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.
The Orphanage sets out to prove that you can never go home again. And if you do bad things are bound to happen as Laura (Belen Rueda) soon discovers. She makes the fatal mistake of buying the orphanage she was raised in as her new family house. The pretty creepy mansion--a dead ringer for the one Nicole Kidman occupied in The Others--is too big for Laura hubby Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their young son Simón (Roger Princep). So she plans to turn part of it into a home for handicapped kids. While she’s busy preparing for the grand opening Laura finds herself dealing with what appears to be a cry for attention by Simón. She’s already concerned that he’s playing with an imaginary friend Tómas. Now Simón wants her to participate in a strange treasure hunt that his new pal’s organized. Days later Simón--who doesn’t know that he is adopted or HIV positive--goes missing. When an exhaustive search fails to produce any leads Laura begins to suspect that Simón’s disappearance has something to do with Tómas. She quickly comes to believe that a masked boy she saw in the house before Simón’s disappearance is Tómas and that the games the boys played together may have turned deadly. When things start to go bump in the night Laura and Carlos call in a psychic (Geraldine Chaplin) right of out of Poltergeist to determine who or what is terrorizing their home. The answer or so it seems has to do with Laura’s past. Yes Rueda is playing a mother frightened and concerned that her child’s vanished without a trace. But as the fraught Laura prepares to face the supernatural forces that apparently roam her home’s hallways Rueda loses control of herself. She gets hammier and hammier as her search for Simón drags on. And The Orphanage unfortunately suffers for it. Under the circumstances you don’t expect Rueda to bottle up her emotions. Not every woman can be as cold and aloof as Nicole Kidman whenever her child is in grave danger. But that doesn’t excuse Rueda from failing to exercise some restraint. Cayo merely serves as a shoulder to cry on. As the caring but skeptical husband he’s not required to get as deeply involved in uncovering the truth behind Simón’s disappearance. Princep comes across as cute rather than precocious even when he’s freaking us out with his conversations with Tómas. Chaplin’s downright kooky as the psychic--you half expect her to scream out “Don’t go into the light!” at any moment during a séance at Laura’s home. What a surprise. New Line already plans to Americanize the Spanish-language The Orphanage for subtitle-phobic audiences. Like The Grudge and The Ring The Orphanage is told from the female perspective. It’s more unsettling than scary and it’s deceptively light on the blood so naturally a remake can be neutered to earn a teen-friendly PG-13 rating. Unlike its J-Horror counterparts though The Orphanage makes sense from beginning to end. Sure you wonder how much director Juan Antonio Bayona intends to plunder from The Others The Sixth Sense and Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth (Del Toro also produced The Orphanage). But all the pieces fall right into place when Laura finally uncovers the truth. It’s not what you’re expecting but it fits perfectly with Bayona’s efforts to tell a ghost story by way of Peter Pan. All the clues pointing to this surprising and shocking bittersweet ending—one that M. Night Shyamalan will kick himself for not coming up with first—are there in plain sight but they are easy to miss amid all the spookiness. Despite this though The Orphanage is never as intriguing as the life-or-death games Laura must play during her frantic search. Worse The Orphanage borders on tedious as Rueda becomes more and more overwrought and the one or two instances of pure horror seem out of place in a film that tries to be more haunting than an out-and-out gorefest. Let’s hope these problems are addressed and fixed in the remake. The Orphanage may then prove to be as memorable as TThe Sixth Sense.