Tag Archives: Oliver Stone

Sun, Sand & Savages: Oliver Stone’s underrated return to form 


Oliver Stone’s Savages is the best film the man has made since the early 90’s, and reminds us of what colourful, bloody, hectic, Mardi Gras shock & awe blistering good times the man is capable of bringing us. His political/war films are all well and good, but for me the lifeblood of this filmmaker lies in his sun-soaked pulp n’ noir toolbox, the ability to spin grisly, darkly romanticized genre campfire yarns that exist eons away from the geopolitics of our plane. Savages is so whimsical it could float right out of our grasp on a cloud, if it weren’t so heavy and heinous at the very same time, and it’s in that careful balance of heart, horror and humour that the film comes out on top, despite a relative cop-out of an ending that can be forgiven when the package as a whole is considered. Based on a novel by Don Winslow, this is an odyssey of cartels, violence, love most pure, drugs, guns, California dreaming and a cast having more fun than they have so far in their collective careers, and I do mean that. The film opens with grainy, harrowing camcorder footage of sinister cartels beheading innocents to set an example, and that’s just the start of it. Pan over to Cali paradise where angelic Ophelia (Blake Lively in a beautiful, vulnerable performance) lives with the two loves of her life, gentle hippie Ben (Aaron Tyler Johnson) and hardened Afghan vet Chon (Taylor Kitsch), two brotherly marijuana barons who provide the west coast with the finest bud the region has to offer. They live in harmony, both in love with Ophelia, existing as a functional little romantic trifecta tucked away on the sun-dappled coastline, until darkness finds them in the form of the power hungry Baja Cartel, who want a piece of their impossibly lucrative action. Although spearheaded by a fiery Salma Hayek, it’s Benicio Del Toro’s Lado who strikes fear into hearts, a ruthless, casually sadistic enforcer who’s not above the lowest brands of violence and degradation. Del Toro plays him with a knowing sneer and a grease-dripping mullet, a positive scourge of everything pure and good in his path. Ben and Chon are thrown into a world of hurt when he kidnaps Ophelia, held as a ransom so the boys play ball with Hayek’s plans for aggressive expansion, promoting all out guerrilla war-games between both factions. John Travolta does his wired up thing as a cheerfully crooked DEA underboss who is their conduit to all things intel related, and Emile Hirsch their surveillance expert. This is a film of both bright light and terrible darkness, and it’s easy to get swept up in the hypnotically wistful current before the film turns evil loose and gut punches it’s audience. The visual tone is crisp and endlessly colourful, and Dan Mindel’s cinematography doesn’t shy away from the overt nature of the brutality, especially when Hayek’s right hand accountant (Damien Bechir) is gruesomely tortured by Lado, and during a daring highway ambush that showcases both Chon’s merciless tactical resolve and Ben’s fragility, both driven to staggering extremes by their love for Ophelia. Stone has always had a flair for eye boggling excess, dastardly deeds done under a baking hot sun and garish, over the top characters that would be right at home in a cartoon if they weren’t so tangibly present, especially in Del Toro’s and Travolta’s cases, it’s a beauty of a thing to see them both chow down on the scenery here and riff off of each other in a quick scene where they share frames. Many folks were underwhelmed by the work of the three young leads, but they couldn’t have been better, really, especially Lively, who’s wounded soul brandishes a sword and shield of sunny disposition even when faced with utter hopelessness, a lilting poetry to her hazy narration that threads the tale together in fable form. Commerce is chaos here too, as we see how the south of the border drug trade encroaches on many individuals who don’t yet understand the evil emanating from that region, and are rudely awakened. There’s so much going on in this film, it’s so vibrantly alive in every facet, a showcase example of the bruising, beautiful power that movies have over us. 

-Nate Hill

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Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers


I will sing the praises for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers til the day I either die, am too dementia ridden to compile a coherent review or too arthritic to type anymore (you folks will get some peace and quiet on your social media once any or all of the above happens). This film is less a film than it is a writhing elemental force, a cinematic being brought to life by tools seldom used in Hollywood, namely the sheer audacity of Stone’s frenetic filmmaking style. The MPAA kept an R rating just out of his reach for a while before finally conceding, harping to him that though he cut violent bits here and there to make it semantically tamer, it was the general aura of chaotic madness that irked them so. Stone considers this a compliment, and well he should, for its not everyday that an artist so fluidly taps into the artery of violence and the many catalysts of it in such a primal, intangible way that brilliantly splices what compels us with what appalls is, and the scarily thin line that wavers between them. This film is many things: a psychedelic road flick, a blistering indictment of sensationalist American media and the decaying degeneracy it breeds, a hallucinatory mood piece, a severely expressionistic action film, a thriller, a chiller and the list goes on, but more important than all of those is the love story that ties it all together. Juliette Lewis and Woody Harrelson are sticks of poisoned dynamite as Mickey and Mallory Knox, two twisted up kids on the run from everyone and everything, products of the darkest bowers of bizarro world Americana, deeply scarred by their pasts, fully committed to the wanton murder spree they’ve engaged in and unapologetic about the wave of carnage they’ve left in their wake. Demonized at every turn by the powers that be and everyone else in between, it’s easy to see why a system feeds two sick souls like this with infamy and notoriety instead of helping them. Anything for that big ol’ dollar sign, or simply whatever fills the void. We see the sickness creep after them, ever present in creatures like Tommy Lee Jones’s fire and brimstone prison warden, Robert Downey Jr.’s manic, sickening enabler of a talk show host and Tom Sizemore’s psychotic, gung-ho detective Jack Scagnetti. There’s a saying out there that goes “animals are beasts, but men are monsters, a sentiment that Stone has taken and run right off the cliff with, blasting us in the face with humanity’s very worst for a solid two hours, until he’s damn sure we catch his drift. The film is a stylistic tornado, every kind of colour, lens, filter, soundscape, visual trick and style of editing used until we realize we’re watching something truly unlike anything before, and likely after as well. Mallory’s backstory is staged in a stinging sitcom format as she’s terrorized by her abusive father (Rodney Dangerfield, cast grotesquely against type). Mickey breaks out of prison in black and white Lone Ranger style. A drug store Mexican standoff is painted with swaths of neon vomit green. Shadowy title cards and striking lighting are used in a sequence where the pair visit the lonely desert hut of a prophetic Indian (Russell Means). Visions dance on walls like spectral tv screens, faces leer and loom out of shadows for no apparent reason other than to add to the beautiful commotion, characters skitter through frames looking for a moment like demons. There is no other film like this, no other experience rather, an animalistic treatise on primal human urges, societal constraints that bind them, loosely and laughably out of place when you consider the dark urges within everyone. Amidst all this chaos though, like two corrupted beacons, are Mickey and Mallory. This is their story, and despite being a chief cause of the chaos I just mentioned (the universe has a sense of irony), it’s a love story, they being the centrepiece and everyone else rushing past like dark passengers in a swirling sideshow to their main-tent event. They’re brutal serial killers, no question, but they’re tender and caring with each other, and we see hints at a collective sweet disposition hiding below all those years of built up scar tissue. It’s a gorgeous film, full of scream-at-the-heavens ugliness, imagery that burns a patchwork quilt of impressions straight into your soul, an angry satirical edge that cuts like a knife and so much overflowing style you could watch the thing a thousand times and still pick up on things you never saw before. From the first cacophonous diner slaughterhouse set piece, to the second half of the film that descends into a regular Dante’s Inferno of a prison riot, this film is truly something else, in my top ten of all time and a uniquely affecting experience that has shaped the way I’ve watched films ever since. Plus that soundtrack man.. the story is set to every kind of music out there including Trent Reznor, Lou Reed, Patsy Kline, Peter Gabriel, Dre, Mozart, Marilyn Manson and so many more, with a pair of perfectly nailed opening and closing numbers warbled by Leonard Cohen. Everyone and anyone has quick bits and cameos to support the titanic work of the main cast too, including Denis Leary, Ashley Judd, Arliss Howard, O Lan Jones, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jared Harris, Mark Harmon, Balthazar Getty, Marshall Bell, Louis Lombardi, Steven Wright, Rachel Ticotin, James Gammon and more. What more can be said about this film? It’s a natural born classic.

-Nate Hill

SEAN STONE: An Interview with Kent Hill

Many of us can only imagine what it must be like to grow up in a household where one or both of our parents are people of extraordinary ability. We can only muse further what it must be like if that said parent were internationally recognized in their chosen field of expertise.

On the other hand, when we are young, we don’t really question such things. They are the ‘norm’, the everyday, and our parents are simply Mum and Dad. They do what they do and we are none the wiser. Then of course we reach an age when that changes. We realize that there are differences, and our worlds shrink or growth according to the depth of that perception.

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So imagine growing up and one day the realization hits that your Dad is the acclaimed filmmaker Oliver Stone; on top of that you have essentially grown up in the movies your father has been making. Now you were unaware to the extent of just how different things at home where compared to other people. But, it’s just how things were, and it’s just how things were for Sean Stone.

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Being on the set was normal because making movies is what Dad did for a living. These famous actors were simply people that were helping Dad out. It all seems fine that is till, as Sean told me, the world opens up and your understanding of that which you have been exposed to becomes evident.

Being a lover of the work of Sean’s dad, I, like the rest of you, have seen him as a baby on the lap of Gordon Gekko, as a young Jim Morrison, as the brother of an eventual mass murderer and more. He is now, however, a storyteller in his own right. Beginning with the chronicling of the making of Alexander, Sean has emerged as a naturally talented filmmaker. He has continued exploring the documentary as well as genre filmmaking, and I eagerly anticipate his intended adaptation of his father’s book A Child’s Night Dream.

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It was a real treat to chat with him at the dawn of 2017 . . . ladies and gentlemen, I give you . . . Sean Stone.

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Making mashed potatoes with Walken: An Interview with Andrew Bryniarski by Kent Hill

You might not know his name, but you’ve certainly seen his movies.

Andrew Bryniarski is a high-octane actor. His explosive and memorable performances stay with you. He is full-tilt, funny and furious. He has worked with an impressive array of Hollywood’s ‘big hitters’ like Tim Burton, Oliver Stone, John McTiernan, Michael Bay and John Singleton. He has starred alongside Bruce Willis, Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, Raul Julia, Richard Lynch and Scooby Doo. He is beaten the shit out of Superman and made out with his girlfriend. Now if that is not an impressive resume, I don’t know what is.

All I can say is, I have done a number of interviews, but this one was a BLAST! Andy I feel has more great stories in him, only a few of which he was able to share over the couple of conversations we had. I would love this guy to sit down and write a ‘tell-all.’ The things that he has done, the places he has been, his experiences as a guy who was plucked out of obscurity and propelled from there to a Hollywood career that has spanned three decades, and has seen him do everything from sacking quarterbacks to wielding chainsaws, in that old Texas-massacre kinda way. It’s a tome that would be utterly enthralling.

The same enthusiasm that Andy applies to his work is apparent in his personality and his perspective. I get the impression there is no half-way with this man, and though it might seem that he has drifted from one grand adventure to another, there is a relentless dedication beneath the surface bravado that has been the catalyst behind his success.

It is always my intention to transcribe my interviews as, at times, the quality of the recording is not that great. But this is one of those times where you have to hear it from the man himself. No one does Andrew Bryniarski better than Andrew Bryniarski, unless of course it’s Andrew Bryniarski doing Christopher Walken (which I promise you’ll love.)

On that point, Andy sent me a message the day after our initial chat, saying that he had forgotten a line in his anecdote regarding Walken. It reads as follows:

Walken’s father was a baker and during the depression, there was a flour shortage so they used sawdust so they got ‘the rickets.’ By the time Chris Walken came along they had flour, so he was taller than his father. But Andy – he had orange juice.

It doesn’t make sense I know. But take note of the missing line (above here underlined) and listen to the incomparable Andrew Bryniarski tell it in his ‘awesome’ Christopher Walken voice…

NIXON – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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Oliver Stone’s film, Nixon (1995) portrays the American political process as an unpredictable system that politicians have no hope of ever fully controlling. The best they can do is keep it in check most of the time. This theory can be seen in its embryonic stage in JFK (1991) with President John F. Kennedy being assassinated by shadowy forces within the political system, but it was not until Nixon that Stone was able to fully articulate it. As film critic Gavin Smith observed, “Nixon is a historical drama about the constructing and recording of history, assembled as we watch.” Stone has created a unique version of the historical biopic that combines fact and speculation with a cinematic style that blends various film stocks in a seamlessly layered, complex narrative. This fractured, overtly stylized approach draws attention to the fact that we are watching a film. As Stone has said in an interview, “I don’t pretend that it is reality.” This, in turn, allows him to deliver his message with absolute clarity.

Like Citizen Kane (1941) before it, Nixon traces the dramatic rise and fall of a historical figure who tried so hard to be loved by all but ended up being infamous and misunderstood. While Orson Welles’ film was a thinly-veiled attack on newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, Stone paints an almost sympathetic portrayal of Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins). Stone may not like Nixon personally, but he does try to explore what motivated the man’s actions and really get inside his head. The director even throws in a stylistic nod to Kane as part of the opening credits play over a shot of a dark and stormy night at the White House. The camera moves through the fence in a way that evokes the opening of Welles’ film with Kane’s imposing estate. And like Welles’ film, Nixon employs a flashback device as Nixon listens to the Watergate tapes and reflects on his life, from his tough childhood in Whittier, California, to his beleaguered political career that culminates with his tumultuous stint in the White House.

The first real indication of Stone’s thesis of the political system as a wild, untamable animal comes when Nixon talks to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Bob Hoskins) at a horse race about running for President. There are all kinds of shots of horses snorting wildly – the first hint, visually, of what Stone is trying to get at. Hoover makes it known that he will support Nixon if he, in turn, supports him, and is willing to supply him with dirt on Robert Kennedy to help the cause. Hoover makes an intriguing comment when he tells Nixon, “I look at it from the point of view that the system can only take so much abuse. It adjusts itself eventually … But there are times there are savage outbursts.” He cites Martin Luther King’s promiscuity and continues, “Sometimes the system comes very close to cracking.” The implication in this scene is that Hoover is a significant cog in the United States political machine and one that Nixon must respect and work with.

The second significant example where Stone gives support to his thesis is when Nixon meets with Richard Helms (Sam Waterston), director of the CIA. Like Hoover, Helms is a powerful man within the system because he knows and protects so many of its dirty little secrets. They get to talking about Cuba and Nixon’s involvement to assassinate Fidel Castro, which Helms has evidence of via memos. He refers to it as “not an operation so much as an organic phenomenon. It grew. It changed shape. It developed appetites.” Helms is fiercely protective of his position and of the CIA, resisting Nixon’s request for incriminating documents. Where Hoover is portrayed as gruff and obvious, Helms is elusive and distant, played with icy intensity by Sam Waterston.

The third and most important example occurs when Nixon spontaneously meets with war protesters on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This is where Stone lays it all out and the film features a fascinating exchange between the President and a female protester (Joanna Going):

Protester: You can’t stop it can you? Even if you wanted to. ‘Cause it’s not you, it’s the system. The system won’t let you stop it.
Nixon: There’s more at stake here then what you want or what I want.
Protester: Then what’s the point? What’s the point of being President? You’re powerless!
Nixon: No. No, I’m not powerless. ‘Cause I understand the system. I believe I can control it. Maybe not control it totally but tame it enough to do some good.
Protester: Sounds like you’re talking about a wild animal.
Nixon: Maybe I am.

Of this scene, Stone has said that Nixon realizes that the system is “more powerful than he is. We can’t get into it that much, but we hint at it so many times – the military-industrial complex, the forces of money.” Stone’s film argues that Nixon really did want to institute change and make a difference in the world, but his own shortcomings, coupled with the complex infrastructure that is the United States political system, ultimately led to his downfall. Stone and the screenwriters conceived of the concept of the political system as “the beast,” which one of the film’s screenwriters Christopher Wilkinson described as “a headless monster that lurches through postwar history,” and served as a metaphor for a system of dark forces that resulted in the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, and the Vietnam War, as well as helping Nixon’s rise to power and his fall from it. In an interview, Stone elaborated further. He saw “the beast” as a “system … which grinds the individual down … it’s a system of checks and balances that drives itself off: 1) the power of money and markets; 2) state power, government power; 3) corporate power, which is probably greater than state power; 4) the political process, or election through money, which is therefore in tow to the system; and 5) the media, which mostly protects the status quo and their ownership’s interests.”

Anthony Hopkins’ stunning portrayal of the former President humanizes this historical figure. From the way the film is shot and edited, we are seeing the events of U.S. history through Nixon’s perspective. This approach also helps in creating a sympathetic portrait of the man. Hopkins wisely does not opt for a Rich Little imitation but instead captures the essence and spirit of the man. He shows Nixon’s aggressive side, where he speaks in football metaphors and refers to himself in the third person, and also a vulnerable one in the scenes with his wife, Pat. It’s a wonderfully layered performance that Hopkins hasn’t equaled since because he hasn’t been given material and a director that has challenged him in quite the way that Stone did with Nixon.

Opposite Hopkins is Joan Allen as Pat Nixon. She more than holds her own with the Academy Award-winning thespian, portraying Pat as a long suffering yet incredibly strong-willed wife who has to sit by and watch her husband strive for unattainable goals. There’s a scene where she reacts in private to her husband losing the 1960 Presidential election to John F. Kennedy and she looks visibly upset, wiping away tears while trying to maintain her composure. In the following scene with her husband, Pat tells him about the toll his political career is taking on their family, which comes across as quite touching. Tears well up in Pat’s eyes as she consoles her husband while he looks tired and defeated. It’s a wonderfully intimate moment that humanizes both of them considerably. All of the scenes between Allen and Hopkins crackle with a kind of tangible intensity as we see the toll politics takes on them. This is not one of those token wife roles that is so often seen in these kinds of films. The well-written screenplay and Allen’s performance flesh out Pat Nixon into a three-dimensional character.

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As always, Stone’s knack for casting is impeccable. Much like he did with JFK, Stone surrounds his leads with an impressive roster of big names in the supporting roles: James Woods, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Sorvino, Powers Boothe, J.T. Walsh, and, in a restored scene, Sam Waterston delivers a deliciously chilling performance as Richard Helms. These recognizable faces help one keep track of the historical figures that pop up throughout the film.

Originally, Stone had been developing two projects – the musical Evita (1996) and a film about Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. When they both failed to get made, he turned his attention to a biopic about Nixon with the president’s death in April 1994 being a key factor in the director’s decision. The project actually originated with Eric Hamburg, a former speechwriter and staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, after having dinner with Stone. In 1993, Hamburg mentioned the idea to writer Steve Rivele with the concept being that they would incorporate all of Nixon’s misdeeds, both known and speculative. Hamburg encouraged Rivele to write a screenplay with his partner Christopher Wilkinson. They wrote a treatment in November 1993. In it was the concept of the political system as a beast and this is what convinced Stone to get involved. He immersed himself in research with the help of Hamburg.

Stone commissioned the first draft of the film’s screenplay from Rivele and Wilkinson and it was completed on June 17, 1994, the anniversary of the Watergate break-in. The script was based on research from various sources, including documents, transcripts and hours of footage from the Nixon White House. Early on, Rivele and Wilkinson hated Nixon but the longer they worked on the film, and “the more we knew about him, our contempt was slowly eroded to the point where we more than pitied him, we empathized with him.” Stone structured his film into two acts with the first one about Nixon’s loss of power and the second one about Nixon in power only to lose it again.

Stone pitched the project to Warner Bros. but, according to the director, they saw it “as a bunch of unattractive older white men sitting around in suits, with a lot of dialogue and not enough action.” They also didn’t agree with Stone’s choice to play Nixon – Anthony Hopkins. Instead, they wanted Tom Hanks or Jack Nicholson – two of Stone’s original choices and both of whom had passed on the role. Stone even met with Warren Beatty but the actor wanted to make too many changes to the script. Stone went with Hopkins based on his performances in Remains of the Day (1993) and Shadowlands (1993). The director remembered, “The isolation of Tony is what struck me. The loneliness. I felt that was the quality that always marked Nixon.” Upon meeting Stone for the first time, Hopkins saw the director as “one of the great bad boys of American pop culture, and I might be a fool to walk away.” He was convinced that to take on such a challenging role that would require him to “impersonate the soul of Nixon” by the scenes in the film when he talks about his mother and father. “That affected me,” he said. To prepare for the role, Hopkins watched a lot of documentary footage on Nixon. At night, he would go to sleep with footage playing so that it would seep into his subconscious.

Joan Allen auditioned for the role of Pat Nixon over a period of several months. During one of these auditions, she read opposite Beatty when he was briefly interested. After this audition, Beatty told Stone that he had found his Pat Nixon. She learned, through her research, that Pat was a strong person who had a difficult life. Allen based her performance on interviews with former Nixon aides, books about the First Lady and a Barbara Walters interview in the early 1970s. Stone, Hamburg, Hopkins, and Woods flew to Washington, D.C. and interviewed the surviving members of Nixon’s inner circle: lawyer Leonard Garment, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Robert McNamara, a former Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations. In addition, Stone hired Alexander Butterfield, a former secretary in the cabinet and special assistant to Nixon and who first revealed the existence of Nixon’s secret tapes of his oval office conversations, John Sears, former deputy White House counsel, and John Dean as consultants. To research their roles, Powers Boothe, David Hyde Pierce and Paul Sorvino met with their real-life counterparts, but J.T. Walsh decided not to contact John Ehrlichman because he threatened to sue the production after reading an early version of the script and was not happy with how he was portrayed.

Stone’s producing partner and financier Arnold Milchan had a deal with the director to make any film he wanted up to a budget of $42.5 million but refused to honor their agreement, saying that he would put up no more than $35 million because he felt Nixon was an uncommercial project. Stone refused to make the film with that budget and a week before shooting was to begin he approached Hungarian financier Andrew Vajna who had a co-financing deal with Disney’s Hollywood Pictures. At the time, Vajna was hoping to get some respectability in Hollywood and possibly an Academy Award and agreed to provide the $43 million budget. In order to cut costs, Stone leased the White House sets from The American President (1995).

Reportedly, there was a lot mischievous jokes exchanged between the actors on the set. Early on, Hopkins was intimidated by the amount of dialogue he had to learn, more of which was being added and changed all the time, and then Sorvino told him that “there was room for improvement” and that he would be willing to help him. According to James Woods, Sorvino told Hopkins that he was “doing the whole thing wrong” and that he was an “expert” who could help Hopkins. Sorvino took Hopkins to lunch and then afterwards the British thespian told Stone that he wanted to quit the production. The director managed to convince him to stay on. Hopkins remembered, “There were moments when I wanted to get out, when I wanted to just do a nice Knot’s Landing or something.” Woods also cracked several good natured jokes with Hopkins. He said, “I’d always tell him how great he was in Psycho. I’d call him Lady Perkins all the time instead of Sir Anthony Hopkins.”

What is perhaps most stunning about Nixon is the style of the film. Employing the editing techniques and innovative camerawork he perfected in JFK and Natural Born Killers (1994), Stone created a unique version of the historical biopic that combines actual documentary footage with fictional material and that blends various film stocks in attempt to shed light on a figure most people knew very little about. This fractured, overtly stylized approach suggests that we are seeing historical events through the prism of Nixon’s perspective. The film is not meant to be the definitive word on the man but rather, as Stone said in an interview, the “basis to start reading, to start investigating on your own.”

Stone had his editors in three different rooms with the scenes from the film revolving from one room to another, “depending on how successful they were.” If one editor wasn’t successful with a scene it went to another. Stone said it was “the most intense post- I’ve ever done, even more intense than JFK” because he was screening the film three times a week, making changes in 48 to 72 hours, rescreening the film and then making another 48 hours of changes.

Seven days before Nixon was to be released in theaters, the Nixon family issued a statement calling parts of the film “reprehensible” and that it was designed to “defame and degrade president and Mrs. Nixon’s memories in the mind of the American public.” The statement also criticized Stone’s depiction of Nixon’s private life and that of his childhood and his part in planning the assassination of Castro. This statement was actually issued by the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California on behalf of the Nixon family based on a published copy of the script. Stone responded that his “purpose in making the film Nixon, was neither malicious nor defamatory,” and to attempt “a fuller understanding of the life and career of Richard Nixon – the good and the bad, the triumphs and the tragedies, and the legacy he left his nation and the world.” The attacks didn’t stop there. In a letter to Nixon’s daughters, Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, said that Stone “has committed a grave disservice to your family, to the presidency, and to American history.”

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Nixon is a powerful historical biopic – arguably the last great film Oliver Stone has made to date. It is also, coincidentally (or maybe not), the last film he and regular collaborator Robert Richardson made together. The legendary cinematographer was as much responsible for defining the distinctive style of Stone’s films as the director himself. Stone’s work has never been the same since they parted company. Nixon was also the last time he had enough juice in Hollywood to command such an impressive cast of actors. Admittedly, Hollywood has changed considerably since this film was made and Stone has had to adapt with the times but hopefully he has another great film like Nixon left in him.

JFK – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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The assassination of American President John F. Kennedy is a watershed event in American history and one that has provoked people to question their own beliefs and those of their government. Yet, for such a highly publicized affair there are still many uncertainties that surround the actual incident. Countless works of fiction and non-fiction have been created concerning the subject, but have done little in aiding our understanding of the assassination and the events surrounding it. Oliver Stone’s film, JFK (1991) depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination like a densely constructed puzzle complete with jump cuts and multiple perspectives. Stone’s film presents the assassination as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence, to then bury this evidence in the Warren Commission Report, which in turn manifests multiple interpretations of key figures like Lee Harvey Oswald. JFK offers a more structured examination of the conspiracy from one person’s point of view where everything fits together to reveal a larger, more frightening picture implicating the most powerful people in the United States government.

JFK presents the assassination of Kennedy as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence and then theorizes that the evidence was buried deep in the Warren Commission Report. Stone’s film filters a structured examination of two conspiracies, one to kill the President and one to cover it up, from one person’s point of view — Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) — who then assembles all of the evidence at his disposal to reveal a larger, more frightening picture that implicates the most powerful people in the United States government. Stone saw his movie consisting of several separate films: Garrison in New Orleans against Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), Oswald’s (Gary Oldman) backstory, the recreation of Dealey Plaza, and the deep background in Washington, D.C.

While attending the Latin American Film Festival in Havana, Cuba, Stone met Sheridan Square Press publisher Ellen Ray on an elevator. She had published Jim Garrison’s book On the Trail of the Assassins. Ray had gone to New Orleans and worked with Garrison in 1967. She gave Stone a copy of Garrison’s book and told him to read it. He did and quickly bought the film rights with his own money. The Kennedy assassination had always had a profound effect on his life and eventually met Garrison, grilling him with a variety of questions for three hours. The man stood up to Stone’s questioning and then got up and left. His hubris impressed the director.

Stone was not interested in making a film about Garrison’s life but rather the story behind the conspiracy to kill Kennedy. To this end, he also bought the film rights to Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs. When Stone set out to write the screenplay, he asked Sklar to co-write it with him and distill the Garrison book, the Marrs book and all the research he and others conducted into a script that would resemble what he called “a great detective movie.” Stone told Sklar his vision of the movie: “I see the models as Z (1969) and Rashomon (1950), I see the event in Dealey Plaza taking place in the first reel, and again in the eighth reel, and again later, and each time we’re going to see it differently and with more illumination.”

Sklar worked on the Garrison side of the story while Stone added the Oswald story, the events at Dealey Plaza and the “Mr. X” character. To tell as much of the story as they could, Stone and Sklar used composite characters, a technique that would be criticized in the press, most notably the “Mr. X” character played by Donald Sutherland and who was a mix of several witnesses and retired Air Force colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, an adviser for the film.

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Stone ambitiously wanted to recreate the Kennedy assassination in Dealey Plaza and his producers had to pay the Dallas City Council a substantial amount of money to hire police to reroute traffic and close streets for three weeks. He only had ten days to shoot all of the footage. Getting permission to shoot in the Texas School Book Depository was more difficult. They had to pay $50,000 to put someone in the window that Lee Harvey Oswald was supposed to have shot Kennedy from. They were allowed to film in that location only between certain hours with only five people on the floor at one time: the camera crew, an actor, and Stone. Co-producer Clayton Townsend has said that the hardest part was getting the permission to restore the building to the way it looked back in 1963. It took five months of negotiation.

Filming was going smoothly until several attacks on the film and Stone began to surface in the mainstream media including the Chicago Tribune, published while the film was only in its first weeks of shooting. Five days later, the Washington Post ran a scathing article by national security correspondent George Lardner entitled, “On the Set: Dallas in Wonderland” that used the first draft of the JFK screenplay to blast it for “the absurdities and palpable untruths in Garrison’s book and Stone’s rendition of it.” The article pointed out that Garrison lost his case against Clay Shaw and claimed that he inflated his case by trying to use Shaw’s homosexual relationships to prove guilt by association. Other attacks in the media soon followed. However, the Lardner Post piece stung the most because he had stolen a copy of the script. Stone recalls, “He had the first draft, and I went through probably six or seven drafts.”

The film depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination as a densely constructed story complete with jump cuts, multiple perspectives, a variety of film stocks and the blending of actual archival footage with staged scenes dramatized by a stellar cast of actors. This blurring of reality and fiction by mixing real footage with staged footage makes it difficult to discern what really happened and what is merely speculation. Stone does this in order to create what he calls “a countermyth to the myth of the Warren Commission because a lot of the original facts were lost in a very shoddy investigation” and simulate the confusing quagmire of events as they are depicted in The Warren Commission Report. Stone creates different points of views or “layers” through the extensive use of flashbacks within flashbacks. Stone has said that he “wanted to the film on two or three levels — sound and picture would take us back, and we’d go from one flashback to another, and then that flashback would go inside another flashback . . . I wanted multiple layers because reading the Warren Commission Report is like drowning.” This technique conveys the notion of confusion and conflict within evidence.

Kevin Costner acts as the perfect mouthpiece for Stone’s theories. The auteur’s infamously forceful directorial approach to his actors pays off here as he reins in the actor’s usual tics and mannerisms. Stone was no dummy — he knew that by populating his film with many famous faces, he could make the potentially bitter pill that was his film, that much more palatable to the mainstream movie-going public. The rest of the cast is phenomenal. Gary Oldman’s delivers an eerily authentic portrayal of the enigmatic Lee Harvey Oswald. Tommy Lee Jones is note-perfect as the refined, self-confident businessman, Clay Shaw. Even minor roles are filled by such name actors as Vincent D’Onofrio, Kevin Bacon, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau.

The film throws many characters at us and it is easier to keep track of them by identifying them with the famous person that portrays them. Stone was evidently inspired by the casting model of a documentary epic he had admired as a child: “Darryl Zanuck’s The Longest Day (1962) was one of my favorite films as a kid. It was realistic, but it had a lot of stars…the supporting cast provides a map of the American psyche: familiar, comfortable faces that walk you through a winding path in the dark woods.” Future biopics with sprawling casts, like The Insider (1999), and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), and The Good Shepherd (2006) would use this same approach.

Seeing JFK now, one is reminded that first and foremost, it is a top notch thriller. There are so many fantastic scenes of sheer exposition that would normally come across as dry and boring but are transformed into riveting scenes in the hands of this talented cast. For example, the famous scene between Garrison and X (Sutherland) where the mysterious man lays out all the reasons why Kennedy was killed and how is not only a marvel of writing but also of acting as the veteran actor gets to deliver what is surely one of the best monologues ever committed to film.

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JFK is an important film in the sense that it accurately portrays the assassination of Kennedy as a complex public event surrounded by chaos and confusion. It presents a main protagonist who exposes the conspiracy to be an intricately constructed coup d’état. Stone paints his canvas with broad brushstrokes and powerful images. JFK takes a larger, confrontational stance by boldly implicating the government in the conspiracy and the mainstream media in conspiring to cover it up. Stone is using the persuasive power of film to reach the largest number of people he can in order to wake them up and to reveal how they have been deceived by higher powers. There is no mistaking the importance of the assassination of Kennedy in American culture. Based on the excitement that surrounded Stone’s film, the American public is still greatly interested in the event with more and more people believing in a plot to kill Kennedy.

WALL STREET – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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When Oliver Stone made Wall Street (1987), he was riding high from the commercial and critical success of Platoon (1986). His father, Lou Stone, had been a stockbroker on Wall Street in New York City and this film was a son’s way of paying tribute to his father. Almost twenty years later, it has become one of the quintessential snapshots of the financial scene in the United States and epitomizes the essence of capitalism, greed, and materialism that was so prevalent in the 1980s.

Right from the opening frame, Stone establishes the dominant presence of greed and money by using a gold filter over shots of the New York City skyline with Frank Sinatra (known by his cronies as Chairman of the Board, no less) singing “Fly Me to the Moon,” foreshadowing the dizzying heights that the film’s protagonist, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), will briefly ascend. He is an up-and-coming stockbroker in the cutthroat financial world. He is hungry and willing to do anything to get rich. He idolizes Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), one of the most ruthless Wall Street tycoons who buys and then takes apart companies for profit. Bud aggressively pursues Gekko in the hopes that he can work for the businessman and follow in his footsteps. Bud soon finds himself in a moral dilemma: does he sell his soul for the gold key to Gekko’s world, or remain true to the blue collar roots of his labor union father (Martin Sheen)?

After the success of Platoon, Stone started researching a film about quiz show scandals in the 1950s. However, at lunch with a film school friend and Los Angeles screenwriter Stanley Weiser, Stone heard an idea for a film that could be “Crime and Punishment on Wall Street. Two guys abusing each other on Wall Street,” as he remarked in an interview. The director had been thinking about this kind of a film as early as 1981. He knew a New York businessman who was making millions and working long days, putting together deals all over the world. This man started making mistakes that cost him everything. Stone remembers that the “story frames what happens in my movie, which is basically a Pilgrim’s Progress of a boy who is seduced and corrupted by the allure of easy money. And in the third act, he sets out to redeem himself.” Stone and Weiser began researching the world of stock trading, junk bonds and corporate takeovers. They met a lot of powerful Wall Street movers and shakers. Reportedly, Bud Fox is said to be a composite of Owen Morrisey, who was involved in a $20 million insider trading scandal in 1985, Dennis Levine, Ivan Boesky, and others.

Stone met with Tom Cruise, who expressed an interest in playing Bud Fox, but the director had already committed to Charlie Sheen for the role. To research his role, the actor spent two days talking with David Brown, a Goldman Sachs trader who pleaded guilty to insider trading charges in 1986. Stone and Weiser began researching the world of stock trading, junk bonds, and corporate takeovers. They met a lot of powerful Wall Street movers and shakers. Weiser wrote the first draft, initially called Greed, with Stone writing another draft. Originally, the lead character was a young Jewish broker named Freddie Goldsmith, but Stone changed it to Bud Fox to avoid the misconception that Wall Street was controlled by Jews. According to Weiser, Gekko’s style of speaking was inspired by Stone. “When I was writing some of the dialogue I would listen to Oliver on the phone and sometimes he talks very rapid-fire, the way Gordon Gekko does.”

Stone wanted to shoot the film in New York City and that required a budget of at least $15 million. The studio that backed Platoon felt that it was too risky a project to bankroll and passed. Stone and producer Edward Pressman took it to 20th Century Fox, who loved it, and filming began in May 1987. Stone switched from 12 to 14-hour days in the last few weeks of principal photography before an impending directors’ strike and finished five days ahead of schedule.

Stone brilliantly sets everything up in the opening minutes of the film. Bud is first shown as an insignificant cog in the city. He’s mixed in with all the other 9-to-5ers — packed in a subway and then in the elevator up to the company where he works. Bud looks uncomfortable and unhappy. He does not want to be in there with all of these other people. He wants to be on the other side with all the money and with Gekko, who rides alone in his spacious limousine. As soon as Bud gets into work, Stone shows a montage of a typical business day — the hectic, rapid-fire pace as people buy, sell, and trade shares.

Taking his cue from another Faustian New York City tale, Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Stone prolongs the first appearance of the film’s most charismatic character. When Bud goes to visit Gekko, we do not see him; we only hear his voice from within his office. It is an enticing teaser that makes Bud and the audience curious to see this man that everyone regards with such awe and reverence. When we finally do meet Gekko, it is a whirlwind first appearance. The camera roves around him aggressively as he never stops talking, making deals, and truly embodying the phrase, “time is money.” According to Stone, he was “making a movie about sharks, about feeding frenzies. Bob [director of photography Robert Richardson] and I wanted the camera to become a predator. There is no letup until you get to the fixed world of Charlie’s father, where the stationary camera gives you a sense of immutable values.” This is such a fantastic way to introduce Gekko as it perfectly conveys what makes him so alluring to someone like Bud: he is always in control, he is smart, and he knows exactly how to get what he wants.

Michael Douglas owns the role of Gekko, and by extension, dominates the film with his larger than life character. He gets most of the film’s best dialogue and delivers it with such conviction. Douglas remembers when he first read the screenplay. “I thought it was a great part. It was a long script, and there were some incredibly long and intense monologues to open with. I’d never seen a screenplay where there were two or three pages of single-spaced type for a monologue. I thought, whoa! I mean, it was unbelievable.” There is a scene between Bud and Gekko in a limousine where he tells the younger man how the financial world works, how it operates and lays it all out, pushing Bud hard to go into business with him. It is one of the strongest scenes in the film because you really believe what Gekko is saying and how Bud could be seduced by his words.

Douglas had just come off heroic roles, like the one in Romancing the Stone (1984), and was looking for something darker and edgier. The studio wanted Warren Beatty to play Gekko, but he was not interested. Stone initially wanted Richard Gere, but the actor passed and the director went with Douglas despite having been advised by others in Hollywood not to cast him. Stone remembers, “I was warned by everyone in Hollywood that Michael couldn’t act, that he was a producer more than an actor and would spend all his time in his trailer on the phone.” But the director found out that “when he’s acting he gives it his all.” The culmination of Douglas’ performance is his much lauded, often quoted, “Greed is good” speech that his character gives to a shareholders’ meeting of Teldar Paper, a company he is planning to take over. He concludes by saying, “Greed is right; greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind, and greed – you mark my words – will save not only Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.” This is one of the best delivered monologues ever put to film, as Douglas goes from charming to downright threatening and back again, succinctly summing up the essence of ’80s capitalism and greed.

Stone was smart to cast Martin Sheen as Bud’s dad. He gets a lot of mileage out of the real father-son relationship between them. It makes their chemistry that much more genuine. It also lends itself to their heated conversations — especially the one in an elevator where Bud accuses his father of being jealous and ashamed that his son is more prosperous and successful. The shocked, wounded expression on the elder Sheen’s face says it all, and makes this scene that much more painful to watch. This scene also makes their tearful reconciliation at the hospital after the father suffers a heart attack all the more poignant. It is an intense, emotional moment as the tears start flowing and Bud begins along the gradual road to redemption.

However, Stone made the mistake of casting Daryl Hannah as Bud Fox’s materialistic girlfriend. She was having problems relating to her character and struggled with the role and personal problems. The director was aware early on that she was not right for the role, but arrogantly refused to admit the mistake. He remarked, “Daryl Hannah was not happy doing the role and I should have let her go. All my crew wanted to get rid of her after one day of shooting. My pride was such that I kept saying I was going to make it work.” Stone also had difficulties with Sean Young, who made her opinions known that Hannah should be fired and she should play her role instead. Young would show up to the set late and unprepared. She also did not get along with Charlie Sheen, which caused unnecessary friction on the set. In retrospect, Stone felt that Young was right and he should have swapped roles between her and Hannah.

Visually, Stone ends the film much as he began it, with Bud reduced to an insignificant cog in the city yet again, his future uncertain. Wall Street is a morality play about the seductive nature of greed, examining how far someone is willing to go and what they are prepared to do to become rich. The irony is that many people admired Gekko, and Stone has said on the supplementary material to the film’s DVD that people have approached him saying that they were inspired to get into the financial world because of this character. The 2000 film Boiler Room even features a group of young stockbrokers watching Wall Street on video and quoting along to some of Gekko’s more memorable dialogue. People who admire Douglas’ character don’t seem to realize that Stone is not idealizing him, but merely showing the seductive lure of someone like Gekko. He is not someone to admire, and the film leaves his fate somewhat ambiguous, while it is Bud who goes to jail. It is this stinging indictment that lingers long after the credits end — that rich, powerful men like Gekko never seem to get punished for their transgressions, while the common man, like Bud, suffer instead.