Oliver Stone: Savages (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Oliver Stone: Savages (2012)

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In Oliver Stone's latest, and to-date last, feature film Savages, he tackles the drug trade with his exuberant style.  O (Blake Lively), has been living and loving Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) since they returned with potent marijuana seeds and started a respectable empire.  A drug lord (Selma Hayek) makes their life hell after they refuse to join together and attracts the attention of a dirty DEA Agent (John Travolta).Role playingKyle Commentary BannerThe setup of Savages involves two friends, Chon and Ben, who run a phenomenally successful pot operation out of southern California while involved in a three-way relationship with O (played by Blake Lively), though for all the differences Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's monotonous performances lend the two, she may as well be involved with one guy whose hairstyle changes rapidly and without warning. Since O is played as if a random selection of clips from the O.C. joined together and became a person via black magic, I considered the possibility that the men could each only handle half of the relationship, and that their arrangement was one of self-preservation. You know a movie that's trying to be provocative isn't working when you start checking your email during the sex scenes.

As the movie begins, a Mexican drug kingpin played by Selma Hayek is demanding to partner with Chon and Ben to expand her business in the States, and they refuse her offer, because they are witless morons. Setting into motion the events of the rest of the movie, Lively's character is kidnapped by Hayek's henchman (played as one of the few highlights of the movie by Benecio del Toro), and when that happened I cheered. Out loud. I cheered, alone in my living room, at my TV. I don't think that's the reaction Stone was going for.

Most of what makes Savages so bad, in fact, is the trio of performances at its center, the awfulness of which bafflingly grows stronger the more of them are on-screen together—it's like a talentless Voltron. The supporting roles by del Toro, John Travolta, and Selma Hayek are all far more interesting and well-played, and once the movie gets it's setup done there are a handful of scenes that generate at least some momentum solely because Stone finally gets Chon, Ben, and O off the screen for a few minutes. I especially liked a scene where Travolta's crooked FBI agent is visited at his suburban home by del Toro's slimy enforcer (whose loyalties shift by the minute), and the two negotiating multiple agreements all at once.

At times, Stone seems to want the movie to be a gritty crime tale where everyone is double, triple, and quadruple-crossing everyone else, and then at others he wants it to be a morality fable (complete with Lively's hilariously melodramatic updates on the story, delivered in a horrendous voice-over). Mostly he seems to want it to be a slick and shallow action movie, which is perhaps the strangest part. Benecio del Toro here especially deserves a better movie, Travolta deserves more screen time, and Blake Lively deserves to be in nothing ever again.

I hate Natural Born Killers, which I find unwatchable thanks to the style, but it has something it wants to say (even if we disagree on how substantial that thing is)—Savages is a bit less grating in its basic structure (a bit), but it has nothing to say, and it says nothing aggressively. It's bloated, over-directed, tone-deaf, and underwritten. It's like Bad Boys 2 without Michael Bay's delicate touch for style and humor.Lively LivelyAndrewCommentaryBannerNow Kyle, I know that Savages is a pretty bad movie, but it's at least as bad as Bad Boys 2 and not worse.  At least in Savages favor our protagonists don't end up murdering or wounding hundreds of innocent people in the guise of revenge.  On the other side, there isn't a single scene in Savages that approaches the style of Bay's 360 shootout in Bad Boys 2.  What I'm trying to get at here, buddy, is don't say things in anger you may regret later.

Thorough readers will know this is my second time through Savages and while I don't find the quality as abysmal as you do it's still a bad movie.  This time, at least, I can see where Stone's less favorable traits as a director ended up effecting the story.  His visual style is a distant cousin to Natural Born Killers and U Turn with his harsh collage style and harsh lighting giving way to sunny climes instead of a turn on the genre wheel or dirt filled roads.  This makes it a little easier to watch but not as interesting because even though U Turn wasn't a great slice of film making I admire Stone's willingness to follow the dirty path of that film in every possible crevice.

There's no such luck with Savages and if we weren't going through all of Stone's movies I barely would have given it a second thought.  It fits in with his other attempts at genre films but there's at least a germ of an idea here that could have played to Stone's strengths.  Despite how blatant it is I didn't comment on this the first time around, but I'm surprised Stone didn't touch more on the fact that even in the drug trade Americans are living a life of untouched privilege and when the time comes for Chon and Ben to don their death gear it's all modeled like a ghoulish luchador.  Since we've now watched three documentaries that all made a point to mention American leadership getting our hands dirty in South America it seems apt that idea would make its way into Stone's fiction films.

Putting the film in that context gives Travolta's performance a little more weight beyond corrupt comic relief and some melancholy to Hayek's character as well, especially during that great dinner scene.  It doesn't make it good, but at least shows that Stone had an interesting undercurrent running through all of his films whether it enhanced the experience or not.  None of this is to say I was happy to watch Savages again.  The dialogue, no matter how self-conscious, is still painful ("wargasms", Kyle) and should have been thought about much more carefully before transitioning from the book to the screen.  It's not Stone's worst film, but if this was his starting point the bar would have been set mighty low.An enlightening dinner

So, where's the controversy?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryIt may say something that the violence in the movie hardly makes an impression, but that's not a point Stone is actively going for.

A useless and disgusting scene where one character is taunted with the revelation that she was sexually assaulted while drugged, only to have that immediately forgotten and never acknowledged again should have generated controversy, and, combined with similar undercurrents we've already noted in previous films, is about enough to make me never watch an Oliver Stone movie ever again.

Tiny Andrew CommentaryThat Travolta used his "Good Performace" hold cards on this.



Dirty man

How did Stone capture the zeitgeist this time?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryHe boldly takes after the multiple endings of the Lord of the Rings series by first giving us a generic, cliché ending, and then a second, worse, utterly stupid and inconsistent ending in which all is forgiven and Blake Lively is still narrating goddammit.



Tiny Andrew CommentaryI have nothing.  The beach motif that shows up seems more appropriate for the beach party movies of the '50s and '60s instead of modern times.  The violence isn't extreme enough for the post-Saw era and not focused enough in its imagery to toy with the Americans role-playing as foreign others motif.  It sort of plays around with sadly common fears of foreigners but doesn't make much of a point of it.  Savages is the most out of synch we've seen him so far.


You got your Battlefield in my Savages

That's interesting, but is it any good?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI would rather re-watch Battlefield Earth, several times, in a row, than to sit through this again. Sorry to John Travolta.



Tiny Andrew CommentaryOff the top of my head - I'd rather watch Saturday Night Fever, Staying Alive, Phenomenon, Pulp Fiction, Michael, Swordfish, Domestic Disturbance, or Bolt before watching Savages again.  I know you're still caught up in the moment Kyle but that much Battlefield Earth just isn't worth it.

Also, no, no this film is not good.

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Next week, Andrew and Kyle share their thoughts on the second half of Stone's career.

Stone with text

Posted by Andrew

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