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.
After starting what he thinks is just another day by methodically brushing his teeth the way he always does IRS Agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) gets a visit from an uninvited auditory guest--Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) the author of his life. Little does she know while writing a book about a character named Harold Crick that the real Harold can hear her narrations loud and clear; little does Harold know that her novels don't have happy endings--that is until he hears it in her narration which states that he is to die. Luckily she's in the midst of writer's block so he has some time to find out well how much time he has to live. He immediately consults a literary professor (Dustin Hoffman) who instructs Harold to further pursue a relationship with an anarchistic baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) he is currently auditing in order to learn more about the course the novel will take. The relationship flourishes and he’s happy for the first time in a long time but will art imitate--or end--his life? Ferrell seems to be mimicking the exact path of his direct comedic-superstar predecessor Jim Carrey even down to his first serious-ish role: Carrey’s first dramatic foray was the equally quasi-existential though much better Truman Show. Ferrell has no problem whatsoever making the transition--that’s just what abundant natural talent affords certain actors. But his crossover attempt should’ve been more subtle since audiences have come to expect at least one “streaking” scene per Ferrell film. As Ferrell’s heavily tattooed love interest the ubiquitous Gyllenhaal scores again. Fresh off roles as a stripper single mom (Sherrybaby) and a frantic pregnant 9/11 wife (World Trade Center) she proves that no matter her character’s physical appearance or mindset she can do no wrong. Ditto for Thompson who spends much of the film in pajamas and the throes of writer’s block--the "writer" prototype--much to the dismay of her publisher-appointed assistant played well by Queen Latifah. Rounding out the cast is Hoffman whose professor isn't totally unlike his answer provider in like-minded I Heart Huckabees. His character’s quirky humor is child’s play at this point for the veteran but a select few scenes between him and Ferrell are extremely satisfying. To liken Stranger Than Fiction to a Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Adaptation et al) script/movie is not totally without merit. Fiction captures the “vivid yet distant” essence that is common with Kaufman’s stories and subsequent movies. But whereas Kaufman doesn’t go out of his way to coddle audiences’ minds amidst his often obtuse movies writer Zach Helm and director Marc Forster seem to have audience appreciation (read: box office) on the brain. Helm’s idea is nothing short of genius in a way that’s different from the oft-mentioned screenwriters he’s compared to but somewhere en route he and/or Forster (Finding Neverland) compromised the vision. Because what starts out as a complex intriguing movie turns stale quickly especially given the inexplicable ease with which it transitions from a metaphysical story into a straightforward one. And Forster's tendency in the movie to undercomplicate is just as detrimental as the opposite extreme. The dialogue also falls somewhat flat often neither funny nor off-kilter enough buoyed only slightly by superb cinematography set direction and indie music featuring Spoon (whose frontman Britt Daniel reworked some of their best songs for the movie)--but we’ve come to expect that trifecta from similar movies.
Imagine the sci-fi spirit of Blade Runner crossed with the drug-induced musings of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and set to trippy animation. Now consider that this animation plays like a book by Philip K. Dick (who also penned Blade Runner’s novel) and you’re likely spinning with imagery; welcome to A Scanner Darkly. Set in Anaheim California seven years into the future an undercover narc named Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is assigned to spy on his druggie friends (Robert Downey Jr. Woody Harrelson Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane). They’re all hooked on Substance D the latest suburban drug and its side effects--including possible manifestation of separate identities--can be downright nasty. Unfortunately Bob the “scanner ” is hooked too and he leads the ultimate double life unbeknownst to him: By day he partakes in “D” consumption; by night he watches the surveillance tapes as a cop--not realizing he may in turn be spying on himself. Scanner marks a welcome return of sorts for all five actors to their more decadent (cinematic) days. Downey and Harrelson are up to their old Natural Born Killers tricks even though their characters share nothing other than insanity with those in Oliver Stone’s movie. Downey perennially the most underrated actor steals every scene he’s in with his character James’ mile-a-minute psychobabble. Not far off is Reeves who somehow grasps Bob’s drug-induced psychosis almost too well and is much more comfy (and likable) playing the central character in a film that’s not carrying an entire production company. We haven’t seen Ryder in a major release since ‘02’s Mr. Deeds and although her part isn’t as meaty as the boys’ she gives a compelling performance. And Cochrane whose breakout role was the dopey burnout in Scanner director Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused is an often funny casualty of the paranoia associated with Substance D. Linklater’s last release was Bad News Bears and his next is October’s Fast Food Nation. Clearly and to his credit no director offers us as much variety with so many of his films clicking on all cylinders; to his discredit however parts of his latest film don’t click. The biggest flaw is the animation which while truly amazing to behold detaches us. What began as a winning experiment--on his 2001 philosoph-ilm Waking Life--can no longer be dismissed as such but rather a gimmick behind which Scanner hides. Sure it’s apt for Dick’s futuristic dystopia but this film didn’t need any added complexity to bog our brains down. In addition Linklater’s Scanner outcasts fail where his others have been immortalized: They don’t endear us--yes that truth is faithful to the source material but films can’t get away with such disconnect. Ultimately all we feel towards the characters is fascination over their animated likenesses. But Linklater is praiseworthy for even tackling such a novel and the adaptation will find a fervent cult following.
Innocent Voices depicts the brutal reality of El Salvador’s 1980 civil war as seen through eyes of an 11 year-old boy who may soon get drafted by the army despite not understanding what the war is about. Though both sides were soldiered with young boys it was the government that actively recruited all 12-year-olds and forced them to fight. Eleven year-old Chava (Carlos Padilla) is about to turn but that doesn’t stop him from trying to enjoy life. Since he’s the man of the house--his father left to earn money in America and never returned--Chava wants a job so he can help his overworked mom (Leonor Varela) who quit her restaurant job to stay home and shield her three children from stray bullets. His first job comes when he stumbles upon an old bus owned by a jovial but careless bus driver (Jesus Ochoa). The two become instant friends as Chava rides the railing and calls out the stops. Meanwhile he discovers love after summoning the courage to ask the teacher’s daughter to fly paper fireflies with his friends. All the while the moment he has dreaded--his 12th birthday--looms large over his days. His Uncle Beto (José María Yazpik) a guerilla fighter on the run tries to convince his mother to let Chava live with him in the hills where it’s safe but she can’t let him go. Once he turns Chava must hide with the other boys when the soldiers come around to recruit. But he grows tired of hiding and takes matters into his own hands running off to join the guerillas where he discovers a fate worse than fighting--that of never seeing his family again. Perhaps the strongest element in the film is the surprisingly mature Padilla. Getting a child actor to perform on any level can sometimes be an exercise in futility but director Luis Mandoki manages to get Padilla able to run the gamut of emotions--joy fear the awkwardness of new love--in a very real and convincing way. While most directors would shy away from placing so young an actor into difficult situations particularly the climactic scene where Chava faces execution and watches his two best friends get shot in the back of the head Mandoki defies conventional wisdom and challenges Padilla who is most worthy of the call. As Kella Varela exudes strength despite her constant worry over her children particularly Chava whose arrival home after curfew causes her to feel rage worry forgiveness and joy in a matter of seconds. Legendary Mexican actress Ofelia Medina has a small but important supporting role as Kella’s mother--she provides her daughter’s family with their last peaceful refuge before their lives are destroyed by the army. Minor characters such as Uncle Beto the Bus Driver and Chava’s classmates all serve their purpose though Xuna Primus the classmate Chava falls in love with handles emotional scenes with Padilla with similar maturity. Innocent Voices marks the first Spanish-language film for Mandoki since the international success of Gaby-A True Story--and he’s back true to form. With Innocent Voices he has crafted a powerful and emotionally gripping film that never shies from the ugly realities of how war destroys families and makes men of boys well before their time. Sharing screenwriting credit with actor Oscar Torres on whom the story is based Mandoki benefits from his strong cast particularly Padilla; a wrong choice in casting Chava could have sunk the film. Mandoki masterfully lulls us into thinking that Chava might have some hope of living a normal life in El Salvador--he plays with friends just like any other kid. But every time it looks as though Chava is experiencing life as he should bombs explode machine guns erupt and soldiers come storming in to remind us that he’s living in the middle of a civil war. Ultimately Chava’s only escape is to America but he must leave behind his family much like his father in the beginning. It’s a nice bookend to Chava’s development: Despite the chaos around him his position as head of the family and the specter of being recruited into the army his real transformation into manhood comes when he finds the courage to strike out on his own.