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Best friends Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) run an innovative and popular marijuana business out of Laguna Beach, California. They also share a girlfriend, Ophelia Sage, who goes by ‘O’ (Blake Lively). Their success eventually draws the attention of the ruthless Mexican Baja Cartel, headed by Elena Sánchez (Salma Hayek). While Ben is doing charity work overseas, Chon and O receive a video from cartel enforcer Lado (Benicio del Toro), depicting severed heads, mangled bodies, and a chainsaw. When Ben returns, he and Chon meet with Elena’s representative, Alex (Demián Bichir). After refusing the cartel’s offer for a paid partnership, Chon and Ben make plans to take O and flee to Indonesia for a year in hopes that Elena and Lado won’t notice.

Savages
Oliver Stone. Man, just…Oliver Stone. What happened? Where did the guy that wrote and directed Platoon and Salvador in the same year go? Admittedly, I really don’t like most of Stone’s movies, but I understand the appeal of experimental claptrack, like The Doors and Natural Born Killers. I even appreciate the time capsule nostalgia of Wall Street. Where’d the guy who was interesting even when failing go? Following the disappointing box office returns of his last good film, Nixon, Stone ignored his politics for Tarantino-esque crime cash-in U-Turn and an attempt at the super mainstream with his bland football movie, Any Given Sunday. When his wrongheaded epic bio-pic Alexander failed to work three times through three alternate cuts, he neutered himself to make white bread and mayonnaise movies out of hand grenade subject matter like the 9/11 terrorist attacks ( World Trade Center) and George W. Bush’s rise to power ( W.). Now, it appears he has retreated into revisiting his early films for a belated sequel to Wall Street subtitled Money Never Sleeps and a sort of modern companion piece to Scarface (which he wrote, but did not direct) and Natural Born Killers entitled Savages. Following a strong trailer, Stone’s fans excitedly hoped that the dynamic filmmaker that had disappeared 17 years ago had returned.

There’s no mistaking that this is an Oliver Stone film, just as there is no mistaking he’s lost everything but his ability to dole out hyperbole. Savages reeks of desperation. You can smell the distressing need to be cool with every over-edited, hyper-decorated frame. The ridiculous use of surrealist montage reads like a spoof of The Doors and JFK, but there’s no mistaking that Savages is a very good-looking movie. The gory, pull-no-punches violence is also quite enjoyable. Like many of Stone’s films, even some of his good ones, this one is a practice in style over substance. Besides, I suppose, the ménage a trois character elements (which even the screenplay acknowledges as an homage to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), there’s basically nothing unique about this story. I assume Stone knew this when he agreed to work on the movie and saw it as some kind of challenge. Or, perhaps more likely, he understood that Don Winslow’s book was a familiar ‘the hardships of crime’ type material and was hoping to use the constant predictability as a springboard to remind audiences of his more triumphant stylistic practices (though, reports state he was so excited by it he started working on the screenplay before the book was even published). Unfortunately, this particular script is so bad that I couldn’t really appreciate the creative accomplishments, most of which I’d call creative de-evolution.

Savages
The worst of the script begins with Blake Lively’s narration, which is absolutely awful. Like, written by 16-year-old who read three Shakespeare plays in high school English and saw American Beauty at a party that one time kind of awful. I found myself dizzy from my constant eye-rolling at the empty faux-poetry and Lively’s dopey readings. Worse yet, this narration serves no narrative purpose, it only acts to over-explain everything to an audience more than savvy to the genre. I understand that his writing credit is third on the list (following Winslow and grade-A schlockmeister Shane Salerno), but, frankly, a multi-Oscar Award nominated writer should be ashamed to be associated with something this childish. The only actor in this incredibly capable cast to overcome the clichés levied at his character is Benicio del Toro, who could probably succeed in making a human vegetable compelling. Del Toro’s side of the story is also the one Stone puts the most interesting stylistic effort into defining, leading me to wonder if perhaps he would’ve have preferred making a movie about a family man cartel heavy, instead (it would be fun to see some movie bridging this and Soderberg’s Traffic, where we discover del Toro has been playing the same character). Salma Hayek is fun enough too, but mostly because she’s cast mostly against type as an evil cartel leader. Otherwise it’s difficult to maintain interest in any of the characters or their entirely too thinly veiled intentions, especially the three leads, which is a problem when any suspenseful moment is predicated on us caring about what happens to them. I found myself rooting for the evil Mexican drug lords most of the time.

Also in the grand tradition of Oliver Stone films, Savages is way too long. I admit that watching the extra-elongated director’s cut version, rather than the theatrical release version, may have been a mistake in this regard, but I can’t imagine 10 minutes making the difference here. So many character traits and plot specifics are repeated with such regularity, I’m thinking that something closer to 30 or 40 minutes could’ve been cut. Even with the ensemble cast approach, there’s really only 90-100 minutes of material here (if you saw the trailer, you know everything important that happens for the first two hours of the film).

Savages

Video


Savages was reportedly shot entirely on 35mm film, but, being an Oliver Stone film, I’m going to guess there are a few other formats tossed in there as well. This 2.40:1, 1080p looks categorically fantastic throughout and is a beautiful example of the 35mm format’s abilities with detail, contrast, and colour quality. Details are plenty sharp, especially during the extreme close-ups and in the darkest night shots, where highlights would’ve otherwise gone missing. Stone and cinematographer Dan Mindel tend to keep the focus pulled to a pin point, which leaves the backgrounds soft for the bulk of the film. When they want us to appreciate a pretty location, the focus is spread nicely enough to absorb every nook and cranny. This is a generally warm film, obviously in an effort to imply the heat of the tropical locations. The warmth makes for some rather orange skin tones, but doesn’t destroy the clean quality of the white wardrobes and set paint, nor does it hurt the well-blocked cooler hues. The palette is pretty eclectic, but there’s also heavy consistency to the shades, as in most red is the same red, most yellow is the same yellow, and most teal is the same teal. This consistency is impressive, as is the vibrancy of the hues. There’s a little bit of bleeding on the richest reds and some of the dark shots feature some fuzzy red to green blends, but otherwise the colours are crisply separated. The fine mesh of black film grain adds nice texture without dimming the colours or flattening the details, though there is a hair of edge enhancement spread over the more evenly focused, wide shot details. The purer black levels, those not purposefully slathered in blue, are occasionally much more gray than black, which is another relatively common side effect of 35mm film.

Savages

Audio


Even Stone’s bad movies usually feature lively soundtracks. He’s good about processing his hyper-realism through aural means. This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track does not disappoint and gets down to the experimental noise right off the bat by mixing the natural elements of the seaside environment to the point of abstraction. This isn’t a constant practice, but adds flavour to the mix, which is otherwise dependant on dialogue and leans on music for the sake of ambience. There is also a handful of rough and tumble action sequences that feature noisy gunplay and booming explosions. The gunplay is plenty busy at times, giving the stereo and surround channels a workout, but sounds cooler when depending on the punch of a single sniper shot and the directional enhancement of the shot’s echo. Adam Peters’ score and an eclectic collection of source music fills any aural gap. The wide range of musical styles, yet another old-school Stone trait, is quite impressive. Sometimes, the music is overwhelming; other times, it softly slides between the quieter moments. At its loudest, it remains rich and full with the appropriate LFE bounce and stereo enhancements.

Savages

Extras


Extras begin with two audio commentaries, both available only on the theatrical version. The first track features Oliver Stone solo. Stone sounds uncomfortable and whisper-talks his way between acting exceedingly professional and personable. He rambles between narrating the on-screen action, comparing his film to current politics, and mumbling a few behind the scenes factoids. This is a somewhat headache-inducing track, but one I assume will satisfy many of Stone’s biggest fans, especially those used to his bumbling, short attention span approach. I will admit he’s at his most entertaining when diving off into non-scene-specific tangents. The second track features producers Eric Kopeloff and Moritz Borman, co-screenwriter/novelist Don Winslow, executive producer/co-screenwriter Shane Shalerno, and production designer Tomas Voth. It’s a bit hard to tell the participants apart at times, except Voth, who has a nice accent and tends to actually talk the most, which makes this more of a technical commentary than expected. I’m surprised by the track’s low energy, but it’s generally more informative than Stone’s track, because it isn’t nearly as scattershot. The group dynamic does lead to some minor charm, but there are still plenty of long dry spells. Next up is a collection of nine deleted/extended scenes (16:00, HD) that didn’t make the longer cut. These include depressingly hyperbolic glimpses into the character’s childhoods and unnecessary reiterations of plot points. What isn’t here are the scenes reportedly featuring Uma Thurman as O’s mother. Weird.

The extras are finished up with a behind-the-scenes featurette entitled Stone Cold Savages and broken up into five parts (34:00, HD). Chapter One: Origins covers pre-production, writing the screenplay, and touring the places covered in Winslow’s book. Chapter 2: The Savages looks at the casting process, some stunts, and Stone’s directing style. Chapter 3: Real Savagery is about the design process, including production and costume design, DEA/computer hacking consultancy, and the reality of the film’s weed science (which was legally synthetic). Chapter 4: A Savage Set covers location shooting in the California desert, including the practical effects processes and choreography of the big action sequence. Chapter 5: Savage Cuts is a round table with the film’s five editors, who discuss Stone’s weird technique. Interview subjects include Stone, producers Moritz Borman and Eric Copeloff, co-writer Shane Salerno, specialty botany consultant Patrick Fourmy, production designer Tomas Voth, DEA consultant Eddie Follis, computer security consultant Ralph Echemendia, art director Lisa Vasconcellos, computer artist Michael Sanchez, special effects supervisor Mark Byers, stunt coordinator Keith Wouldard, camera loader Kristen Correll, editors David Bilow, Alex Marquez, Stuart Levy, Joe Hutshing and Elliot Eisman, and actors Benicio del Toro, Taylor Kitsch, John Travolta, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, Joel David Moore and Doc McLaughlin.

Savages

Overall


It seems that, at the onset of the climax, Stone is going to pull off a mostly entertaining finish to his dumb, but good-looking movie. Then he fumbles his ending so thoroughly that it’s hard to imagine he could do any worse without introducing dinosaurs or aliens. I won’t ruin the awfulness for those still hoping to enjoy the film, I’ll just warn you not to assume you’ve seen the worst…until you know you’ve seen the worst. Savages is a minor achievement otherwise. It’s certainly pretty, features a great performance from Benicio del Toro, and isn’t categorically terrible, outside of Blake Lively’s narration and that bloody ending, all of which is enough to give it a pass in some books. The Blu-ray looks great, pumping out a lot of vivid colour, the DTS-HD MA soundtrack features some aggressive musical elements, and the extras, though short of extensive, are informative and entertaining.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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