Sunday, July 22, 2012

Review: "Savages"

I am not very well versed when it comes to Oliver Stone's body of work. His films tend to focus on very political themes. He has made war films: Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and World Trade Center (2006). And he has made presidential biographies: JFK (1991), Nixon (1995) and W. (2008). Looking through his list of 21 films, I can admit to having only seen four. I watched JFK one afternoon on cable, U Turn (1997) because I was slightly obsessed with Jennifer Lopez, Any Given Sunday (1999) because it is a sports film, and Natural Born Killers (1994) because it is awesome. Natural Born Killers is definitely my favourite Oliver Stone film, and it was the reason why I was interested in seeing Savages. I had hoped that Stone was returning to his drug-fueled and violent plots with stellar acting. I was even willing to forgive him for casting Blake Lively in such a pivotal role. Lively, known for her starring role on television in Gossip Girl, was featured in The Town (2010) as a coke head and in Green Lantern (2011) (enough said). Has she done enough to merit a starring role with Oliver Stone? Hardly. But she is a beautiful blonde. Savages features a bunch of actors who are easy to pick on, especially Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who as a nineteen year old married his forty-two year old director (Sam Taylor-Wood) and took a new legal name. Siobhan refused to see Savages because she believed that Salma Hayek was ruining her career playing the queen of a Mexican cartel. She was only half wrong. Hayek, like the film, works for a bit before falling flat on its face. Savages focuses far too long on the lead up to a climax that would have worked better as the initial problem. Oliver Stone and his co-writers, Shane Salerno (credited for Alien vs. Predator and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem) and Don Winslow, are way too heavy on the symbolism. I hate when symbolism is throw in my face like I am an incompetent moviegoer. Savages, as a story, has a lot of potential, but Oliver Stone's film fails because it tries to be something more than it is. And it does not help that Blake Lively narrates the whole film with a nasally whine that drives me crazy!

Savages is narrated by O (Lively), short for Ophelia. She lives in Laguna Beach with her two boyfriends, best friends Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Ben is quiet and sensitive, while Chon is loud and often violent. Chon is a former soldier who smuggled marijuana seeds out of Afghanistan. These seeds have grown into very potent plants that have made them very wealthy. While Ben is away, Chon receives a video from a member of the cartel (Benicio del Toro). Chon and O worry about Ben's safety, until he arrives the next day. The two boys go and meet with the cartel and reject the offer for a partnership. Chon and Ben meet with a dirty DEA agent (John Travolta) who urges them to take the deal. In an effort to force the boys into taking the deal, Elena (Hayek), the cartel leader, kidnaps O. Elena informs the boys through video message that O will remain in her custody for one year and that they will remain partners for three years. The film spends far too much time leading up to this point and wastes the climax of the film on Chon and Ben's attempt to kidnap Elena's daughter and trade her for O.

One of the worst attempts at symbolism in Savages is the relationship between Elena and O that references Elena's failed relationship with her daughter Madga (Sandra Echeverria), who detests her. The film focuses so heavily on this that it becomes distracting. Salma Hayek is far too good an actress to be wasting her time as an emotionally unstable cartel boss in a so-bad-it-isn't-a-train-wreck film. Natural Born Killers was so successfully because it was violent and chaotic. The plot was also more cohesive, even if the characters (played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) were completely crazy. There is such little character development in Savages and the film never manages to gain traction. I knew that Savages was not going to be one of the best films of the year. I was hoping that it would be so bad that it was a guilty pleasure. But it was unable to achieve that. Oliver Stone tried hard, but his trio of young actors were not up to the challenge. Salma Hayek, John Travolta and Benicio del Toro were fairly decent, but Blake Likely, Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson were disappointing. Maybe I should have clued in with all the advertisements for the film all over the subways and buses in Toronto. Savages is over-promoted and under-developed. Be advised, and stay away.

My rating: 1.5 stars out of 4.


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