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

If you never do anything, you never become anyone.

An Education (2009)
Carey Mulligan deserves all the attention she received for her central performance, and the depiction of the ‘60s is commendably subdued. I worried there was going to be a full-blown music montage sequence at the climax that undid all the good work, but thankfully it was fairly low key. 

Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams are especially strong in the supporting roles, and it's fortunate for credibility’s sake that that Orlando Bloom had to drop out and Dominic Cooper replaced him.
***1/2

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Can you close off your feelings so you don’t get crippled by the moral ambiguity of your violent actions?

Spider-Man Worst to Best

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…

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

What, you're going to walk in there like it's the commie Disneyland or something?

Stranger Things 3 (2019)
(SPOILERS) It’s very clear by this point that Stranger Things isn’t going to serve up any surprises. It’s operating according to a strict formula, one requiring the opening of the portal to the Upside Down every season and an attendant demagorgon derivative threat to leak through, only to be stymied at the last moment by our valorous team. It’s an ‘80s sequel cycle through and through, and if you’re happy with it functioning exclusively on that level, complete with a sometimes overpowering (over)dose of nostalgia references, this latest season will likely strike you as just the ticket.

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

Everyone who had a talent for it lived happily ever after.

Empire 30:  Favourite Films of the Last 30 Years
Empire’s readers’ poll to celebrate its thirtieth birthday – a request for the ultimate thirty films of the last thirty years, one per year from 1989 – required a bit of thought, particularly since they weren’t just limiting it to your annual favourite (“These can be the films that impressed you the most, the ones that stuck with you, that brought you joy, or came to you at just the right time”). Also – since the question was asked on Twitter, although I don’t know how rigorous they’re being; does it apply to general release, or does it include first film festival showings? – they’re talking UK release dates, rather than US, calling for that extra modicum of mulling. To provide more variety, I opted to limit myself to just one film per director; otherwise, my thirty would have been top heavy with, at very least, Coen Brothers movies. So here’s they are, with runners-up and reasoning:

How can you have time when it clearly has you?

Dark  Season 2
(SPOILERS) I’m not intending to dig into Dark zealously, as its plotting is so labyrinthine, it would take forever and a day, and I’d just end up babbling incoherently (so what’s new). But it’s worth commenting on, as it’s one of the few Netflix shows I’ve seen that feels entirely rigorous and disciplined – avoiding the flab and looseness that too often seems part and parcel of a service expressly avoiding traditional ratings models – as it delivers its self-appointed weighty themes and big ideas. And Dark’s weighty themes and big ideas really are weighty and big, albeit simultaneously often really frustrating. It came as no surprise to learn of the showrunners’ overriding fixation on determinism at work in the multi-generational, multiple time period-spanning events within the German town of Winden, but I was intrigued regarding their structural approach, based on clearly knowing the end game of their characters, rather than needing to reference (as they put it) Post-It…