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Dominic Corry: Where Did Oliver Stone go wrong?

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Movie blogger Dominic Corry examines the career of the once mighty director, Oliver Stone.

A scene from Oliver Stone's new film Savages. Photo / Supplied
A scene from Oliver Stone's new film Savages. Photo / Supplied

From the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s, there was no director more vitally tapped into the political and cultural zeitgeist than Oliver Stone.

He's continued making movies since then, but none have had the impact of those from his heyday. That trend continues with his new film Savages, which hits New Zealand theatres this week.

Based on the book by Don Winslow, Savages details the exploits of two Californian marijuana barons/chilled-out surfer dudes played by Kick Ass' Aaron Johnson and John Carter's Taylor Kitsch. Gossip Girl star Blake Lively plays their mutual girlfriend (it's California love, baby).

Their sun-drenched lifestyle of good buds and bronzed bods comes under threat when the Mexican cartels (headed by Salma Hayek) want in on their ultra premium weed.

I had high (ahem) hopes for Savages, especially after the crushing disappointment of 2010's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. I had hoped it would evoke the last time Oliver Stone made a pure genre film - 1997's underrated U Turn.

But alas, it's pants. The drug-business intrigue comes across as child's play when compared to TV's Breaking Bad, and the main characters are difficult to get behind. Lively lacks the presence her character requires and John Travolta takes his hamminess to new heights as a corrupt DEA agent.

Plus, one of the main characters is named 'Chon'. That is not a name.

So the Oliver Stone irrelevance train chugs away. How did he go from one of America's most pertinent auteurs to one of its blandest filmmakers?

It certainly makes a strong case for filmmakers needing the hunger of youthful ambition to make interesting films. There are plenty of other major '80s auteurs who've lost touch with whatever made their films special (Barry Levinson, Rob Reiner), but Oliver Stone keeps getting second chances.

Which isn't difficult to understand when you look at how many modern classics are in his ouvre. From Platoon to Wall Street to JFK - these were the films that got people talking. Amongst this creatively fertile period, Oliver Stone made a little-seen film that I count among my all-time favourite movies: Talk Radio.

Made between two much higher-profile films, 1987's Wall Street and 1989's Born of the Fourth of July, Talk Radio is an intimate, incendiary drama about a self-destructive radio talkshow host played by Eric Bogosian.

It was a perfect role for monologist Bogosian (whom some may remember as the principal bad guy in the Geoff Murphy-directed Under Siege 2: Dark Territory), who also wrote the screenplay based on his own play.

I watched the film recently (it turns up on Sky's MGM channel quite frequently) and it holds up extremely well. With the 'culture wars' raging away, the film almost feels more relevant now than it did in 1987. Be sure to check it out if you've never seen it, it's one of the great undiscovered gems of the '80s.

It could be argued that the golden period of Oliver Stone films culminated with the controversial 1994 satire Natural Born Killers, based on an infamous script by Quentin Tarantino, which Stone heavily reworked. The cultural mania that surrounded its release was reflected on screen by Stone hurling pretty much every filmmaking technique available at the film.

His follow-up film was another look at an American president (Nixon) that suffered principally for not being half as cool as JFK. Although handsomely produced with great performances, Nixon marked the beginning of the decline of Oliver Stone.

After his diversion into genre cinema with U Turn, Stone turned to another American institution for his next movie, Any Given Sunday. Expectations were high for the grid iron-centric film which had an amazing cast. It proved entertaining, but not exactly enduring. All the elements were there, it just lacked the zing of his earlier films.

It would be five years until his next film, the notorious folly Alexander, hit screens. The film's poor reception (a lot of it directed at Colin Farrell's haircut, it should be said) would have ended any lesser director's career, but it didn't prevent Stone from being the controversial choice to direct 2006's World Trade Center.

World Trade Center came across as Stone's attempt to prove he could still play studio ball effectively, but the film was wholly overshadowed by Paul Greengrass' United 93, which was released a couple of months earlier.

That didn't stop me from getting excited for W, his 2008 film about George W Bush. What could've been a triumphant return to inflammatory form instead felt like a damp squib content to simply reflect public opinion rather than challenge it. Another step down.

Undeterred, I once again allowed my hopes to rise for the Wall Street sequel. Quite how that failed I don't think I'll ever understand, but it sorely lacked the cynical edge of the first film. I'd like Shia LaBeouf to share some of the blame.

Which brings us to Savages, a chance for creative redemption if ever there was one. But as I mentioned earlier, a failed one.

There aren't a huge number of directors who've remained vital creative talents their whole lives (Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen) but the disparity between Stone's earlier work and his bland modern output is truly jarring.

I'd like to see him try something a little smaller in scale, like Talk Radio. It's amazing what he achieved visually and dramatically in that film, which pretty much only has one set. Bogosian's electric presence was never utilised as effectively again, and such a strong onscreen counterpart would definitely help Stone rediscover his filmmaking verve.

Maybe his upcoming documentary series presenting an alternative history of the United States will mark a return to form. It's certainly an enticing-sounding project from the man who made JFK.

But I should probably stop getting my hopes up.

* What is your favourite Oliver Stone film? Do you think he has any more good films in him? Do you know anyone named Chon? Comment below!

Follow Dominic Corry on Twitter.

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