Skip to main content

They must love each other more than you, otherwise how could they share you.


Savages
(2012)

Following the resounding failure of passion-project Alexander (a film that appears to be spawning an unending stream of director-endorsed alternative cuts), Oliver Stone has still managed to churn out a movie every couple of years. But something seems to have happened to him along the way. Maybe it happened long before. I might point the finger at his absurdly over-saturated take on Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers script as the first indication that Stone had run out of things to say, or to say passionately and provocatively. NBK, no doubt fuelled by Quentin’s sensibilities to some extent, is an adolescent’s idea of how to create controversy. Its desire to “cause a scene” renders it free of any of the resonance of the director’s run of ‘80s fare. Savages feels like a descendant of NBK. It’s a well-enough directed film, and it’s reasonably involving. But it’s surely closer to a 15-year old Stone’s romantic fantasy of weed-smoking and easy-lays than one who is in his mid-60s and should be becoming more incisive as he matures.

Perhaps Stone had just plain vented all he needed to on Vietnam and JFK. And then he was just shouting incoherently in the corner about anything and everything. As it is, Nixon is the last film of his that really felt powered by intellect as much as a desire to express emotions. Much of what he has made since comes across as slightly enervated, slightly irate studio product. It’s a shame, as the yardstick I always judged his films by was not Platoon but Salvador. It’s the kind of director I’d hoped he would continue to be; passionate, angry, with clearly defined subject matter focused within his sights.  But he seemed to fizzle (I quite like W. but it isn’t exactly audacious). I should probably admit that I’ve yet to view World Trade Center; I just can’t bring myself to see the director so completely neutered.

To some extent, Savages might be seen as forming a loose trilogy with NBK and U-Turn. All three see the director make a film in the contemporary crime genre, where style rules over content and where the result finds his vision at its least arresting. Perhaps he knows this, which is why he pulls out every filmmaking trick in the book to sell something that doesn’t truly inspire him. Ironically, Savages’ subject matter isn’t so far from the film that got him critical praise and an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay; Midnight Express. But if that took an unglamorous stance on the drug trade, Savages is all fantasy; a Tarantino movie without the jokes but enough brutal violence and bromance to suggest Joe Carnahan might have been interested in it at one point.

This is a cartoon version of the drugs trade, cartels, Iraq war veterans and pot-smoking, where a ménage-a-trois exists because the weed (presumably?) fuels a dippy dream world of hippy idealism. Although, the only proponent of this is Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) one half of the weed-growing team with Chon (Taylor Kitsch). Ben is such a good guy, he devotes the profit he makes to helping the impoverished in the Third World (how he finds the time to do this, and get stoned is open to debate). He has kind-of dreads, so you know he’s a loveable crusty-type. Iraq war vet and former Navy SEAL Chon (how Hollywood must delight in having a ready source of veterans these days; it was dicey for a while post-Vietnam and looked like there might be a generation gap).

Their weed is just the best, man. It has an extraordinarily high THC content, so they attract the attention of the Mexican Baja cartel. Whom they turn down until their mutual squeeze “O” (Ophelia, played by Blake Lively) is abducted. O is a flakey airhead bimbo, the type who wants to go to the mall before she leaves the country for an unspecified time, and who has unspecified parent issues (so we can sympathise with her, right?) O also provides a voice-over narration, which immediately draws uncomplimentary parallels with Badlands and True Romance.

I don’t know how much this is Stone or author of the novel (and co-credited on the screenplay) Don Winslow. Maybe Winslow is a great crime writer and this is a patchy adaptation. I’d have to find time to delve into his works. Michael Mann has had The Winter of Frankie Machine in development for aeons, it seems. Whatever the truth, the script is awash with surface gloss and little substance. The spacey voice-over adds to this sense (as does an unnecessary and ineffective double-take ending that is almost funny in its brazen clumsiness). We know things don’t bode well when O introduces Chon with, “I have orgasms, he has war-gasms”. OMG! How cool is that! Winslow, Stone and co-writer Shane Salerno (who boasts AvP: Requiem amongst his credits) seem to have the sights set on the quasi-mythic (they verbally reference Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) but are too determinedly vacuous to justify such comparisons.

This is a film where a unit of war veterans assemble to protect a pot dealership, and one where the matriarchal cartel boss (Salma Hayek) just needs a female companion to talk to and remind her of her estranged daughter. Hayek does her best, but even if her character has been written as loosing her grip on power she fails to convince as one who strikes the fear of God into her subjects. Her relationship with O isn’t remotely convincing either (in that O is utterly clueless, like). I’m not familiar enough with Blake Lively’s work to be sure if she is limited or it’s a well-observed rendition of a shallow character, but I tend to the former. Certainly, she pales next to Patricia Arquette or Sissy Spacek. And, for a character that is so sexually forthright, Lively’s performance, and no-nudity clause, seems determinedly chaste (certainly compared to her male co-stars).

The problems with casting aren’t limited to Lively, however. Taylor-Johnson gives a strong performance, adding much-needed believability to Ben’s discovery that violence is part and parcel of his (drug) deal. And he convincingly “ages-up” for a role (the actor is barely into his 20s). But, in contrast, Kitsch is something of a charisma vacuum and fails to convey the reported toughness and imposing presence of Chon. Their free-love interrelationship isn’t particularly interesting or daring, not least because they all seem so blithely accepting of it (obviously this strain of weed causes zero paranoia!)

It’s left to a couple of older supporting hands to bring what’s necessary to the table. Benicio Del Toro is tough, and scary, as Hayek’s right-hand man. He tortures with impunity, beats up his wife and generally oozes impending violence. John Travolta matches him for charisma as a balding, corrupt DEA agent with a dying wife. Travolta’ easy-going charm is perfectly positioned here, running the gamut from false confidence to affability to fear (and a penchant for prop acting; he’s never without some item of food he’s in the process of consuming). There’s an enormously enjoyable scene between him and Del Toro where you’re unsure what the hell will transpire.

And what the film needs is more of this sort of scene. As noted, Stone appears to come unstuck when he has nothing to say, and he’s not preaching it from the rooftops. I’m sure the pro-legalisation debate is dear to his heart, but Savages is completely disinterested in engaging seriously with it. Really, it’s a bit of a cop-out to have the duo as pot-dealers as few would now challenge that weed at least has benefits in certain circumstances (as Stone lays on with a trowel in the opening scenes showing how these  young dealers ensure that their product goes to medicinal marijuana users). It also makes the contemporary setting feel curiously fractured, that this should be set in the ‘70s. Are the levels of THC being produced really that stupendous? Surely every other producer is producing crazily potent strains these days?

While there are a few twists and turns along the way, the plot is underdeveloped for the (bloated) running time. Ben and Chon’s plan to get O back is neither clever nor intriguing enough to justify our attention; everything comes too easy to them. Which suggests that everything came too easy to the writer, something only confirmed when we arrive at the aforementioned twist climax. 

*** 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

One day you will speak and the jungle will listen.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)
(SPOILERS) The unloved and neglected Jungle Book movie that wasn't Disney’s, Jungle Book: Origins was originally pegged for a 2016 release, before being pushed to last year, then this, and then offloaded by Warner Bros onto Netflix. During which time the title changed to Mowgli: Tales from the Jungle Book, then Mowgli, and finally Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. The assumption is usually that the loser out of vying projects – and going from competing with a near $1bn grossing box office titan to effectively straight-to-video is the definition of a loser – is by its nature inferior, but Andy Serkis' movie is a much more interesting, nuanced affair than the Disney flick, which tried to serve too many masters and floundered with a finale that saw Mowgli celebrated for scorching the jungle. And yes, it’s darker too. But not grimdarker.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

A steed is not praised for its might, but for its thoroughbred qualities.

The Avengers Season 3 Ranked - Worst to Best
Season Three is where The Avengers settles into its best-known form – okay, The Grandeur that was Rome aside, there’s nothing really pushing it towards the eccentric heights it would reach in the Rigg era – in no small part due to the permanent partnering of Honor Blackman with Patrick Macnee. It may not be as polished as the subsequent incarnations, but it has the appeal of actively exploring its boundaries, and probably edges out Season Five in the rankings, which rather started to believe its own hype.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Don’t you break into like, a billion homes a year?

The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
(SPOILERS) Tis the season to be schmaltzy. Except, perhaps not as insufferably so as you might think. The Christmas Chronicles feels very much like a John Hughes production, which is appropriate since it's produced by Chris Columbus, who was given his start as a director by Hughes. Think Uncle Buck, but instead of John Candy improving his nieces and nephew's lives, you've got Kurt Russell's Santa Claus bringing good cheer to the kids of the Pierce household. The latter are an indifferent duo, but they key here is Santa, and Russell brings the movie that all important irrepressible spark and then some.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

A machine planet, sending a machine to Earth, looking for its creator. It’s absolutely incredible.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
(SPOILERS) Most of the criticisms levelled at Star Trek: The Motion Picture are legitimate. It puts spectacle above plot, one that’s so derivative it might be classed as the clichéd Star Trek plot. It’s bloated and slow moving. For every superior redesign of the original series’ visuals and concepts, there’s an inferior example. But… it’s also endlessly fascinating. It stands alone among the big screen chapters of series as an attempted reimagining of the TV show as a grand adult, serious-minded “experience”, taking its cues more from 2001: A Space Odyssey than Star Wars or even Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the success of which got The Motion Picture (TMP) a green light, execs sufficiently convinced that Lucas’ hit wasn’t a one-off). It’s a film (a motion picture, not a mere movie) that recognises the passage of time (albeit clumsily at points) and gives a firm sense of space and place to its characters universe. It’s hugely flawed, but it bot…