I used to hate Natural Born Killers. After I loved it (now I'm just bored by it). How could one not be initially bowled over by Oliver Stone's Milius-on-acid execution, his war hammer direction of Quentin Tarantino's bloody and frenetic love story? Stone threw everything at the screen: hyper edited montages, almost subliminal images of bloody mayhem, animation, Rodney Dangerfield, garishly lit suburban sterility, spiritual death and even found footage before it was a genre--swathing a satire of media culture and the American love of violence that's about as subtle as a porno flick.
Which is why I quickly grew to hate its self-indulgence, the characters -- the irredeemable Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) -- and the haughty pretension that bordered on depressing. While many of Stone's films are tinged with those qualities he more often than not crafts them into compelling cinema. Platoon, Salvador and Wall Street are great films that are as often offset by creative flops, The Doors, U-Turn and (most memorably) Alexander among them.
Conversation Starter. Benicio Del Toro has something to share with co-star Blake Lively in Savages
His latest -- after 2010's fine Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps -- Savages, is a frustratingly uneven mixed bag of some enjoyable elements wrung from a half-baked (ahem) script by Shane Salerno (Alien vs. Predator: Requiem) and based on Don Winslow's best-selling, namesake novel.
Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) live the high life as top-shelf weed growers, whose lucrative business is conducted relatively without violence. Ben is the Zen-inspired, dreadlocked college-grad brains behind the business, having perfected a strain of cannabis with THC levels bordering on hell yes, widely considered to be the best in the world (the origin story of Savages is pure stoner food). Chron is the ex-SEAL brawn of the pair, who makes sure the occasional problem gets resolved.
They both share Ophelia (Blake Lively) a polyamorous surfer girl, who gives her love equally to Ben and Chron; their differences -- tender and hard -- combining into one, whole means of fulfilling her.
Under the protection of a rogue DEA agent (John Travolta, seemingly alive here), all is well until a Mexican cartel leader, Elena Sánchez (Salma Hayek) offers, in a way that can't be refused, to join forces with the indie dope moguls. When Ben and Chron prove to be less than enthusiastic, Sánchez's creepy, psychopathic henchman, Lado (Benicio del Toro) kidnaps Ophelia, to coerce Ben and Chron into an indentured partnership. Predictably, they don't take that sitting down.
One has to look for the pluses in Savages. Stone's indulgent visual sense is toned down here, while exhibiting some nice stylistic flourishes. The middle act pulls itself together, breaking from the unlikely stoner fantasy wanking of the opening act to provide a few propulsive moments of actual tension -- only to have the climax devolve into a melodramatic, improbable shell game. The performances from del Toro, Travolta and Hayek are good enough to bring into sharp focus the shortcomings of the main characters that we're supposed to care about.
It's the script by Salerno that bungles an already suspect narrative; suffused in clumsy narration -- always a bad sign -- and sometimes laughable dialogue (describing their sexual chemistry Ophelia says of Chon, "I have orgasms; he has wargasms"). Meanwhile, overall character motivations are trite, poorly thought out and amateurishly obfuscating, like some cheap-shot James Patterson crime novel.
Worse, there's the frustrating feeling that there are at least two better movies in Savages than the one we're actually watching. When Hayek's Sánchez describes how she got to the top of the Baja Cartel, I wanted to see that movie. Travolta's DEA agent is grounded in better writing than most of the entire film, his duplicitous charms hinting at a character with a backstory that could easily fuel its own, and more interesting, story. Del Toro's fun turn might not make for a cool spin-off character but on the whole these supporting roles are all far more interesting than our protagonists.
Stone's direction barrels head on into these choppy narrative waters; as hit-and-miss as the plot of Savages itself -- crafting a bloated film that struggles to a mesa of goodwill only to trash it with a wrongheaded commitment to a structurally, and creatively flawed story.
Few things are more annoying than a film unequal to the sum of its parts. Savages is a perfect example.
To Rome with Love
Woody Allen has to work. Like a shark, if he stops swimming he will suffocate. The 76-year old tragicomic auteur, one of America's most revered, has been pumping out a movie a year since 1982; being only marginally less prolific in the first 20 years of his iconic career.
And like any creative force with a formidable filmography, there are highs and lows which, for Allen, lately seem a product of his annual commitment to shooting something. His acclaimed and resurgent Midnight in Paris (2011) was preceded by Whatever Works, a script he'd written in the '70s that he pulled out of a drawer and punched up for a seeming dream collaboration with Larry David (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm). It turned out to be one of his most tepid, unappealing films.
In a seeming one-for-one, To Rome with Love -- a title the Woodman admittedly hates after he changed it twice to appeal to audiences -- is no Midnight in Paris. But neither is it Anything Else. It rests comfortably in the Melinda Melinda Purgatory of middling Woody Allen -- which is still something worth seeing, even in a comfort food sort of way.
Told in vignettes, Rome follows four stories. Hayley (Allison Pill) meets Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) on a month-long vacation to Rome and quickly falls in love. Her parents, Jerry and Phyllis (Woody Allen and Judy Davis) come to visit their inevitable in-laws, the mortuary owning Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) and his wife. Jerry, being retired from the music business and well off, has his doubts about his would be, modest brother-in-law resolved when he hears Giancarlo sing in the shower, belting out opera like Caruso on fire. He must get the self-effacing Giancarlo to seize his talent, thus pulling Jerry out of his unsettled retirement.
Meanwhile, famous architect John (Alec Baldwin) plays the hale guardian angel to his younger self, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a not-so-famous architect who lives with his girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig) on the same street that John used to live on 20 years prior. They are about to receive a houseguest in the form of Sally's narcissistic actor friend Monica (Ellen Page), who Sally worries may enmesh Jack with her sexy charms.
The conventionally American Americans are contrasted by the Italians. Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) is a predictable clock puncher with a plain wife and two recalcitrant kids who suddenly, and inexplicably, finds himself a media darling chased by news crews desperate to know the mundane details of his shaving regimen. The incredulous salary man becomes a cult of non-personality.
In perhaps the most charming episode, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and his new wife, Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) visit Rome from the sticks so that Antonio might land a lucrative job with some uptight family members. One lost cell phone and a mis-dropped prostitute (Penelope Cruz) later and the naïve rubes find themselves on an adventure of errors that they never could have imagined.
The way the stories pay off varies, and To Rome with Love is an uneven film that charms just enough to make phoning-it-in Woody worth it. The Woodman's own character, Jerry, reflects his fear of retirement. The ludicrous steps he takes to get his would-be Pavarotti on the stage are as whimsically inspired as any from Allen's profligate imagination. And casting the great Judy Davis as his mellow wife is a nice nod to the crazed woman he had to deal with in Deconstructing Harry. But Allen's performance here inspires nostalgia and lament for the better roles he wrote for his livelier self, in equal parts.
The elements of farce, romance and satire don't really meld organically, aside from the gorgeous location (captured in rich, soothing detail by cinematographer Darius Khondji). The Roberto Benigni tale -- which is one of two reasons why Rome feels vaguely inspired by Jim Jarmusch -- is dull and tacked on and not as esoteric as, say, Robin William's out of focus actor in Deconstructing Harry (if you hadn't taken the hint yet, see that one already). Jesse Eisenberg and Alec Baldwin's fable barely tries to make sense in the timeline of the film, though they are both, along with Gerwig and Page, fine enough actors to make you not care.
Between Ted and To Rome with Love it's been a good couple of weeks for the stars of Flash Gordon, at least (Ornella Muti, Ming's insidious, slutty daughter from the 1980 cheese classic, cameos here as Italian movie star royalty). Rome's an ensemble movie, and Allen still knows how to move his pieces across a board more adeptly than many storytellers at their best. That Rome is sporadically embossed by amusing punch lines and Allen's well-worn, comforting tropes only adds to the illusion that you're seeing Woody on his A-game.
But his B-game isn't so bad, either.
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