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 best way to go into Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is to think of it as the first film in a brand new franchise; a franchise in which mermaids love men zombies won’t eat you and a Fountain of Youth exists but all laws of logic reasoning and competent storytelling don’t. Although screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were smart enough to sever the narrative ties to the first two sequels in their franchise’s fourth outing the latest swashbuckling adventure in the series shares most of the same faults its predecessors faced.
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) steps in for Gore Verbinski in On Stranger Tides but you’ll be hard-pressed to find his contributions to the already-flashy film that finds our hero Capt. Jack Sparrow (the inimitable Johnny Depp) on the hunt for the fore mentioned fountain. Of course he’s not the only one looking for eternal life: also in tow are nameless stereotypical Spaniards the English crown headed by a reformed Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Blackbeard a ruthless pirate who looks and sounds a lot like Ian McShane. Their paths cross on numerous occasions as the story scrambles across the map culminating in a splashy battle in a magical meadow where Ponce de Leon’s greatest discovery lies.
Less a cohesive story and more a collection of individual set pieces linked together by nonsensical dialogue and supernatural occurrences the film isn’t all that hard to follow if you don’t strain yourself doing so. The sequence of events collide so conveniently for the characters you can’t help but call the screenplay anything but the result of complacency while the film itself sails so swiftly from point to point it’s actually a waste of time to dwell on plot holes and motives. Disrupting its momentum (which is one of the few things the film has going for it) is an unwatchable romance between Sam Claflin’s missionary Philip and Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) one of a handful of murderous mermaids who do battle with Blackbeard’s crew. Their bland courtship will have you begging for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley to return to the high seas and that’s saying something.
The all-female fish people are one of a few additions to the Pirates world but their effect on the film is negligible outside of being the impetus for the coolest action sequence in the picture and perhaps the most unnerving of the series. The others include Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard’s busty daughter Angelica and Stephen Graham as shipmate Scrum. The former feels out of place among the cartoony happenings but provides much needed sass while the latter fills in for Kevin McNally’s Gibbs for much of the film and is a pleasure to watch for some hammy comedic moments.
As always however this is Depp’s show and he continues to put a smile on my face with his charisma and theatrical presence. Even though he’s operating on autopilot throughout you can’t help but marvel at his energy and enthusiastic output as he literally fuels the fun in the film. The same can be said of Rush who’s given a meatier and more significant arc this time around. He trades quips with Depp as if they were a golden-age comedy duo and they remain the most appealing attraction in the franchise. Though he brings an undeniable sense of danger to the picture I was sadly underwhelmed by McShane’s Blackbeard a character with such a domineering reputation and imposing look he should’ve been stealing scenes left and right. Instead I felt he phoned his performance in though that could’ve been the result of Marshall’s indirection.
No better than the genre-bending original but a slight improvement over Dead Man’s Chest and At Worlds End On Stranger Tides suffers centrally from lack of a commanding captain. Marshall’s role is relegated to merely on-set facilitator or perhaps liaison between legions of talented craftspeople that make the movie look so good. Whatever vision he had for this venture if he had a unique take at all is chewed up and spit out by the engines of the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster factory rendering the film as mechanical as the ride from which it is based.
Based on a graphic novel the violent tale revolves around Wes (James McAvoy) a meek 25 year-old office worker who hates his life. His boss berates him and he can’t even summon the balls to tell his slutty girlfriend to stop sleeping with his best buddy. But his world is suddenly rocked when Fox (Angelina Jolie)--a mysterious tattooed woman with a gun and a red sports car--takes him on the ride of his life. She takes him straight to The Fraternity a centuries old legendary group of hired assassins who live--and die--by their code: Kill one to save a thousand. Seems Wes’ long-lost father was a member who has just been whacked and he is now summoned to join up and unleash the inner killer in his genes. After a rigorous training regimen in which he is almost beaten to a pulp he emerges as the organization’s new golden boy and finds self-esteem in his new exciting alternative lifestyle. However the group’s enigmatic leader Sloan (Morgan Freeman) may have other plans in store for Wes that he isn’t quite sharing at the moment. McAvoy simply rocks as the most unexpected action star of the summer and that includes a season so far that has given us the quirky offbeat castings of Robert Downey Jr. and Edward Norton in Marvel comic book franchises. McAvoy (Atonement) has buffed up for the part but still looks like the average Joe exactly why the audience has a rooting interest as he becomes a fish-out-of-water in a group of hit men (and women). You’re with him all the way. This unusual choice is exactly what sets the film apart and makes it a complete original in an over-worn genre. Jolie on the other hand is absolutely who you would expect to play the heavily tatted Fox. Guns blazing feet slamming the pedal gorgeous and talented at taking guys out (of life) Jolie’s a card-carrying member of a club previously thought only open to men. She exudes cool and has never looked hotter. Freeman is at his best. He commands the screen adding his usual stoic presence to the proceedings with a nice twist that lets him show a creepier side than we usually get. Other members of the “club” are competently played by ever-reliable Terence Stamp German-born bad guy Thomas Kretschmann and rapper Common who shows he can keep up with the big boys--acting and other-wise. Hiring the Russian director Timur Bekmambetov for a summer action flick like this might have seemed an odd choice but anyone who’s seen his Hollywood-style homebaked hits Night Watch and Day Watch would know this is a visual stylist with no current equal in the action genre. His English-language debut is vibrant and pulsating alive in every way and thankfully more comprehensible story-wise than his previous work if no less fantastic. You still have to completely suspend belief for complete enjoyment but it’s all worth it. Bekmambetov seems incapable of staging anything in an ordinary way taking routine set-ups and turning them into violent bruising works-of-art. There’s not a single uninteresting shot in the entire movie which moves like the speeding train we see in one of the film’s most imposing sequences. Scene for scene this may be the most visually inventive trail blazing film of its kind in light years. Bring on the sequel.
Lonesome doctor Kate Forster (Sandra Bullock) must move out of the lake house she loves so much but leaves a letter for the new tenant in the mailbox with a forwarding address and a few pointers about the house. When Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves) who’s father built the house moves in he finds things very different than Kate’s letter has revealed. After a few exchanges of questions and curiosities they realize they are living on the same day two years apart. Wondering how this could be happening (as are we) the mailbox suddenly becomes a conduit for their burgeoning love affair. But attempting to meet face to face is the challenge. Reeves is generally perceived as an action hero with Speed and The Matrix movies cementing his fate. So seeing him in romantic films such as Sweet November makes us cringe a little since he always looks like he’d rather be off chasing buses. While this still remains true in Lake House the stiffness actually works since the character doesn’t have much interaction with his object of affection. And of course pairing up with his Speed co-star is a plus. The emotion pours out of the two. Bullock’s slightly guarded character begins to open up to Reeves’ and the letters which turn into conversations throughout the movie depict the connection nicely. Inspired by the South Korean film Il Mare Argentinean director Alejandro Agresti handles The Lake House with a fine hand. It’s true the time-travel premise is more than a little confusing and riddled with plot holes but one has to keep in the back of their mind The Lake House is meant to take you on a journey of sorts. Agresti does an excellent job of doing this highlighting the scenic beauty and having the characters talk to each other through their words. If you just don’t think about the ridiculousness of it too much you’ll enjoy it.