour shorter, it'd be deserving of a much higher rating. But as per usual with Stone flicks, he never knows when it's too much of a good thing. Despite a severe case of overlength, however, the movie remains watchable if only for Pacino's amazing performance and the action-packed football sequences.
Alexander (November 23/04)
Alexander is the second major Hollywood film to deal with the famed Grecian warrior - following 1956's hopelessly dull Alexander the Great - and it seems fairly clear that his life just isn't interesting enough to warrant an entire movie (particularly one that runs almost three hours). Director Oliver Stone attempts to imbue the film with a sense of epic grandeur by including a variety of expectedly bizarre stylistic touches, but comes up short in giving us a single character worth rooting for or caring about. With only two battle sequences, much of the movie is devoted to astoundingly dull sequences featuring the soap opera-esque machinations of the various characters (something that's reflected in the exceedingly broad performances). Alexander is, of course, played by Colin Farrell, who effectively steps into the sandals of the legendary ruler and gives a full-bodied performance that's clearly an improvement over Richard Burton (the '50s Alexander). The two actors approach the character in vastly different ways, with Burton going in a far more theatrical direction than Farrell, who instead portrays Alexander as a conflicted yet headstrong warrior. It goes without saying that Farrell is one of the few bright spots in the film, and his ample charisma makes it easy for the audience to believe that thousands of men would've followed Alexander into battle (despite the seemingly insurmountable odds). Some of the other actors don't fare quite as well, particularly Angelina Jolie (cast as Alexander's scheming mother) - who goes comically over-the-top early and often, though it's hard not to imagine that this is partly the fault of Stone. Stone's misguided efforts to turn Alexander into a drama of Shakespearean proportions undoubtedly plays a big role in the film's wildly uneven tone, which flits wildly between talky period piece and flamboyant melodrama (often within the space of a few scenes). Exacerbating matters is Stone's tenancy to liven up sequences with flashy directorial touches (eg the sound of lions roaring while angry soldiers cheer), which are more distracting than anything else. One of the few engrossing moments in the film finds Alexander riling up his men with an impassioned speech, though Stone manages to ruin that by inexplicably cutting to a soaring eagle midway through (a shot that's undeniably impressive, but indicative of the film's off-kilter momentum). Even the film's scarce fight sequences come off as disappointing, thanks to a surfeit of quick cuts and Stone's reliance on handheld cameras. But what it really comes down to is the fact that much of Alexander is just boring, with the movie unlikely to appeal to anyone except the most ardent history buff.
World Trade Center (August 8/06)
Coming just a few short months after the release of Paul Greengrass' 9/11 film United 93, World Trade Center immediately establishes itself as a completely different animal than its counterpart - as director Oliver Stone eschews the jittery authenticity of United 93 in favor of a far more traditional, thoroughly cinematic sort of vibe. And while World Trade Center, which follows Port Authority officers John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) as they're trapped beneath the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, is ultimately marred by a midsection that just doesn't work, there's simply no denying the effectiveness of several individual sequences within the film (particularly those at the story's beginning and end). Concerns over Stone's ability to deliver a straight-forward, unbiased account of that fateful day have been for naught, as the filmmaker abandons his various ticks and tricks and instead infuses Andrea Berloff's screenplay with a distinctly mainstream sensibility. There's virtually nothing within World Trade Center that easily identifies it as a Stone picture; it's as though the filmmaker has consciously removed any trace of his persona in order to placate even his most ardent detractors (ie nobody will find much here worth getting riled up about). The inclusion of several extraordinarily melodramatic sequences within the film's second act only cements this feeling, to the extent that one can't help but wish that such moments had been excised from the final product. Scenes in which John and Will's wives wait patiently (and impatiently) for some news are particularly overwrought and ultimately lend the proceedings an unmistakably inert vibe. Having said that, Cage and Pena's superb performances result in an emotionally resonant and thoroughly compelling final half hour that possesses the sort of impact Stone was undoubtedly aiming for.
Despite Oliver Stone's reputation as a rabble-rousing troublemaker, W. ultimately comes off as an unexpectedly fair and balanced look at the life and career of George W. Bush - with the filmmaker seemingly (and routinely) going out of his way to subvert one's less-than-flattering perception of the United States' 43rd president. The viewer subsequently can't help but walk out of the film with a much higher opinion of the notoriously incompetent commander-in-chief, as Bush is ultimately portrayed as a likeable good ol' boy whose presidency seems to stem primarily from his desire to please his father. Stone, working from Stanley Weiser's screenplay, devotes the lion's share of W.'s running time to the various political maneuverings that occur following 9/11, though the movie often flashes back to Bush's early days as an aimless, heavy-drinking layabout. And while Stone initially proves adept at blending the two time periods, there inevitably reaches a point at which the lack of a linear structure becomes oppressive - with the ensuingly erratic nature of the proceedings effectively preventing the viewer from connecting wholeheartedly with the material. It's consequently not surprising to note that certain sequences have a more pronounced impact than others, as the film's emotionally-driven moments - ie Jeffrey Wright's Colin Powell delivers an impassioned speech within the White House Situation Room - are every bit as stirring and affecting as one might've hoped. In spite of it's various deficiencies, however, W. remains worth a look if only for the uniformly captivating performances - with Josh Brolin's spellbinding work as the central character virtually justifying the film's entire existence. The actor does a superb job of transforming Bush into a fully-realized, unexpectedly compelling figure that never slides into parody or caricature, to such an extent that one is hard-pressed to recall the real deal's features as the movie continues to unfold. W. is, in the end, an ambitious failure that'll most likely please political junkies, with the remainder of viewers sure to be left frustrated by Stone's increasingly uneven modus operandi.
South of the Border
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (November 24/10)
A decidedly inferior sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps follows an ambitious trader (Shia LaBeouf's Jake Moore) as he convinces recently-paroled corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) to work with him on a variety of issues - including a scheme designed to avenge the death of his mentor (Frank Langella's Louis Zabel). Filmmaker Oliver Stone echoes the original film by immediately diving into the financial comings and goings of the various (underdeveloped) characters, which holds the viewer at arm's length from the material and ensures that the majority of what unfolds onscreen comes off as nonsensical mumbo jumbo. The movie's atmosphere of head-scratching complexity is exacerbated by LaBeouf's rather bland turn as Moore, with the one-dimensional nature of the character preventing the viewer from becoming wholeheartedly wrapped up in his ongoing efforts and exploits. The film's problems are compounded by the relative lack of Gordon Gekko, as it often seems as though Douglas' iconic character has been artlessly shoehorned into a previously-written screenplay (ie his very presence feels like an afterthought). And while the movie does boast a few compelling (and all-too-rare) character-based moments - ie Gekko reconciles with his estranged daughter (Carey Mulligan's Winnie) - Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps comes off as a crowded and hopelessly overlong piece of work that improves slightly in its midsection, admittedly, yet the film ultimately limps to its absurdly sentimental finale.
Snowden (October 20/16)
Based on true events, Snowden follows notorious whistleblower Edward Snowden (Joseph Gorden-Levitt) as he becomes increasingly disillusioned with his orders at the NSA and, eventually, decides to leak thousands of classified documents to the press. There's little doubt that Snowden fares best in its fairly captivating opening half hour, as filmmaker Oliver Stone does a strong job of establishing the central character and his ascension from army cadet to government employee - with the movie's watchable vibe perpetuated and heightened by Gordon-Levitt's typically solid work as the central character. (This is despite the fact that he does this weird thing with his voice that's never not distracting.) It's clear, however, that Snowden begins its slow-but-steady nosedive into mediocrity as it moves into its seriously repetitive midsection, as scripters Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald shift the focus to an intense emphasis on the minutia of the protagonist's top-secret work - with the narrative's structure, past a certain point, doggedly following Snowden as he moves from one assignment to the next. The increasingly less-than-compelling vibe is compounded by Stone's inability to effectively develop the relationship between Snowden and his girlfriend (Shailene Woodley's Lindsay Mills), with the majority of such scenes suffering from a bland and generic feel that proves disastrous. There's consequently a lack of momentum here that grows more and more pronounced as time slowly progresses, while the movie's anti-climactic final stretch ensures that Snowden ends on as underwhelming and forgettable a note as one could envision - which ultimately confirms the movie's place as a tremendously disappointing missed opportunity and yet another subpar effort from a once-vital filmmaker.
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