The basic premise of most crime revenge dramas is how much of our humanity we're willing to trade to get back what the other people — the ostensible baddies — have taken from us. Oliver Stone returns to this familiar stomping ground with Savages a splashy adaptation of Don Winslow's novel about a unique love affair a major marijuana-dealing business and an increasingly violent pissing match between two SoCal growers and the Baja Cartel.
Stone's frenetic visual style is in full swing but even this Oscar-winning auteur can't quite raise the film from mediocrity. It's hard to care whether or not Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) rescue their gorgeous mutual girlfriend O (Blake Lively) from the cartel if O isn't engaging enough to persuade us she's worth the bloodshed. O (short for Ophelia — an allusion to her earthshaking climaxes) is not a well-written character to begin with but she's even less engaging as played by Lively. Johnson is unconvincing as the bleeding heart Ben and the details his character is given — extra earrings a shoddy-looking tattoo on his neck even white boy dreads at one point — undercut his believability even more. Kitsch is given a few prominent scars and a mean squint but he doesn't quite bring the weird slightly empty vibe of Chon to life.
On the villain side Benicio Del Toro chews every inch of scenery from Laguna Beach to Tijuana as Lado. He's rocking an intense moustache that he strokes when he's lying or being a creep (which is most of the time) a vaguely mullet-like wig and a fondness for torture. Salma Hayek takes no prisoners as the head of the cartel nicknamed Elena la Reina who is both a frustrated mom whose college-age daughter is blowing her off (aw!) and a brutally tough woman in a man's world. John Travolta definitely enjoys a bit of Pulp Fiction ridiculousness as Dennis a DEA official who's in Ben and Chon's pocket. It's hard to tell just how funny Savages is aiming to be. Lado Elena and Dennis are cartoonish but Ben Chon and O are earnest — which is to say a little bit boring.
The double- and triple-crossing is practically moot as is the wacky technology that Ben and Chon employ; it's like The Social Network meets surfers. The real meat of the movie is the flash and violence but it's not the kind of thing that stays with you like Stone's Natural Born Killers. Savages doesn't have the same lingering aftertaste. It's not that a movie needs to have some sort of message with its pointed commentary on the media's bloodlust but the gist of Savages — that we're all savages at heart or that we can easily become a savage given the right circumstances — is not that interesting or unique.
Oddly enough Savages pulls a few punches when it comes to its source material (hard to believe when the movie kicks off with a glimpse of an abattoir-like enclosure and close-ups of men begging for their lives just as a chainsaw revs in the background). Winslow's book is a quick enjoyable read with an interesting on-page style that's hard to replicate verbally. It has a sort of ADD-addled feel that the movie tries to but doesn't quite capture. While it's not always fair to compare an adaptation to the book it's based on Winslow is both the author and one of the screenplay writers so some of the choices made behind the scenes don't quite add up. Cut are significant and menacing back story for Lado and all of the zestiness out of O. Why add in certain plot points and take out others unless it was to give one of its big name stars more screen time? The most interesting part of the story the love story is treated like a wink wink homoerotic thing than an actual relationship between three people who adore each other which is how it's portrayed in the book. It's hard not to be a little disappointed especially given Stone's no-f**ks-given attitude. (Or as O would say baditude.)
That said it is a somewhat entertaining diversion and a nice tour of lifestyles of the rich and criminal. Lively is all tangled tan limbs and luxurious hippie clothes and the homes they frequent whether on Laguna Beach or a desert compound are meticulously decorated with exquisite expensive taste. Santa Muerte imagery also figures heavily in the background of many scenes. The scenery is gorgeous — even the marijuana looks amazing. It's good for adults to have another R-rated choice in what's usually a season dominated by blockbusters but in years to come you'll more likely to reach for your old True Romance DVD than Savages.
By all appearances The Killer Inside Me’s setting of Central City Texas is the epitome of the cinematic small town complete with slow–drawl country music tunes a businessman who practically owns the town and a doe-eyed lady who most of the townsfolk love but whose heart belongs to the deputy sheriff. Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) though is no ordinary deputy sheriff as we learn when he is ordered to evict a local prostitute Joyce Lakeland (the always gorgeous Jessica Alba) because she has taken up with the son of town boss Chester Conway (Ned Beatty). Unfortunately for Conway this is Jessica Alba we're talking about! After a rather interesting exchange with Joyce Ford takes up with her himself and hatches a plan for them to skip town together. When Ford’s fiancé Amy Stanton (a fetching Kate Hudson) suspects an affair between the two trouble ensues and a maelstrom of murder mischief and mayhem soon envelops Central City.
Based on the novel by Jim Thompson who also wrote The Grifters and The Getaway as well as screenplays for Stanley Kubrick’s films The Killing and Paths of Glory The Killer Inside Me is one of the better films of its ilk wherein the “hero” is actually a disturbed — and disturbing — individual. Directed by Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart) and featuring a supporting cast of actors that could each carry their own film (and indeed some have) including Bill Pullman Simon Baker and Elias "I’m not Christopher Meloni and he is not me" Koteas this movie should be penciled into everyone’s must–see list.
To answer the main question on the minds of the panting fanboys: Yes both of the film's buxom beauties Alba and Hudson show heaping gobs of skin. Unfortunately this is film noir a genre in which attractive female characters seldom survive to see the final credits roll.
With that in mind a word of warning: The Killer Inside Me does get a bit gratuitous with its violence and while it's not Bad Lieutenant- or David Lynch-level gratuitous it's still out-there blunt-trauma-to-the-head violent. Winterbottom makes the dangerous choice of rarely cutting away from the looks on the faces of those involved in these scenes and we as viewers become willing accomplices in Ford’s actions. In the film’s defense the violence is actually used for character development and there are enough moments of subtle bleak black humor to counterbalance it. But if you're the squeamish type you might wish to stay home.
Long out of the shadow of his more famous brother Casey Affleck comes out of his own shadow in The Killer Inside Me creating a character as charismatically menacing as a villainous protagonist could be; an Anton Chigurh you could bring home to meet your family. With no shred of his “Baastaahn” accent apparent Affleck speaks in a southern drawl that sounds like he's about to crack at any instant; because usually he is. It's the kind of role that will be talked about for years (if this film gets the proper promotion that is) and in my opinion will make him a very early candidate for Best Actor.
Elderly Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) who once served under the great Alexander (Colin Farrell) narrates the life story of the man the myth the legend--the son of the ambitious King Philip (Val Kilmer) who surpassed his father at every level and charged into the farthest reaches of the world. From early childhood in Macedonia we see where Alexander gets his drive--mostly from his vengeful snake-lovin' mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) who urges her son to take charge as well from his tutor Aristotle (Christopher Plummer). Even in the taming of his unbreakable horse Bucephalas at 10 years old Alexander's destiny is evident. The heart of the film lies in Persia which Alexander conquers in one of the most studied military battles of all time. Alexander spends a great deal of time there--taking in the culture claiming its riches and marrying a Bactrian princess Roxane (Rosario Dawson)--much to the chagrin of his Macedonian generals who are stuck in this foreign land with their king. Despite this success Alexander grows restless and turns his attention to the rest of the world including the unexplored regions of India. With his army stretched thin and his Macedonian troops longing for home Alexander presses them one campaign too far. Succumbing to a mysterious illness at age 33 Alexander dies never quite finding what he so desperately searched for.
Although some may scoff at casting the Irish actor in the lead Farrell does an admirable job playing the tortured hero blond wig and all. He exudes plenty of wide-eyed fury and intensity as Alexander the warrior balanced by the controlled calculation of a hyper-effective military commander although he isn't nearly as effective as the idealistic pre-world-conqueror Alexander as he is spiraling down into the haunted angst-ridden Alexander at the end of his obsessive crusade. Casting Jolie as Olympias is a stroke of genius. Sure Jolie can play a smart and beautiful woman in her sleep but her beauty is surpassed only by the power she imbues as Alexander's bitter yet loving mother; she's as hypnotic as the snakes she carries around. Kilmer relishes his role as Alexander's father Philip in all of his grotesque wine-soaked glory. Powerful driven and battle-scarred Kilmer's Philip knows precisely what he wants and matches Jolie's quiet intensity with the raw aggressive masculinity of a warrior king who is far more comfortable in his armor than a toga. In the supporting roles Hopkins is great as always this time in the thankless role of the narrator while Dawson plays Roxane with a ferocity that is as mesmerizing as it is terrifying. Standout Jared Leto also turns in a concentrated performance as Hephaestion Alexander's long-time companion boyhood friend and the person who loves Alexander the best. (And we do mean love.)
Alexander is Oliver Stone at his best. An Alexander nut for most of his life the director gives us a film that--even in its loooong three-hour form--continuously holds your attention especially its intense and bloody battle scenes. I mean honestly once you've fought against an elephant in armor the plain old sword-and-shield skirmishes pale in comparison. Alexander also possesses a great breadth of visuals: Alexandria's peace Pella's tension Babylon's opulence and India's richness. Yet as wonderful as the landscapes are it's personal interactions and internal politics that drive the story--and of course Stone's penchant for conspiracy theories as he more than insinuates Alexander was poisoned by his enemies rather than dying of an "unknown" illness. But a problem still remains: Alexander's life was so huge and he did so much that it's almost impossible to encapsulate it effectively into one film. Stone instead has to focus on what he thinks is the most important namely Alexander's renowned conquests while allowing the pressure cooker in which the young conqueror grew up--the triangle of mother father and son--come through in the decisions he makes later in life. For those few of us who have studied Alexander Stone has made this film especially for us. If you haven't spent any time reading Arrian and the other histories this excellent film might just inspire you to do so.
There ain't much of one. In a nutshell a group of spun-out druggies living in the drab sun-baked land of the mini mall known as North Los Angeles Valley are focused on one thing and one thing only--getting and using drugs--and we get to tag along with them for three wasted sleepless days. There's Ross (Jason Schwartzman) a college dropout pining over a girl who dumped him and the only one of the gang you think might have some redeeming quality--until he handcuffs his stripper girlfriend spread-eagled to the bed naked duct-tapes her eyes and mouth and leaves her with a thrash metal CD--skipping--on the player for three days. (All that ruckus of course raises the suspicions of a butch biker broad--Deborah Harry in a cameo--who runs a phone sex line out of her apartment next door.) In exchange for dope Ross runs errands for a big badass Jesse James type known as the Cook (Mickey Rourke) 'cause he brews the crystal in a squalid motel room he shares with sweet misguided stripper Nikki (Brittany Murphy). The Cook provides drugs to dealer Spider Mike (John Leguizamo) a seriously paranoid hopped-up speed freak and his mossy-teethed tweaker girlfriend Cookie (Mena Suvari) who use and sell the Cook's drugs to hangers-on like the absurdly pimply faced Frisbee (Patrick Fugit) in between sex sessions and flip-outs involving guns spray paint and socks.
Every last person in this ensemble seems to relish getting down and dirty--and by dirty we mean fetid. Murphy and Rourke are particular standouts: with big kohl-smudged eyes and wide friendly smile she's sweetly innocent bobbling aournd in her f***-me Daisy Dukes and high-heeled boots; he's terrifying and larger than life in torn jeans tucked into white shitkickers a ponytail and a Stetson but he actually pulls the heartstrings when he muses about watching puppies be put to death as a boy and defends two chola mini-mart clerks from an abusive gangster. Watching Schwartzman's Ross whom you expect to like as the film's hero perform what amounts to torture on his girlfriend so casually and with such good intentions is more shocking than any of the film's drug scenes or seedy imagery and Ross becomes all the more menacing in his regular-Joe ways. Props to Suvari for letting the world watch her strain so vigorously on the can and to Leguizamo for giving his all in his few scenes whether threatening his pseudo-friends with a gun shooting up crank or jacking off. Peter Stormare and Alexis Arquette give lively performances as a sort of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-meets-COPS pair of vice guys hot on Spider's trail; look out also for former Judas Priest singer Rob Halford porn star Ron Jeremy and Eric Roberts.
With its over-the-top caricatures hyper-frenetic camerawork and creatively near pornographic animation segments this movie looks an awful lot like a music video and with good reason: Director Jonas Akerlund is best known for his controversial Prodigy "Smack My Bitch Up" video and Madonna's "Music." He is unafraid to put this sordid bunch right up in your face flinging the greasy underbelly of the So Cal meth scene sunny side up and zooming in with the cameras up close and personal to a point that's almost unbearably uncomfortable. Akerlund's techniques are sometimes overdone like the bone-crunching sounds and wildly rolling eyeballs that herald each and every high and sometimes screamingly funny like Ross's daydream of a Patton-like Cook pontificating about the female vagina in front of an American flag. A well-done score by former Smashing Pumpkins' singer Billy Corgan moves the film fluidly from calm states of relative normalcy to paranoid herky-jerky scenes of jabbering addicts flying right off the mental deep end. These people are shallow vile and irredeemable and Akerlund's brilliance lies in making you feel for them in spite of themselves.