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.
A kids’ movie without the cheeky jokes for adults is like a big juicy BLT without the B… or the T. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted may have a title that sounds like it was made up in a cartoon sequel laboratory but when it comes to serving up laughs just think of the film as a BLT with enough extra bacon to satisfy even the wildest of animals — or even a parent with a gaggle of tots in tow. Yes even with that whole "Afro Circus" nonsense.
It’s not often that we find exhaustively franchised films like the Madagascar set that still work after almost seven years. Despite being spun off into TV shows and Christmas specials in addition to its big screen adventures the series has not only maintained its momentum it has maintained the part we were pleasantly surprised by the first time around: great jokes.
In this third installment of the series – the trilogy-maker if you will – directing duo Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath add Conrad Vernon (director Monsters Vs. Aliens) to the helm as our trusty gang swings back into action. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) are stuck in Africa after the hullaballoo of Madagascar 2 and they’ll do anything to get back to their beloved New York. Just a hop skip and a jump away in Monte Carlo the penguins are doing their usual greedy schtick but the zoo animals catch up with them just in time to catch the eye of the sinister animal control stickler Captain Dubois (Frances McDormand). And just like that the practically super human captain is chasing them through Monte Carlo and the rest of Europe in hopes of planting Alex’s perfectly coifed lion head on her wall of prized animals.
Luckily for pint-sized viewers Dubois’ terrifying presence is balanced out by her sheer inhuman strength uncanny guiles and Stretch Armstrong flexibility (ah the wonder of cartoons) as well as Alex’s escape plan: the New Yorkers run away with the European circus. While Dubois’ terrifying Doberman-like presence looms over the entire film a sense of levity (which is a word the kiddies might learn from Stiller’s eloquent lion) comes from the plan for salvation in which the circus animals and the zoo animals band together to revamp the circus and catch the eye of a big-time American agent. Sure the pacing throughout the first act is practically nonexistent running like a stampede through the jungle but by the time we're palling around under the big top the film finds its footing.
The visual splendor of the film (and man is there a champion size serving of it) the magnificent danger and suspense is enhanced to great effect by the addition of 3D technology – and not once is there a gratuitous beverage or desperate Crocodile Dundee knife waved in our faces to prove its worth. The caveat is that the soundtrack employs a certain infectious Katy Perry ditty at the height of the 3D spectacular so parents get ready to hear that on repeat until the leaves turn yellow.
But visual delights and adventurous zoo animals aside Madagascar 3’s real strength is in its script. With the addition of Noah Baumbach (Greenberg The Squid and the Whale) to the screenwriting team the script is infused with a heightened level of almost sarcastic gravitas – a welcome addition to the characteristically adult-friendly reference-heavy humor of the other Madagascar films. To bring the script to life Paramount enlisted three more than able actors: Vitaly the Siberian tiger (Bryan Cranston) Gia the Leopard (Jessica Chastain) and Stefano the Italian Sealion (Martin Short). With all three actors draped in European accents it might take viewers a minute to realize that the cantankerous tiger is one and the same as the man who plays an Albuquerque drug lord on Breaking Bad but that makes it that much sweeter to hear him utter slant-curse words like “Bolshevik” with his usual gusto.
Between the laughs the terror of McDormand’s Captain Dubois and the breathtaking virtual European tour the Zoosters’ accidental vacation is one worth taking. Madagascar 3 is by no means an insta-classic but it’s a perfectly suited for your Summer-at-the-movies oasis.
UPDATE: Variety reports that Emile Hirsch has also joined the production in an undisclosed role. I had actually originally thought that Hirsch would be great in the role of Ben, a part which Aaron Johnson will play, so I don't have any clue as to who he'll portray in the picture now. We'll report back when do.
EARLIER: When Blake Lively was first rumored to be in the running for the role of O in Oliver Stone's Savages, she talked about how actors have always jumped at the chance to work with the Oscar winning auteur. "When you look at directors that you want to work with, he's always on the top of the list," the blond beauty said, and now she's going to. Deadline reports that she's been locked into the part of the pot-smoking and dealing girlfriend of both Taylor Kitsch (as the ex-Navy SEAL Chon) and Aaron Johnson (as the brilliant botanist Ben) in the director's adaptation of the Don Winslow novel.
Stone co-wrote the script with Shane Salerno and will begin principle photography in early July. He's also cast John Travolta as a a burned-out DEA agent and Uma Thurman as O's mother Paqu, joining Salma Hayek as the queen of the Mexican drug cartel that goes after the trio of Laguna marijuana pushers and Benicio del Toro as a ruthless enforcer for the cartel. The source notes that there are several more roles to be cast, but this is already shaping up to be a killer thriller with a great roster. It's already at the top of my hype list for late 2012, when I expect the film to bow.
Universal Pictures is financing and distributing Savages.
Even though Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps wasn't the commercial, critical or cultural hit that Hollywood hoped for, studios are no less interested in the films of Oliver Stone. The auteur just landed a distribution deal for his next project -- a gritty thriller called Savages, based on Don Winslow's novel of the same name. Variety reports that Universal Pictures beat out two unnamed studios for the property.
The story follows two marijuana kingpins living in Laguna Beach who are forced to work for a Mexican cartel after their free-spirited girlfriend O is kidnapped. The source claims that, though an official greenlight has not been given, Universal will give the thumbs up and distribute if Stone can cast up quickly. Offers are out to Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch to play the botanist-turned-dope-peddler and solider-turned-drug-dealer, respectively, while the female role O is more up in the air. Jennifer Lawrence was hotly pursuing the part until she opted out for Gary Ross' Hunger Games; Olivia Wilde, Blake Lively and Teresa Palmer are said to be in the running now. Benicio del Toro is also in negotiations to play an Mexican cartel enforcer who does battle with the duo.
Stone, who co-wrote the picture with Shane Salerno and will produce with Moritz Borman, is shooting for a June start date. Personally I think this project sounds nothing short of awesome and with a hot young cast it could be a big hit. If I were running Universal, I'd have given the greenlight yesterday.
Jennifer Lawrence, the talented and beautiful young actress who's lauded turn in Debra Granik's Winter's Bone landed her an Academy Award nomination, is reaping the benefits of the industry taking notice of her abilities. The former Bill Engvall Show star no longer has to think about television roles; since wowing audiences as a daughter searching for her drug-dealing dad in the Sundance 2010 hit, she's joined the X-Men franchise as Mystique in this June's First Class and now is set to work with Oscar winning filmmaker Oliver Stone on his new film Savages.
Deadline reports that Lawrence, who's being courted by every studio for potential projects, has signed on to star in the adaptation of Don Winslow's best-selling novel about two friends who grow and sell Grade-A pot and share a wild child girlfriend named O. The drug-pushing duo are Ben, described as a brainy botanist, and Chon, a take-no-prisoners ex-Navy SEAL who doesn't think twice about offing anyone that gets in their way. However, when a Mexican drug cartel enforcer comes by their lofty Laguna Beach haven to muscle them out of business O gets kidnapped and the ransom is everything they've got. They hatch a complex plan to get her back and then disappear. Winslow and Shane Salerno adapted the novel.
The project sounds engaging; sort of like a mix between Alpha Dog and Traffic. Tying together the correlation between those films and Savages even further is Benicio Del Toro, who starred in the Oscar winning 2000 drama and is up for the role of the cartel enforcer. The source notes that Stone is meeting with every young A-lister in the business for the Ben and Chon parts, but since the only confirmed performer thus far is Lawrence, I'm going to point out the obvious here: is she taking career advice from Shia LaBeouf? Looking over her body of work, she seems to have adopted the young star's method of role choice, jumping from solid indies (Winter's Bone and this year's Sundance top prize winner Like Crazy for her, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints and The Greatest Game Ever Played for him) to big-budget blockbusters (the aforementioned X-Men: First Class for her, Transformers and Indiana Jones for him) to finally working with Mr. Stone (LaBeouf recently worked with him on Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and is said to have another project in development with him). These parallel but similar career paths could cross if Stone decides to cast LaBeouf as either Ben or Chon in Savages; though that's a speculative statement, it's not totally unfeasible. Time will tell as the film rolls toward its unknown start date.
Well if the title doesn’t say it all…Picking up where Alien vs. Predator left off those pesky aliens cause the Predator ship to crash on Earth setting them free near a Colorado town. A lone Predator (Ian Whyte encoring from AvP) comes to Earth to clean up the mess and what the hell maybe pick up a few human trophies too. Needless to say the town’s human residents are completely unprepared for this sort of inter-galactic free-for-all on their streets. This is after all the sort of town where everybody knows everybody but no one seems to notice when a spaceship crashes in the woods outside of town or when the self-same spaceship blows up the next day. In short you could say that they get what’s coming to them--and they sure do. Pretty dreadful all around. Then again Shane Salerno’s script is pointless to begin with. Steven Pasquale (TV’s Rescue Me) plays the ex-con hero Dallas (a nod to the original Alien). Reiko Aylesworth (TV’s 24) plays a veteran of the Gulf War who returns stateside just in time to engage in another one--a pretty pale homage to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character. John Ortiz plays the local sheriff one of the dullest (and dumbest) screen lawmen in recent memory. Veteran Robert Joy drops in briefly as a weasely U.S. Army colonel who would just as soon nuke the town as try to save it. Every time this film focuses on the (one-dimensional) human characters it stops cold. Unfortunately this happens a lot. There’s no reason to root for them because you simply don’t care. True to form most of them are sliced diced chopped lasered exploded from within and otherwise treated in a shabby fashion. They are simply fodder. Just for the record this is the sixth Alien film and the fourth Predator film and it holds the dubious distinction of being the worst of any of them. The special effects are just dandy but not much else is. This also marks the inauspicious feature directorial debut of noted visual effects artists Colin and Greg Strause (billed as “The Brothers Strause”). They clearly have an affinity for this sort of thing--and for the Alien and Predator franchises--but are just as clearly content to simply let the special effects run away with the story. The first Alien vs. Predator movie was no great shakes but it was better than it had any right to be. This one is not. Responding to the fans who wanted this film to be R-rated the Brothers Strause have delivered on that--and absolutely nothing more. It’s a pointless exercise.