Tag Archives: Oliver Stone

JFK – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

JFK5

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.

600px-JFK_017

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.

capture91

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.

Advertisements

WALL STREET – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

00ef81a325de4cc6a07dcab0cbd38c42

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.

OLIVER STONE’S ALEXANDER — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

1

Bursting with over-sized ambition, ferocious amounts of energy, and fever-pitch emotion that’s never afraid to go over the top, Oliver Stone’s gargantuan period epic Alexander is one of the best modern evocations of ancient history that’s ever been crafted, and easily the most underrated film of Stone’s legendary career. I’ll never understand the unnecessary hate that was piled upon this remarkable achievement upon first release; I think it’s because Stone dared to challenge familiar genre ingredients that people were hesitant to the film’s many strengths, from the non-linear narrative to the positively overwhelming battle sequences that put every other depiction of cinematic “Sword and Sandal” combat to shame. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the “war-elephant” fight in the jungle, to say nothing of the massive Battle of Gaugamela set-piece, is the single greatest battle scene of its type ever captured on film – relentless, beyond bloody, and truly terrifying — it’s positively hellish to observe, with Stone totally flipping out, even going so far as to show what would happen if an elephant stepped on your face. Rodrigo Prieto’s muscular, hugely expansive, and utterly breathtaking widescreen cinematography is always a sensuous treat, the fired-up screenplay is filled with boisterous speechifying and juicy political intrigue, the immense and soaring musical score by Vangelis reaches for the stars, and the performances range from small to large from a ridiculously stacked cast.

Colin Farrell gave it everything and more and left nothing to spare in a performance that clearly grabbed him from the inside; just look at his eyes in some of the scenes in this film and tell me he’s not insanely aligned with his character. And then you have Angelina Jolie at the absolute pinnacle of her silver-screen hotness – a true serpent/vixen of a role for the ultimate cinematic cobra. Jared Leto, Christopher Plummer, Rosario Dawson, Anthony Hopkins, Val Kilmer and a plethora of “faces” all robustly spiced up the ensemble, while the extravagant and eye-filling production design by Jan Roelfs contributed to the verisimilitude of the entire film. Yes, it’s campy in spots, but likely intentionally so, as the various subtexts and themes are explored in an upfront fashion. But for the most part, this is a deadly serious tapestry of people, places, events, and moments, all patched together in that fabulously unhinged Stone fashion, where the storytelling and filmmaking demonstrates a live-wire spark. The dense script was highly interested in the various characters and their unique motivations, and there’s a sense of gusto to just about every facet of this film that never ceases to impress. This is bravura filmmaking, made by a master director who clearly possessed a true passion for the material, which makes the entire production feel all the more compelling. I saw this film twice theatrically, I own every permutation of the picture that’s been released on DVD/Blu-ray thus far, and I feel that Stone’s recent and most definitive cut is the absolute best that’s been offered. This is a project that Stone seemingly cannot let go of, a film that has driven one of our most challenging and distinctive filmmakers potentially insane.

2

PTS PROUDLY PRESENTS CINEMATOGRAPHERS CORNER WITH SALVATORE TOTINO

CINEMATOGRAPHERS CORNER

Podcasting Them Softly is extremely proud to present a Special Edition CINEMATOGRAPHER’S CORNER POWERCAST with director of photography Salvatore Totino. For the last 16 years, Salvatore has been shooting films for an extremely impressive roster of filmmakers. Oliver Stone drafted him for his big-screen debut on ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, which catapulted him into the top ranks of working cinematographers after he displayed an aggressively visceral camera style unnamedon Stone’s gridiron epic. He was then scooped up by Ron Howard and over the years he’s shot seven films for him, including all three Robert Langdon adventures – THE DAVINCI CODE, ANGELS AND DEMONS, and next year’s INFERNO, as well as the historical drama FROST/NIXON, the revisionist western THE MISSING starring Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett, and the relationship comedy THE DILEMMA. Other credits include moody and stylish work on Roger Michell’s underrated drama CHANGING LANES, and later this fall, he has two big films coming out in theaters – the star-studded mountain climbing adventure EVEREST and the NFL brain-trauma expose CONCUSSION, which stars Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, David Morse, and Albert Brooks. Welcome to the show Salvatore, it’s an honor to get a chance to speak with you!

PTS Proudly Presents CINEMATOGRAPHERS CORNER with Seamus McGarvey

SEAMUS REEL

IMG_1947Podcasting Them Softly is extremely proud to present our first Special Edition CINEMATOGRAPHER’S CORNER POWERCAST with two time Oscar nominated director of photography Seamus McGarvey. For the last 25 years, Seamus has been putting together an amazing and eclectic body of work that stretches all genres and styles, with just some of his credits including THE WAR ZONE for Tim Roth, HIGH FIDELITY for Stephen Frears, THE HOURS for Stephen Daldry, Oliver Stone’s THE WORLD TRADE CENTER, the unforgettable and chilling family drama WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN from director Lynn Ramsay, Joss Whedon’s THE AVENGERS, last summer’s blockbuster GODZILLA, this past winter’s worldwide phenomenon 50 SHADES OF GREY, and four huge collaborations with director Joe Wright including ATONEMENT, ANNA KARENINA, THE SOLOIST, and this Fall’s extremely exciting looking PAN, which is a new spin on the classic tale of Peter Pan.  He two upcoming projects are Gavin O’Connor’s THE ACCOUNTANT staring Ben Affleck and Tom Ford’s next film NOCTURNAL ANIMALS.  He’s one of the most in demand cinematographers of his generation, and it was an honor to speak with him. Enjoy!