Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Wild - and Exuberating - Ride from Oliver Stone

Savages is the movie that Oliver Stone has been trying to make for many years. Never afraid of controversy, Stone has tackled a variety of contentious subjects in his films ranging from political deception (JFK, Nixon) to combat (Platoon, Born of the Fourth of July) to mass murder (Natural Born Killers) to financial greed (Wall Street, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). He's always attracted attention but his results have been mixed; I loved Nixon and JFK, liked Wall Street very much, but hated Natural Born Killers. But with Savages, the director has given us a film that is textbook Stone in its grab-you-by-the-throat style of filmmaking that works brilliantly. This is unquestionably one of his finest efforts.

Based on the 2010 Don Winslow novel of the same name (Winslow co-wrote the screenplay with Shane Salerno and Stone), Savages is a disturbing, thrilling tale, a look at the workings of the drug cultures in both California and Mexico. Illegal activities on both sides ensure that the characters - even the ones that appear normal - are savages to some degree, more or less. At various times in the film, a character representing a particular group in the story calls one or more of the opposition a savage (or savages). This common thread unites all of the major players in this grim, violent tale and leaves us with a world that is sordid and filled with many unanswered questions. Given the issues raised in this film, this is how it should be.

On one side, we have three characters who represent the freedom and bliss (if you can call it that) of the drug world of California. Here, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is the brains behind the outfit, the man who has developed some of the world's finest cannabis. Yes, he makes money off this stuff - tens of millions of dollars - but he puts much of that into helping underdeveloped nations with educational aides. His activity may be illegal, but he has our sympathies and we root for him.

His friend Ben (Aaron Johnson) is the brawn of the outfit, a former combat soldier who uses whatever force he needs to collect debts from drug dealers. His easy good looks notwithstanding, he is a wild tiger ready to pounce on his unsuspecting subjects.

Both Chon and Ben are in love with the same woman, O (short for Ophelia) portrayed by Blake Lively, who feeds off the dual energy of these two. O narrates the story and in one brilliant line, tells us the difference in the approach of the two. "Chon gives me orgasms. Ben give me wargasms." Clearly, O, who loves strolling on the beach and heading to the mall for the latest fashions, craves the yin and yang of this relationship that is the most meaningful thing in her life.

Representing the opposing side in this story are the members of a Mexican drug cartel, the two most powerful being Lado (Benicio del Toro) and his boss, Elena (Selma Hayek), who directs her minions from a distance, watching her players acting out her commands as she gets her thrills watching on a live stream on her computer or closed circuit television. Her love of expensive things (furnishings, horses, jewelry) stands as an ironic contrast to the unspeakable horrors that seem to satisfy her. Her character is the most complex in the film and Hayek's portrayals is among the very best in a collection of fine performances.

Rather than go into all the twists and turns in this story (especially during the last fifteen minutes), I'd rather deal with the look and feel of this film. The cinematography by Daniel Mindel is mainly high key and quite bright, representing the beauty and "good life" of California, all the while making an ironic statement on the glamor of the Southern California seaside where the film originates. Stone's direction is well, frantic to some degree, but it is a controlled madness, as combines his use of different visual looks with imaginative cross cutting (one of the editors is Joe Hutshing, who has performed these chores for Stone on six of the director's previous films, having won two Oscars in the process) to ratchet up the nervous energy of this film. The story is constantly transferring back and forth between countries and characters and Stone displays the same energy here as he did back in 1991 for JFK. As I wrote in the title for this post, it's a wild ride and it's a highly watchable, entertaining film. Stone has been quoted as saying this film is a little bit like a Western and he's right - we root for the bad guys and root against the bad guys.

Except that if this a morality play, the morals here are pretty loose. Are Ben and Chon really good guys? Ben's violent nature moves him to shockingly injure Dennis (John Travolta in a wonderfully disarming performance), the DEA agent who is seemingly their only hope to rescuing O, who has been kidnapped by the drug cartel. Even Chon, who is the peaceful half of the duo, will perform an act during the film that links him to murder.

As for Lado, the evil soul that directly oversees the killings that are routine for his fellow businessmen, while he has no problem shooting someone, he takes time to pause and wonder what he has to do to please Elena, as he confesses in a scene with Dennis. This scene, more than halfway into the film, is a key moment, as we learn that Dennis is not exactly playing it straight. Early on, it is revealed that he is turning his eye away from Chon and Ben's illegal activities, so we know that his actions are tainted, but when he encounters Lado, we understand that Dennis is not acting as a professional, but simply as an individual who knows what side (or sides) of his toast to butter.

Even Elena has a few moments in which to enrouse our sympathies, particularly when she talks with O at a dinner at her hidden retreat in California (she has ceded to O's wishes for some normal food during her time as a captive). This encounter, however, is more than a nice gesture on Elena's part; it is a need for her to talk to another woman, as she deals almost exclusively with testosterone-fueled madmen (this an interesting comparison with O, who has sex with two young, libido-driven men).

Elena confesses her love for her two remaining children, a son and daughter, as her other children were violently murdered, no doubt due to her vicious business practices. She communicates several times during the film with her early 20s daughter Magda (Sandra Echeverria), who wants no part of her mother's life. As she tells O of her loneliness, we sense at least some sense of decency on her part, but we are then shocked as in closeup, she tells O, "Let me remind you that if I had to, I wouldn't have a problem cutting both their throats." Stone immediately cuts to a long shot of Elena and O at this glamorous dinner under the stars as Elena asks the servant to serve the pastry course. It's a chilling moment and this scene is one of the best written, photographed, edited and directed in the film.

"It's been a great ride, " Ben tells Chon late in the film, as they head toward a final encounter with the cartel. "I enjoyed it." That pretty much sums up my thoughts watching this film, one of Oliver Stone's most entertaining to date. It is a film that dares us to watch some horrible and immoral actions by numerous characters and leaves us wondering who among us is not a savage, as least to some degree?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Who is this Batman you speak of?

Gary Oldman

Last night I watched Gary Oldman on the Jimmy Kimmel show. I knew I'd be in for a great time, as he is an engaging and very funny individual. It's nice to see such an accomplished actor have some fun and for Gary, it seems very natural. He was introduced during Kimmel's monologue in which he read an excerpt from R. Kelly's new book (a masterpiece, I'm sure); Oldman put as much effort into his role as narrator of this text as he would have if he were performing in one of Shakespeare's tragedies.

As for the interview with Kimmel, Oldman was there to talk about his new film, The Dark Knight Rises, in which he portrays Commissioner Gordon. This is the latest effort in the hugely successful Batman series, directed with great flair and gusto by Christopher Nolan.

The best part of Oldman's interview was his story about the script. He related the story of the first time he saw it; he received a phone call at his home in England from a studio representative, just to make sure he was home. Then when the rep showed up at his door, Oldman recalled that he was given the script much in the manner of being served a summons to appear in court.

He also recalled an incident in Pittsburgh, where part of the filming took place. He said that he forgot where he put the script in his hotel room and had a cold sweat for about thirty minutes until he could finally locate it. He mentioned that each copy of the script has a serial number as well as a personal watermark. He added that the script is on red paper, so it can't be copied.

Oldman then mentioned that the same thing was done for the Harry Potter script. He got off the best line of the night, when he wondered why these precautions were put in place for a Harry Potter screenplay. "Everyone's read the book!"

This got me to thinking about the attention paid by the studio about the latest Batman script. This is obviously a huge production and the writers certainly don't want anyone stealing it. Given all the hackers and mischievous characters out there, I can't say I blame them. If the script was stolen, anyone could post the thing on a website; there's enough intellectual property that is out there in the public domain and I certainly sympathize to some degree with writers, composers and others about this situation.

But really, this is a script for a Batman movie. No offense to Nolan and the others that developed the story and screenplay, but people are going to see this film for its action scenes, pure and simple. This isn't Chinatown or Wall Street, movies that had a beautifully crafted screenplay at their core, this is a film where the movement on the screen, the costumes, sets, photography and editing are what will excite people. That's not to say there won't be some good lines in there - in fact, I'm sure this will be a clever script, but come on.

I wonder what independent filmmakers who write their own scripts think about the seriousness of protecting a script such as this. The mind boggles.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ernest Borgnine, 1917-2012

(Los Angeles Times photo)

Ernest Borgnine, who passed away Sunday at the age of 95, was an Academy Award-winning actor who was too often overlooked by critics who wrote about the great movie stars; indeed, his Oscar (for Marty in 1955) seems to be a footnote or point of trivia for many. Yet Borgnine had his own flair on-screen, one that should be recalled.

There are several factors why Borgnine is not generally thought of as one of Hollywood's great icons. Undoubtedly one of the reasons was his physical appearance, as he was not blessed with typical movie star good looks. Another notion may have been the fact that his acting style was not the subtle approach taken by such celebrated performers as James Stewart or Henry Fonda. Perhaps his credibility as a serious actor took a hit due to his years of appearing on television in McHale's Navy. Or the reason could be as simple as time, as many of today's critics and film bloggers weren't even born when Borgnine was at the height of his career.

I will admit to not liking his performances in some films; he seemed to be a bit of a caricature in his role as Trucker Cobb in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), a film with several wonderful ensemble performances. Yet his rugged physical appearance and deep, often threatening voice certainly added instant credibility to his roles as Fatso in From Here to Eternity (1953) and Dutch Engstrom in The Wild Bunch (1969). You just didn't want to mess with his characters in these pictures!

Then there was his sensitive side, most famously represented by his portrayal of Marty Piletti in Marty; this is the role that he is most remembered for. But another lovely performance he delivered was for a segment of the collaborative film September 11 (2002), a world wide study of what that terrible day in 2001 meant to filmmakers around the world. Borgnine portrayed an elderly widower (the actor was 85 years old at that time) who lived in a small apartment in New York City; his devotion to his late wife, seen in his arranging of flowers for her or laying out her dresses on her bed, is quite touching. Sean Penn directed this short and he was able to get Borgnine to deliver a performance of wonderful humility and heartbreak. It's a side of Borgnine few had seen until then and it's a lovely acting job.

So while there will not be as many loving tributes to Borgnine as there have been for more iconic actors, we should at least remember that here was a movie star who worked for more than 60 years in the cinema, right up until the end of his life. He left us with a number of memorable performances, which is more than enough reason to remember his career.