Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 06, 2012 5:31 pm 
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Trouble from down south

Oliver Stone's new movie Savages is a drug story and in a weird way, entertainment. Not the saga of a grandiose addict like Scarface, which Stone wrote for Brian De Palma, drawing, it is said, on his own cocaine habit. Nor the gripping tale of a drug smuggler's capture, ordeal, and escape like Midnight Express, which Stone adapted for Alan Parker. This time Stone is entering "Weeds" territory. Like the bulletproof Nancy Botwin of the long-running TV series, the two handsome, well-muscled young men in Savages are middle class white folks who produce a sublimely perfect strain of cannabis and then run afoul of a Mexican cartel. Their product is discovered, and they're overrun for the rest of the movie by unsavory, sadistic Hispanic gentlemen equipped with all sorts of high tech spying devices, as well as the usual daggers, cages, bludgeons and the rest. However good their dope or ingenious their self-defenses, they seem like amateurs. To begin with they sample their product too liberally, a thing Ms. Botwin is far too smart ever to do. And their living situation is too dicey (see below).

Savages also runs afoul of an overstuffed plot that might work better with many episodes to play out in -- like "Weeds," and leavened with a sense of humor -- also like "Weeds." The movie indeed contains Demián Bichir, who plays the urbane but steely Tijuana mayor and drug lord who marries Ms. Botwin in the TV series. In keeping with this generally less fun if bloodier drug story, Bichir, as the unfortunate "Alex," starts lower and comes to a grievous and humiliating end. Other notables are on hand. Prominent among them is the brilliant Benicio Del Toro, a veteran of drug tales, who shone in Soderbergh's remake of a great European drug miniseries, Traffik, which was moved to Mexico and lost the K, and then taking back that lost "C" and adding an "H" and a "E," became Soderbergh's charismatic Che. Del Toro is unbelievably sleazy and odious here. He oozes so heavily with gleeful sadism it becomes hard to credit the supervisory role over other violent sadists he's given here as the drug boss's right hand man. At the head of the cartel is a lady, known as Elena, played by Salma Hayek, far down from Frida Kahlo, up from the sad prostitute she bravely played last year in Mathieu Demy's rather unfortunate Americano, but relegated to Skype and closed circuit TV communications with her enemies here, and sadly rejected by her spoiled daughter, who lives in the USA. Realistically enough, I guess, for Mexico today in the era of the Drug Wars, Elena has taken over from her male family members, who have all been killed.

At the heart of the tale is a ménage à trois. The peaceful Bono wannabe, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and his hardened Iraq war vet partner Chon (Taylor Kitsch) are shacked up in a sunlit Laguna Beach pad with O (the simpatica but overstretched "Gossip Girl" star Blake Lively), whose rambling voiceover doesn't do much for the energy level.

There is plenty of action, but all about what? Ben and Chon are given an offer they can't refuse, but they try to sneak out of it, covering their tracks in ways you can't quite follow by investment and IT whiz Emile Hirsh. In retaliation Elena has O kidnapped. The rest of the movie consists of furious bargaining, cheating, and stealing by the bromantic bros to get her back. Also thrown into the stew is John Travolta, long shorn of his Pulp Fiction locks and now a crooked DEA agent who I guess helps cover for Ben and Chon, though why they'd trust him is hard to say. Artists Equity?

Things get complicated, more and more violent, and more and more inexplicable, with whole elaborate capers suddenly sprung on us with barely two minutes of explanation. To further complete (and weaken) the mix, there are two endings supplied. Do the principals die brutally, or live happily ever after? Check one.

I liked the use of classical music at some completely chaotic and violent moments, which had a soothing effect, though in many cases music was so crassly and inexplicably overlaid that I suspect its success at any point was probably an accident. I didn't like this movie. And the trouble with it is that it immediately gets confused in one's mind with other movies, some better, like Traffik/Traffic, some (even) worse, like Ted Demme's "deeply mediocre" Blow (as J. Hoberman called it), which had another Caucasian pretty boy (like Kitsch and Johnson), Johnny Depp, and another fiery Hispanic lady (Penelope Cruz).

Oliver Stone's movies are provocative and attention-grabbing. If you trust the Oscars, he hit the ball out of the park with Platoon, Born on the Forth of July, and JFK, and did notable work with Salvador (where his leftist political bent paid off in a really savvy film) and Nixon. And there was W, which was okay, and Talk Radio (a play shot for the screen), and The Doors, which people find memorable but Morrison's own nearest and dearest think a lie; the accuracy of Midnight Express has likewise been impugned. Stone hit the Zeitgeist in Wall Street, and one or two other times, perhaps even in Natural Born Killers. A lot of flashy, dramatic work, a few successes, some failures. Some big costly bombs, like Alexander.

Part of the unevenness is that Stone's forte is never accuracy, but controversy. This time though the only provocation is the over-the-top violence, which is not very original nowadays. And the screenplay is too messy to make the story interesting.

Savages released in the US and Canada July 6, 2012. It comes out September 28 in the UK.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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