Oliver Stone’s Savages has guts. In this sun-drenched acid wash of a thriller, a trio of naïve young lovers butt heads with a brutal Mexican drug cartel, and the entanglement proves violently disruptive, waking them up from their idyllic Southern California fantasy. This awakening of sorts is envisioned by Stone though a jolting mesh of vibrant colors, contrasting film stocks, and off-kilter compositions. Throughout, the hyper-realized style helps to articulate the brutal cost of living inside a self-contained bubble.
I look back at Oliver Stone’s Wall Street for an inconsequential DVD re-issue in anticipation of film’s sequel. I fell hard for this film in college, but now on second glance it seems ridiculously uneven, at times downright silly. Still, I admire the hell out of Stone’s direction in the first half, the often brilliant banter spewed by great actors like Hal Holbrook, Martin Sheen, and of course Michael Douglas.
Absent the deserved tar and feathering, Oliver Stone’s strange biopic on George W. Bush purposefully straddles the fence, painting our soon to be ex-president with a calculating and limiting brush. Stone sees his subject as a product of Daddy issues and anxiety, a volatile boomerang of suave charm and self-loathing who attempts to fill his forefathers shoes but fails, turns to binge drinking, and then finds Jesus. Josh Brolin’s admirable performance fills the void produced by the countless lesser ones surrounding him (why is Thandie Newton channelling James Cagney to play Condoleezza Rice?). Considering the devastating ramifications of Bush’s Presidency, the film feels slight, unimportant, and almost unforgivably benign. Call it a six pack of Bush-lite. While seemingly devoid of structure, W. tries to follow a loose timeline of events surrounding Bush’s rise to the presidency, but the result ends up inconsequential at best. The true failure of Stone’s work only comes into focus after the credit’s role, when such a forgettable text slowly fades into the unforgettable real nightmare of the last eight years; the war, torture, and fraud that defines Bush’s legacy.
I can imagine the producer’s meeting now. Okay Michael Caine, it’s going to be you vs. a prosthetic hand. I know you’re used to classier fare so it will be difficult, but you can do it. Now, Action! Ugh! What a sloppy effort from Oliver Stone. No originality in terms of horror aesthetics or even special effects, just mindless psycho babble and obvious symbolism. The Hand isn’t scary, or shocking, or engaging, but it is long and tedious. A slap to the face is even worse when it’s done by a clay palm.
Oliver Stone’s straightforward and sometimes riveting recreation of the 9/11 events calls direct attention to a dangerous simplicity inherent in modern Hollywood movies. Stone hits every plot point, emotional moment, and special effect with perfect timing and gravitas, which makes it at times monotonous and redundant. The story of Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) and Tom McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and the people involved in their rescue is harrowing and heroic, but it’s not the material I’m calling into question. Stone simplifies every aspect of that complicated day down to the cleanest flashbacks and voice overs, narrowing his thematic scope so much it becomes almost hard to ignore the gung-ho attitude exemplified by the Jesus like Marine who finds the two survivors. Is this really Oliver Stone, the man who made such hard hitting masterpieces as Natural Born Killers and JFK? While not perfect, those films were attempting to clash with mainstream ideologies fashioned at key points in our nation’s history. World Trade Center is a drastic shift to the right for Stone, and for better or worse, a failure to address anything beyond the scope of that day. But Stone’s brilliance for pacing does come into play in the first half hour of the film, where his direction has no need for the corny dialogue or aesthetics to come, instead relying on good old fashioned imagery and editing to build tension before the attacks. Stone slowly introduces each main character with perfect framing and the only dynamic camera moves of the film. We know what’s coming, but these characters do not, and Stone retains their innocence, anger, fright, and heroism with silence; McLoughlin and his men looking up at the burning towers, the swift shadow of the first plane as it glides across the side of the building. These opening moments are so strong, it’s a shame Stone couldn’t figure out a way to continue with this bare bones strategy. Ironically, even though the human emotion gets amplified as the film goes on, the characters become more one dimensional, their main emotional moments feeling staged, blatantly handed down from writer to actor, less apart of the human sacrifices made that day by the countless people unrepresented by this film. By picking such a simple and small viewfinder to look through, Stone wastes an opportunity to do what he does best; show historical events for what they are – a series of cracks, fissures, and pot wholes of contrasting points of view, a complicated series of events which need to be addressed. Instead, old Oliver just drew a nice straight timeline.