"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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Aquaman: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Popcorn Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A real bore of a superhero movie that is as odious as week old chum.

Aquaman, written by David Leslie Johnson and Will Beale and directed by James Wan, is the origin story of DC comic book superhero Aquaman, who is the bastard son of a queen from the underwater empire of Atlantis. The film stars Jason Mamoa as Aquaman with supporting turns from Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Amber Heard and Patrick Wilson.

Having spent the last few months almost exclusively at the art house and reeking of its pretentiousness, I decided to head out to the cineplex in search of some mindless fun. Aquaman is putting up Black Panther-esque numbers at the box office as it has made nearly a billion dollars since its release in late December and has come in first in the money tally for three straight weekends, so I figured it would be a good choice for my descent back into the cinema of the unwashed hoi polloi.

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The problem with Aquaman is not that it is mindless fun, the problem with it is that it is so mindless that it is absolutely no fun. The film is so chock full of nonsense it feels like a parody of a superhero film. This version of Aquaman made me feel as if the dead eyed Vincent Chase from HBO’s faux-Hollywood sexploitation show Entourage really did get to make his Aquaman movie in real life.

A few weeks ago I saw a headline that read “Director James Wan Says to Blame Him if Aquaman Fails”. It is nice to know who to blame. I am sure that Wan was referring to the film’s box office and not its artistic merit when he spoke of failure, but since I judge a movie on its merits and not its finances, I’ll still point the finger at Wan. Although to be fair, Wan is not the sole owner of blame for Aquaman’s stinkiness. The suits at Warner Brothers and their DC point man Goeff Johns are just as guilty if not more so than Wan. I mean, who thought up this monstrosity and more importantly, who thought it would be a good idea?

Aquaman is such a derivative and unoriginal bore it is like a sea serpent that wraps itself around you and slowly suffocates you to death over two and a half long hours. It is so unrelenting in its imbecility that the harder you fight against it the harder it squeezes the life out of you until you simply acquiesce and let it drown you in its inanity.

The film is basically trying to turn Aquaman into King Arthur of the Sea or something but is so convoluted and tone deaf it ends up being less an homage to that myth than a vomiting up of a rancid cliche fish stew of every other super hero movie. The pacing and the tone are all over the place, the narrative structure is distractingly serpentine and the film lacks any and all thematic and dramatic depth.

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On the bright side, Jason Mamoa is a very likable actor and to his credit, at the very least, proves himself worthy of carrying a big budget action film for two and a half hours, which is no small feat. But even his charms wear pretty thin as he has to repeat the same old tired superhero moves over and over again. In the opening fight sequence, I counted at least three times that Momoa’s Aquaman did the standard superhero three point landing along with three superhero “gonna kick some ass” looks with accompanying music cues, and that was just in the first 5 minutes of Mamoa’s screen time. So much posing, so little time…how exhausting that must have been.

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As I said, I like Jason Mamoa, and frankly it is to his credit that I cannot imagine anyone else playing the part anymore. Mamoa has a natural charm and charisma on screen and combined with his surfer dude/biker gang persona, makes his Aquaman palatable. Although to be fair, I probably like Jason Mamoa because we look so much alike. If it weren’t for the fact that he is a little bit shorter and has a slightly higher body fat percentage than me, we could be identical twins.

As for the rest of the cast, they pretty much embarrass themselves by being stuck in this dull and ridiculous farce. Having worked with coaching clients on roles like these, I know how hard they can be. I have clients rolling around on my office floor fighting imaginary monsters all the time, and let me tell you, it is one of the most difficult things for an actor to do. Buying into this sort of nonsense, especially when the script is so hackneyed, takes a Herculean effort and a great deal of self-confidence and commitment. That is why I felt so bad for poor Willem Dafoe, who deserves so much better than this mess, or Nicole Kidman and Patrick Wilson, who had to do all of this foolishness with a straight face. I also felt awful for Amber Heard, who is absolutely dreadful in her role and seems like a puppy lost on a highway.

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To the actor’s and film’s credit, it is not only a tremendous filmmaking accomplishment but a tremendous evolutionary accomplishment just to get this film made at all. I mean, how all of these actors were able to hold their breath underwater for such long takes is literally a miracle. Add to that the fact that they were able to speak all of their dialogue so clearly and engage in very complicated fight choreography despite the lack of oxygen and under the massive pressure of the ocean, is a staggering achievement for humanity. And then to think that it wasn’t just the actors under water for hours on end for days, weeks and months, but the crew as well. I shudder to think of the poor hair and makeup people and how they kept everyone beautiful at such cold, pressure filled depths.

Another group that deserves credit are the animal wranglers on the set. I had no idea that sea creatures, from great white sharks to giant squid to octopus to giant crabs, could be so tamed and controllable. To see Willem Dafoe riding a hammerhead shark with such aplomb is not only a testament to the death-defying skill of Dafoe, but to the professionalism of the shark as well. I know the Academy Awards scuttled the Popular Film category this year, but I hope they consider a Best Non-Human Acting category in order to reward the fish cast of Aquaman, because they sure as hell deserve it!

In conclusion, Aquaman didn’t make me angry because it was so bad, it simply made me tune out very early on because of its repetitive and stultifying dullness. As someone who is one of those rare people who actually liked DC’s Batman v Superman and mildly approved of Justice League, I had no use for the mess that is Aquaman. Even if you love superhero movies, you can skip this one in the theatre and see it on Netflix for free. If you are even remotely less than a superhero uber-fanatic, there is no reason to ever waste your time watching this stinky and decaying fish tale.

©2019

At Eternity's Gate: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendaion: SKIP IT. I found this film to be an art house failure…a noble art house failure…but a failure nonetheless.

At Eternity’s Gate, directed by Julian Schnabel and written by Schnabel, Jean-Claude Carriere and Louise Kugelberg, is the story of the final years of iconic painter Vincent van Gogh. The film stars Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh, with supporting turns from Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen and Oscar Isaac.

2018 has been, to be frank, a down year for movies, at least thus far. Yes, there have been some interesting and good films, like The Death of Stalin, You Were Never Really Here, The Sisters Brothers, First Man and A Quiet Place, but nothing that you’d describe as a masterpiece. Since it is now late November, the clock is quickly running out for 2018 to redeem itself. One film which I was very excited to see and which I thought might be the beginning of a turn around for 2018 cinema was At Eternity’s Gate.

The reason for my cinematic optimism as opposed to my usual pessimism or downright cynicism, was that At Eternity’s Gate had a lot going for it. First off, I am one of those people who loves museums and can stare at paintings all day. I am certainly no expert on the subject, but I know enough about painting to know that a movie about Vincent van Gogh is right up my alley.

Secondly, At Eternity’s Gate also boasts an artistically ambitious art house director, Julian Schnabel, who has proven with some of his previous films like Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, that he can succeed with daring and unconventional choices.

Thirdly, At Eternity’s Gate stars Willem Dafoe, who is an actor I greatly admire and who is unquestionably one of the more intriguing talents of his generation.

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And finally, I had At Eternity’s Gate’s release date circled on my calendar because van Gogh is one of the more fascinating characters and his artwork and personal history are most definitely worthy of the big screen, especially in the hands of a fellow artist, as Julian Schnabel is first a painter and secondly a filmmaker, which one would assume gives him great insight into the mind and vision of a master like van Gogh.

With all of that going for it, and with all of my hopes riding on it, much to my chagrin, At Eternity’s Gate falls well short of being a great film, or even an important one, and the blame for that falls squarely on the shoulders of director Julian Schnabel.

As I wrote previously, Schnabel has made a handful of films, some of them were very good, but he is still not a filmmaker, for he lacks the skill, craft and vision of a filmmaker, rather he is a painter who makes films.

What Schnabel and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme try to do with At Eternity’s Gate is to transport the viewer into the mind of van Gogh, a noble and ambitious idea, but the sad truth is that neither of these men have the requisite skill or mastery of craft to be able to pull off such a cinematically difficult and dramatically imperative task.

A case in point is that in numerous scenes Schnabel and Delhomme use a split focus diopter attachment on the camera lens to convey a sense of seeing the world through Vincent’s perspective and eyes. What the split diopter does, at least in this case, is it puts the upper part of the screen in clear focus and the bottom half out of focus and off kilter, the result of which is a disorienting and ultimately annoying visual experience that does not propel the narrative or enhance empathy for the character. Using a split focus diopter is a novel idea, but the way Schnabel/Delhomme use it ultimately does little to draw the viewer in, but only succeeds in creating a somewhat frustrating and distorted view of the world.

Schnabel’s split diopter decision is more akin to a film school experiment than the execution of a master’s deft touch. The split diopter does not recreate van Gogh’s vision of the world, it only distorts our literal vision without any dramatic purpose or meaning. An example where Schnabel used a visual stunt and perspective wisely was in his 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, where he painstakingly shot from the point of view of his main character in order to put the viewer into the confines of a helpless and paralyzed body. In that instance, Schnabel was effective with his unconventional approach, but in At Eternity’s Gate, he seems to be trying to be unconventional and artsy for unconventional and artsy’s sake.

At Eternity’s Gate is filled with all sorts of film making gimmicks that tend to fall cinematically flat and feel more like parlor tricks than artistic vision. These errors, coupled with Delhomme’s frantically improvised handheld camera work, result in At Eternity’s Gate being, for the most part and much to my shock and disappointment, visually underwhelming.

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What was so disheartening to me was that Schnabel of all people, should have understood that van Gogh’s view of the world should have been intensified through the use of the camera, not muddled with hackneyed optical tricks, in order to draw audiences into his world. Delhomme, who is also a painter himself, is simply ill-equipped to do what van Gogh did, which is make the most of the world he inhabited and translate it into masterpieces. How Schnabel and Delhomme didn’t focus on intensifying and heightening color and contrast in a film about van Gogh is beyond me.

I couldn’t help but think of the 2014 Mike Leigh film Mr. Turner while watching At Eternity’s Gate. Mr. Turner is about famed British painter J.M.W Turner and cinematographer Dick Pope’s work on that film is staggering and brilliant. Through the artistry and magic of cinematography, Pope turns nearly every frame of that film into a masterpiece that could hang in any museum in the world, and by doing so showed us how the universe Turner inhabited then ended up on his canvas.

I also thought of Terence Malick films, most notably his frequent collaborations with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Malick and Lubezki use a lot of hand held camera work and much of it is improvised, and yet they are able to create stunningly beautiful shots using only natural light, Malick’s keen eye and Lubezki’s unmatched skill for framing. Schnabel and Delhomme on the other hand use natural light and a handheld, improvisational camera and it often times feels more like it is a home movie and not a major cinematic enterprise.

With At Eternity’s Gate, Schnabel and Delhomme visually fail to get us to fully inhabit van Gogh’s unique and precious mind and understand his post-impressionist vision and that is an unforgivable cinematic sin.

There was one notable bright spot though in regards to Schnabel’s direction and Delhomme’s cinematography, and that is where they emphasize that van Gogh wasn’t a visual painter but rather a tactile one.

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When I work with actors, one of the exercises I sometimes do with them is to find a character’s “hierarchy of sense”. I ask actors to contemplate and experiment with what sense is most dominant for the character…are they more visual? Auditory? Tactile? Figuring this out can go a long way towards building a multi-dimensional character who uniquely inhabits space and time. Sometimes the script will give little clues as to the answer to the question, but not always, and then it is up to the actor and their imagination to figure it out. The best decisions in regards to this process, are usually the least obvious…and so it is with van Gogh. Most actors (and people) would assume van Gogh, being a painter, a visual medium, is a visually dominant character…but no…on the contrary, Schnabel and Dafoe wisely make him a tactile dominant person.

Van Gogh’s tactile approach to painting is driven home in the most effective sequence of the movie when Delhomme uses black and white to accentuate the point that Vincent doesn’t paint what he sees, he paints what he feels and he feels what he paints.

Willem Dafoe is a powerfully tactile actor (as an aside, Marlon Brando and Philip Seymour Hoffman are two of the greatest tactile actors you will ever watch) and he imbues his van Gogh with those same visceral characteristics in a mesmerizing performance. Dafoe’s Vincent needs to feel the earth in his hands, on his face and even in his mouth. Dafoe’s Vincent tries to embrace the horizon with arms wide open, and when battered and bruised both literally and metaphorically, he clutches his brothers chest trying to draw love and support out of his heart, and later clutches his own belly trying to keep his chaotically vibrant essence contained within him.

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Dafoe’s stellar and meticulous work as van Gogh is only heightened by the fact that one of his more recognizable roles was as Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant The Last Temptation of Christ. Dafoe turns van Gogh into a Christ 2.0, who doesn’t know if it is angels or devils who haunt his psyche and afflict him in the darkness and silence. Dafoe, with his versatile face and unpredictable presence, brings van Gogh to life with a palpable and frenetic wound that won’t stop tormenting him. Sadly, Dafoe’s brilliant work is simply not supported by Schnabel’s unbalanced direction.

The supporting cast are pretty uneven although they aren’t given very much to do. Rupert Friend plays Vincent’s brother Theo van Gogh and does solid work with the little he is given. Mads Mikkelsen plays a priest who questions Vincent, and although he is only in one scene, he displays why he is such a terrific actor. Mikkelsen, much like Dafoe, has a fantastically interesting face that tells a story all by itself, and he makes the very most of his limited screen time.

On the downside, I was once again baffled by Oscar Isaac’s performance. Isaac is being touted as a serious actor of great depth, talent and skill, but it strikes me he is a little more than a hollow performer. Isaac’s work as fellow master painter Paul Gauguin in At Eternity’s Gate is distractingly shallow and vacuously dull. I have no idea what Oscar Isaac’s work ethic is like, but his acting work and acting choices seem unconscionably lazy to me.

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As for the rest of the film, as much as I can admire Schnabel for the noble failure of some of his less conventional approaches (like the split diopter), what struck me as so bizarre about At Eternity’s Gate is that Schnabel spends the majority of the film being, to his credit, unconventional with his cinematic approach, such as his use of shifting perspectives and non-linear timeline and narrative (even when he fails, like with the split diopter, at least it is a noble artistic failure), but then at the end he makes an unconscionable 180 degree turn to the most conventional and standard moviemaking imaginable. This shift was so out of character as to be shocking as Schnabel sort of turns the film into a Raiders of the Lost Ark tribute to treasure hunting accompanied by an after school special happy ending. Not only is this shift dramatically untenable, it is also cinematically corrosive as it destroys any art house good will the film has tried to build up over the first 100 minutes.

In conclusion, At Eternity’s Gate was a disappointment to me as I had very high hopes, and no doubt my disappointment may be heightened as it is in inverse proportion to my expectations. While Willem Dafoe’s performance is worth the price of admission, the rest of the film is frustratingly not worthy. If you are a die hard art house fanatic, then I would say skip At Eternity’s Gate in the theatre and watch it for free on Netflix or cable. If you are a movie lover but your tastes run more conventional, then trust me when I tell you that you would rather cut your ear off than go see this movie.

©2018

The Florida Project: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: NO RATING

My Recommendation: Sorry...I have no recommendation on this one. 

The Florida Project, written and directed by Sean Baker, is the story six-year old Moonee who lives in debilitating poverty with her young mother Halley in the shadow of The Happiest Place on Earth®, Disney World. The film stars Brooklynn Prince as Moonee with supporting turns from Bria Vinaite as Halley and Willem Dafoe as Bobby Hicks the manager of the rundown motel Moonee and Halley call home.

I have to be upfront and say that due to personal reasons, The Florida Project is a difficult film for me to critique. Further complicating matters is that I am not at liberty to discuss with readers the specific reason why I struggled to watch and review this movie. As frustrating as that may be for readers, I feel it is important for me to present that information up front so that this review can be read with a properly jaundiced eye. 

With that unpleasantness out of the way, let's take a look at The Florida Project. To start, The Florida Project is a bold film that unapologetically and without the usual sentimentality, explores the curse of poverty in America, for that it should be lauded. Part of what made the movie so difficult to watch was the suffocating and infuriating sense of desperation that infects every pore of this film. I liked what it was trying to do, but was so uncomfortable throughout the film that I simply cannot say whether it was effective or not. 

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The working poor portrayed in The Florida Project are a hopeless and hapless lot who are unwittingly condemning their children to the same fate or worse by passing down to them the culture and mindset of poverty. Across the board, with Dafoe's Bobby Hicks being the lone exception, every character in this film ought to have "Born 2 Lose" tattooed on their forehead. The delicious irony that these folks all live in the shadow of Disney World only heightens the notion that the American dream is, in reality, a waking nightmare and you have to have the intelligence and imagination of a six year-old to be dumb enough to believe in it. 

What The Florida Project expertly shows is that poverty is not born not out of a specific race but out of a distinct culture. White, Black and Latino characters all make the same bad decisions and all inflict upon their children the same disease of instant gratification and myopic idiocy from which they suffer. It is from this culture of instant gratification and myopia that the type of poverty seen in The Florida Project takes root and thrives. 

The other positive about the film is that it shows these characters all live in dehumanizing poverty despite the fact that many of them work extremely hard. It is due to structural and systemic reasons though that even the hard workers can never even remotely get their head above water. The system is most definitely rigged against all of them and is meant to thoroughly exploit them from cradle to grave.

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I kept thinking of the Latino family in the film The Big Short while I watched The Florida Project. If you'll remember, that "Big Short" family is evicted from the home they are renting because their landlord defaults on his mortgage and they are left living out of a van. There is a scene in The BIg Short where that Latino family is at a gas station and one of their little children runs away from them towards a busy road. The parents quickly catch him but the inherit peril of their situation for them and their children is made visceral in that brief scene. That "Big Short" family most likely would have ended up living in the same rundown, nowhere motel that Moonee and Halley and their hopeless comprades reside. 

The Florida Porject is well-shot in a psuedo-verite type of style by cinematographer Alexis Zabe. The film maintains enough cinematic shot structure to be visually coherent, but it certainly maintains a verite feel throughout. This approach to filming enhances the performances of the unknown cast, who all excel with the raw and improvisational approach. Zabe does really solid work with framing and in exploiting the rainbow of vibrant colors like pink and light blue that naturally inhabit Florida.

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Brooklynn Prince is the young girl, Moonee, who is the protagonist of the film and she basically acts just like a kid running around on her own in Florida would act. That is both a good and a bad thing. It is good because it feels very natural and matches the filmmakers style, but it is bad because some kids her age, and her character in particular, are absolutely obnoxious. If you have children, even though you love them with all your heart, you are still probably watching a movie to get away from them, so spending two hours of your free time with an irritating and abrasive beast of a brat like Moonee and her equally horrible friends may not be very appealing. If you don't have children, this movie is a two hour public service announcement for abstinence or abortion, depending on your religious and political persuasion. 

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying Brooklynn Prince is an incorrigible brat, I am saying her character Moonee definitely is, and it is tough sledding watching her run wild in the blistering heat of Orlando. That said, in the one scene that matters above all else in the film, Prince crushes it and knocks it so far out of the park it lands somewhere in Cuba. Does her humanity and emotional vulnerability in that one scene make the other hour and fifty minutes of her incessant obnoxiousness bearable? That is definitely open to debate. 

Bria Viniate does excellent work was Moonee's very young and chaotic mom Halley. Halley is pretty unbearable as well and is every bit the obnoxious child that Moonee is, but her toxicity pulsates with a palpable wound that at times is very compelling. Halley is a train-wreck, and yet even though she is an abysmal mother and a terrible human being, there is never a moment when you doubt that she loves her child. 

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Willem Dafoe's Bobby Hicks is the lone steadying and sane influence in the entire hotel of hopelessness. Dafoe's Hicks has a certain smoldering kindness to him that at times burns so hot as to be a fury. Hicks qualifies as being the one-eyed man in the hotel complex of the blind, and he tries his very best to be a benevolent leader even when his tenants conspire to make his life a living hell. Hicks is the character that proves that the plague of poverty is cultural because he is not a victim of his impulses or desires, he controls them and therefore has a semblance of order and predictability in his life. Hicks certainly has impulses, like wanting to smash a predators head in or telling his disgusting tenants or his blowhard boss to go to hell, but he has impulse control and therefore, unlike the poverty stricken surrounding him, he is not a victim to his desires or an accomplice in his own demise. This makes Hicks the one bright light of aspirational hope in an otherwise irredeemably demoralizing story.

To its credit, The Florida Project succeeds in exposing the brutal working class poverty that is engulfing America and spreading like a plague. Once you are infected by this disease of poverty, it becomes chronic, generational and fatal. In the throes of this poverty, marriages fail, mothers and fathers abuse and neglect themselves and their children, and aimless children are left to their own devices and exposed to predators and dangers of all types, thus ensuring the infection of poverty continues to feed off its host for generations to come. 

Rarely does a film dare to so unflinchingly inhabit such an uncomfortable and unpleasant existence as The Florida Project, for that it is to be acknowledged and praised. That said, due to my previously mentioned personal issues, I found the film to be, frankly, unbearable, so much so that I found myself checking out emotionally and even intellectually pretty early on. The reason for my inability to stay emotionally invested in The Florida Project may be because it was simply too realistic or maybe because it was poorly made…to be honest, due to my issues, I am frankly not sure.  

In conclusion, I cannot in good conscience recommend or not recommend The Florida Project. All I can do is ask you to see it for yourself if you have interest in the subject matter, and make up your own mind. I apologize for my inability to concisely and clearly offer you any advice regarding this movie, but just like America when it comes to the topic of poverty, I seem to be entirely emotionally, psychologically and intellectually ill-equipped to be of any use on the matter, and instead am left puzzled to the point of paralysis. If I weren't so paralyzed, I would frantically run away to Disney World, where the Happiest Place on Earth® might make me forget all the things from The Florida Project that I simply don't want to remember. 

©2017

Oliver Stone : Top Five Films

Today, September 15, 2015 is director Oliver Stone's 69th birthday. The ever opinionated, and often controversial Stone has been both lauded and loathed, celebrated and denigrated during his thirty plus year career as a writer and director. After nearly two decades of artistic and box-office mis-steps, it is easy to forget that at one point in time, from 1986 to 1995, Oliver Stone was arguably the most powerful force creatively, politically and financially in both Hollywood and the culture. It is also easy to forget that Oliver Stone is one of the most important filmmakers in the history of American cinema.

To celebrate Oliver Stone's birthday, let's take a look at his meteoric, tumultuous and often-times brilliant career. Here are what I consider his top five films of all time.

OLIVER STONE'S TOP 5 FILMS

. THE DOORS (1991) 

Oliver Stone, like many of his fellow baby boomers,  excavated some of his most glorious inspirational treasures by going back to his formative years in the turbulent 1960's. In 1991 Stone went back to his, and my, favorite rock band, The Doors, and their iconic lead singer Jim Morrison.

Years ago I watched the dvd extras for The Doors which had a series of interviews with Stone and the actors talking about the process of making the film. It was pretty standard dvd-extra fare, until the very end of an interview with Stone. In it he talks about what Jim Morrison meant to him, both as a young man and as an artist, and Stone speaks eloquently about what Morrison represented, what he symbolized, and then he says, rather poignantly, with his voice breaking, "I miss him". It was a strangely moving, oddly touching and intimate glimpse into Stone, who is often portrayed in the media as a hyper-masculine, misogynistic boor. What that interview reveals is that The Doors was not just a bio-pic of Morrison, but also a deeply personal film for Oliver Stone and his artistic soul. That is what makes it both very good to some people (Me and John Densmore) and very bad to others (Ray Manzarek and Robby Kreiger). 

The Doors is a remarkably hypnotic film with Val Kilmer's magnetic performance as its center. The concert scenes are among the most vibrant and realistic ever captured on film. While the film is less a bio-pic of the band and Morrison than it is an exercise in cultural myth making and personal/psychological exploration, it still has a seductive and fascinating dark energy to it…not unlike its main character and its director.

4. NIXON (1995)

In 1995 Oliver Stone once again went back to the 1960's well and made a sprawling and peculiarly sentimental bio-pic about disgraced former president Richard Nixon. Shakespearean in its scope and execution, Nixon is a testament to Stone's skill as both writer and director. As a writer Stone is able to coherently and dramatically weave countless historical events amid intimate personal motivations all the while spanning multiple decades. As director, Stone coaxes a uniquely powerful and fantastically courageous performance from Anthony Hopkins in the lead, and Joan Allen as Pat Nixon. The supporting cast is terrific across the board, with James Woods and Paul Sorvino doing especially great work.

Nixon is a staggeringly ambitious film that only Oliver Stone would have made, could have made, or should have made. Nixon may be the last great film Oliver Stone ever makes, but even if it is, it is a worthy testament to his artistry and skill.

3. PLATOON (1986)/ BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989)

When Platoon came out in 1986, I went and saw it and like most everyone else, I was blown away by it. The four time Oscar winning film, including Best Picture and Best Director, was an original and unique perspective on the daily grind of the regular soldier toiling away in the morass of the Vietnam war.  Ten years later I caught the film again when it was on tv somewhere and was terribly underwhelmed by it, the film simply did not hold up to the test of time at all. The main problem was that visually, the film looked flat and washed out. I came away thinking the film was, like another Stone film from that period, Wall Street, a superb script, but unlike his early 90's films , JFK, The Doors, Nixon and Natural Born Killers, a rather cinematically sluggish film. I was more than happy to share my self declared brilliance with anyone who would be foolish enough to listen to my insufferable ravings on the visual failings of Platoon versus Father Time. Now of course, I am unable to rave too loudly as my throat is stuffed with crow. Why the change of heart you ask? Well, I recently saw a restored version of the film, and boy oh boy, it looks really magnificent. Stone's longtime cinematographer, the brilliant Robert Richardson, creates a subtly vibrant and layered look to the film that shows an incredibly deft and masterful hand on his part.

The film also boasts powerful performances from a wide array of actors, including Charlie Sheen, of all people, in the lead. Stone is such a great director that he makes Charlie Sheen seem like he could be the next big thing in acting. Sheen would have been wise to keep his wagon hitched to the Oliver Stone band wagon rather than venturer off into the land of Young Guns, ahhh…what could have been. Willem Dafoe and Tom Beringer also give standout performances as the ying and yang of the American psyche in regards to the Vietnam conflict and the conflict over Vietnam.

The one thing that does hurt Platoon in retrospect is that it is compared to other films of the same Vietnam War genre. In 1987, one year after Platoon came out, Stanley Kubrick's vastly superior Full Metal Jacket hit theaters. Oliver Stone joins a long list of other great directors, in fact, every other director, who has failed in comparison to the singular genius of Stanley Kubrick. Platoon is, without a doubt, a truly great film, probably the third greatest Vietnam War film ever made, behind Full Metal Jacket and  Francis Ford Coppola's iconic masterpiece Apocalypse Now.

In keeping with the Vietnam War genre, Stone's second foray into that most personal of wars (he was a Veteran of the war and Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient), was 1989's Born on the Fourth of July. The film is the story of Ron Kovics, a Long Island born and raised, flag waving patriotic son of America, who enthusiastically enlists in the Marine Corps to go fight in Vietnam.  

Born on the Fourth of July won Stone his second Best Director Oscar, and for good reason. The film is a remarkable piece of work for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it is easily the best performance of Tom Cruise's long career. As good as Cruise is in the film, and he is in nearly every scene, it is an indication of Oliver Stone's power as an artist that you never feel like you are watching a Tom Cruise picture, but rather an Oliver Stone picture.

Like many of Stone's films, Born on the Fourth of July covers a staggeringly vast amount of history, and it is also able to personalize that historical struggle by poignantly showing the gut wrenchingly emotional struggle of its main character Kovics. 

The film is really a love story, with the love being between a man and his country. The man, Kovics, discovers that his lifelong love, America, has betrayed him by not living up to it's values, the war in Vietnam. This is wonderfully portrayed in a secondary narrative of unrequited love between Cruise's Kovics and his high school sweetheart played by the luminous Kyra Sedgwick. The film is at once heartbreaking and invigorating, and only Oliver Stone, with his deeply intimate relationship with Vietnam and America could have made the it. 

2. NATURAL BORN KILLERS

Yes, I know, Natural Born Killers at number two? Many people, maybe even most people, would more consider Natural Born Killers AS a number two rather than AT number two. I realize I am in the minority, but I don't mind. I think Stone's frantic, ultra-violent assault on the media and the culture is a genuine and daring masterpiece prescient in it's foresight.

The film precedes and perfectly captures the vile cable news era and the odious reality tv era. Remarkably the film came out a mere month after O.J. Simpson's wife was murdered and well before the sickening media and cultural circus of his trial. (As an aside, I hope you join me in praying that they find  the real killers!!).

Critics thought the film was a bombastic and vacant orgy of  sex and violence. Of course, what makes the film so genius is that it is a satire of American culture, which is a bombastic and vacant orgy of sex and violence. If you don't believe me, turn on any cable news channel at any time of the day, a reality show or a prime time network sitcom. In fact, one of the most inspired parts of the film is when it wonderfully eviscerates the vapid and insipid sitcom which had become the staple of the American tv diet at the time.  

What Stone did with Natural Born Killers was show how hyper, frenzied and frenetic our culture had become and how toxic that was to our collective and personal psyche. Of course, since 1994 our culture has only become more frenetic and frenzied. Our thirst for violence and our hunger for the salacious has increased infinitely since Stone showed us our true and more base impulses gyrating up on silver screens in cineplexes across America in the fall of 1994.

Once again the brilliant Robert Richardson does masterful work with the camera and gives the film a muscularly vivid visual style. There are also some great performances from some surprising places, most notably Rodney Dangerfield, (who you may remember previously "got no respect")  who deserved not only respect for his performance, but a Best Supporting Actor trophy for his work as a disgustingly repugnant sitcom dad, sadly he didn't get nominated. Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore and Robert Downey Jr. all give inspired and memorable performances as well.

You may hate Natural Born Killers, and you wouldn't be alone, but the reality is that Stone accurately depicted the rot at the heart of the American culture, and that rot has only grown more aggressive and malignant as the decades have passed.

1. JFK (1991)

JFK is Oliver Stone's masterpiece. It is also the film that garnered him the most criticism and made him a marked man of both the Washington and media establishment. With JFK, Stone did the near impossible, he made a uniquely original, intensely captivating, coherent, heart pounding suspenseful drama of President Kennedy's assassination, all the while challenging the establishment narrative in the form of the Warren Commission and it's lapdogs in the media with his own self described "counter-myth". He also forced the movie going public to actually sit down and watch the Zapruder film, over, and over, and over again, making sure there was no doubt there now dead President's head snapped "back and to the left". 

Stone wasn't saying that JFK was the absolute truth about what happened on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, what he was saying was that his film, an acknowledged piece of fiction, is as close to the truth as the Warren Commission, a supposed work of investigative non-fiction.

The best way to know that Oliver Stone was on to something with JFK, was in seeing the reaction of the establishment to it's release. The Washington and New York chattering classes went absolutely apeshit. Stone was attacked across the board, from those on the left, the right and the center. "Serious" people from "serious" news organizations told us that Stone was a mere "conspiracy theorist", so anyone who wanted to be taken seriously on any other subject, had to show their bona fides by knocking Stone as an unserious person and attacking the the film. This sort of thing has become old hat for the establishment. It is also a sure fire sign that the person they are attacking is cutting them close to the bone. If Stone were such an unserious kook, then ignoring him would have sufficed, but he wasn't and isn't, so the knives had to come out.  

As a result of the success of JFK and of Stone's tireless public work on the subject, Congress was persuaded to release some of the files relating to the JFK assassination. At the time it seemed like things might be changing, that all of the files might be released. That was over twenty years ago and still nothing has changed. The JFK assassination was over fifty years ago, yet we have barely gotten a glimpse of the vast seas of paperwork that remains classified on the subject.

As far as the film goes, Stone's script was, once again, Shakespearean in it's epic scope. His brilliant use of newsreel footage mixed with dramatic footage created an intense immediacy that brought the viewer ever closer to the edge of their seat. JFK was also cinematographer Robert Richardson's masterpiece as well. His use of multiple film stock was as vital a reason for JFK's dramatic edge as anything else, as was his impeccable camera work and framing. Editor Pietro Scalia also was a key figure in bringing this dramatic beast under control. Both Richardson and Scalia won Oscars for their work.

The acting was stellar across the board. Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald was particularly brilliant. Tommy Lee Jones was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work as one of the alleged conspirators Clay Shaw. 

In many ways, all of Oliver Stone's other films, including his Oscar winning pictures, pale in comparison to JFK. JFK was a cinematic, artistic and cultural bellwether. It is one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all-time, and it is a towering monument to the legacy of Oliver Stone.

(For more on the JFK assassination, the media and Oliver Stone, check out this article from my archiveJFK AND THE BIG LIE  )

FINAL THOUGHTS

In many ways, Oliver Stone reminds me of Francis Ford Coppola. Both men won Oscars for screenplays, Coppola for Patton, Stone for Midnight Express, before they had tremendous runs of artistic and financial success as Oscar winning directors. Then both men, for reasons that I can't quite explain, fell off a cliff creatively and never recovered. Coppola of course, had his incredible run in the seventies with both Godfather films, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation, while Stone had his from '86 to '95 with the films listed above (among others).

I think it is a great loss for filmmaking that Oliver Stone has lost his cultural relevance. Cinema, and the culture, were much more interesting when he was at the top of his game and relevant. His willingness to stand for what he believes and to challenge the culture that bred him, are traits sorely lacking in todays Hollywood. My birthday wish for Oliver Stone, is that his next film, Snowden, lives up to his stellar previous work, and is as worthy a film as the subject at its center.

I tip my cap to you Oliver for your brilliance!! Happy Birthday!!

ADDENDUM:

I received a few emails regarding this post. One from a reader named "Captain Big Guy" and another from a reader named "Johnny Steamroller".

Capt. Big Guy wrote " In each of the 4 movies leading up to the 5th (#1), you described your thoughts on the lead actor - which I really enjoyed - BUT WHY NO MENTION OF COSTNER IN JFK?" In keeping with that thought Johnny Steamroller wrote, " Dude, you got me sooooooo interested in what you were going to say about Costner in JFK, your #1 movie!! Seriously, I kept reading. You do mention Gary Oldman and Tommy Lee Jones by name but zero mention of the lead actor in "Oliver Stone's masterpiece"?? Arggggghhhhhh!!!"

Both the good Captain and the esteemed Mr. Steamroller make an excellent point. In my haste to post this piece I overlooked Kevin Costner's performance in JFK . It was an egregious oversight. Maybe not as egregious as Waterworld, but egregious none the less. 

So without further adieu…my thoughts on Costner in  JFK .

Let's be clear, Costner isn't Marlon Brando. With that said, he didn't need to be Marlon Brando in JFK. What makes Costner effective in JFK is the fact that he was maybe the biggest movie star  in the world at the time of the films release. In addition his persona was that of an all-American, squeaky clean guy. His image and persona were a key part of why he works in JFK and why he was cast. Casting Costner accomplished two things for Oliver Stone in his most ambitious film. 1. In terms of the business, it got the movie made. I am sure the studio was much more at ease making this rather challenging film with the biggest movie star in the world, at the height of his fame and popularity, on top of the marquee. 2. In terms of creatively, casting Costner made Stone's challenging the establishment, and the public, much more effective with the persona of the all-American good guy making the case to the public for Stone. It was a very wise move on Stone's part to use Costner and all of the good will he had accrued with the public through his earlier work.

Remember, just two years before JFK, Costner had starred in Field of Dreams, which is as mythically and archetypal an American film as has ever been made.  And the year before JFK was released, Costner had won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for Dances With Wolves. In many ways, not the least of which was symbolically, by the time JFK came out Costner had become the modern day Jimmy Stewart.

Costner's acting in the film is pretty paint-by-numbers, leading man stuff. As in all of Costner's work, he doesn't have too much range or depth. But because of the intangible traits and very particular image Costner the movie star (as opposed to Costner the actor) brought to the film, I believe he ends up being very much a net positive for the film, and a very wise and shrewd casting choice by Oliver Stone.

So thanks to Captain Big Guy and Johnny Steamroller for the emails!! Hope my answer was satisfactory.

 ©2015