Savages: The long, strange trip of Oliver Stone continues apace with Savages, one of his periodic dips back into genre filmmaking. You might expect that Stone’s interpretation of the intersection between pot growers, big-time drug dealers, low-level enforcers, and crooked DEA employees to sprawl into his take on Traffic, but Savages, based on a novel by pulpish writer Don Winslow and adapted by Winslow with Stone and Shane Salerno, doesn’t reach for more than incidental sociopolitical significance. Based on the material, this isn’t surprising; in recent years, this kind of story—drugs, babes, double-crosses, threats, shoot-outs—has been the occasion for self-consciously stylized, sometimes nihilistic action. In other words, Tony Scott movies even Tony Scott wouldn’t make. But it is a little odd to see Stone making them, even when it raises his game.
Usually Stone movies have an obsessive, intense character who feels, if not exact kinship from Stone, certainly torn from a section of his brain. But I didn’t detect much of that from pot-growing besties Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson); their dialogue, especially in the movie’s opening half-hour, has too much compare-contrast dialogue by screenwriters convinced they were showing, not telling, by having Chon and Ben articulate each other’s philosophies and personalities—Chon a whatever-it-takes ex-military hardass; Ben a gentler, more progressive soul who wants to sell pot to help people—to each other with stilted frequency. And yet there is plenty of actual telling nonetheless: O (Blake Lively), the live-in girlfriend they share, narrates the story (as she did in Winslow’s book), although the writers do a better job crafting her California lost-girl voice. Lively, as she did in The Town, shows great facility in imbuing a low-ambition, not enormously bright young woman with realistic pathos; so far in her movie career, she’s unnervingly superior in her less glamorous roles.
I thought at first, given Chon and Ben’s lax writing, that Stone was more interested in the nominal grown-ups in the room: the drug-dealing kingpin Elena (Salma Hayek) who has inherited an empire from her dead husband and sons; her sleazy, ruthless point man (a puffed-up, mumbly Benicio Del Toro); and the DEA guy (John Travolta, finally embracing his character actor destiny) to whom Chon and Ben turn for help when their business faces a hostile takeover, with no negotiable exit for them allowed. This may well still be the case; Del Toro and Travolta both have their juiciest parts in years, and share a terrific scene together late in the movie. But as Savages went on, I noticed Stone paying particular attention to the women: to Hayek’s Elena and her strange relationship with O, who is kidnapped to ply the boys into staying with the weed business. Hayek, so often a love interest of one sort or another, rarely gets a part this complex, or scary; Elena is so interesting—vengeful, haughty, yet pining for the daughter who she respects for hating the family business—that she threatens to overpower the movie’s supposed heroes. Their rescue plan feels half-cocked, and the movie becomes more a series of threatening conversations than a real thriller.
Indeed, despite some familiar, pleasurable flourishes—blown-out colors, cuts to grainy black and white footage—Savages isn’t as full-on crazy as Stone at his sweatiest. The truth is, even when he amps up, Stone isn’t flip enough to go nuts for the sheer would-be fun of it. His serious issue movies have a touch of showman’s pulp, and his pulpy movies inch away from full-blown exploitation. In this way, the entertaining but slightly impersonal Savages feels like a lost film from 1998 or so, a link between the cul-de-sac lunacy of U-Turn and the big entertainment of Any Given Sunday. In other words, it’s a well-made, somewhat pointless crime drama with less of the macho posturing that has come to define the genre. This makes it one of the best Oliver Stone movies of the past ten years (though I’d place the underrated W. far above it). It would be one of his less memorable of the 1990s, had it come out a decade and change earlier.
The Amazing Spider-Man: It’s inevitable that cultural evaluation of the new Spider-Man movie will be packaged with re-evaluation of Sam Raimi’s original trilogy, capped just five years ago and begun just five years before that. Instead of a tenth-anniversary re-release, we get a tenth anniversary remake, of sorts; I know, as a sometime comics fan, that hiring a new creative team and/or instilling new continuity is not, precisely speaking, a “remake”—otherwise, so many comics would’ve started over at issue number one so many times by now (oh, right: DC Comics actually did this last year, in a bizarre marketing gambit slash conscious mistaking comics for movie franchises).
Yet it’s hard to view another Spider-Man movie starting with Peter Parker as a high school outcast who gets bitten by a spider as anything but at least a kinda-remake, especially given the billion-dollar-plus grosses on the Raimi movies ensuring that Sony can’t stray too far from previously established stories. So poor Marc Webb apparently has to straddle some line between remake (please stop saying “reboot,” everyone. Everyone!), reinterpretation, and classic Spider-Man storytelling. I haven’t seen the results yet, but after some suspiciously positive early reviews, there seems to be at least some dissent developing. But I’ve still managed to read plenty of pieces on this movie that seem almost intentionally ignorant of what happened in Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, talking about how in this movie, there’s a lot of time spent on Parker’s relationship with his best girl (unlike, say, the domestic drama of Spider-Man 3? Or the romantic dilemma of Spider-Man 2? Or the upside-down kiss in Spider-Man?); or in this movie, there’s better focus on Uncle Ben and Aunt May (anyone care to clock how much screen time Aunt May has in the Raimi movies? I’m betting she has more lines than the villain at least once); or in this movie, it’s about the characters’ emotions (weren’t you jerks just complaining about Spidey getting “too emo” in the third movie?!).
Obviously there’s no reason Webb, given Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, can’t make his own entirely charming and/or exciting Spider-Man movie, but if we need to dump on Raimi’s movies to enjoy this one, I can’t imagine this is a very strong movie on its own. For their rep as pretty straight-up comics movies, Raimi’s Spidey pictures have a lot of humanity, and I deeply appreciate their use of Tobey Maguire as an actual dork (even his evil version, in the messy but underappreciated Spider-Man 3, is, hilariously, pretty dorky); I’m guessing Andrew Garfield will be more of a sex-ay loner than a genuine nyerd. Spider-Man 2 is particularly funny, exciting, and Raimi-ish, and I doubt Sony, after ratcheting up their series budget, interfering creatively, and then deciding the Raimi/Maguire/Dunst combo was too expensive (implicating them as the series’s downfall), then hired Webb in order to let his vision fly free. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m rooting for this thing to fail, because honestly, I hope it’s a lot of fun. It’s almost like my enjoyment of the Raimi Spider-Man movies doesn’t preclude me from liking this one; I wish that were the case for more of Amazing Spider-Man‘s converted fans.
Katy Perry: Part of Me: I wouldn’t say that I exactly want to see the latest 3D concert movie intercut with star-worshipping infomercial, but I was kind of bummed that I apparently missed the press screenings, and here’s why: of the ringtone-friendly pseudo-self-aware mega-pop acts currently dominating the charts, Perry’s Diet Gaga (extra imitation sugar) shtick might be the least irritating to me offhand. She’s not constantly making direct yet vaguely worded explanations of the points she’s supposedly making in her songs; I know Lady Gaga means well, but the half-empty self-righteousness of listening to her, plus all of that 80s worship, makes it difficult for me to enjoy more than just her set design. Perry is also not Jock Jam unlistenable like Black Eyed Peas or LMFAO, nor as insufferably cocky (it would seem, anyway) as Justin Bieber.
So if I were forced to go to one of those artists in concert, it would probably be Katy Perry; and if I were then forced with the choice between the live concert and a much cheaper movie version with more close-ups of what a buddy of mine deemed Perry’s Zooey Deschanel-as-porn star look [I can’t seem to find it in the archives anymore but in like 2008 I called her “the anime porn version of Zooey Deschanel” and demand royalties. –Ed.] and presumably fewer total minutes of music, hey, Part of Me doesn’t seem so bad, even though it will inevitably portray being a well-made-up singer who sometimes co-writes her own songs as more or less the lord’s work (possibly literally, depending on how heavily they lean on Perry’s faith-based beginnings—though actually, I’d be interested in that footage for the sheer compare/contrast factor). Of course, those conditions are not being imposed on me, and as much as I like the song “Teenage Dream” (though I should note that “I Kissed a Girl” is awful and “California Gurls” is pretty crap, too), I don’t particularly need to see it performed semi-live with additional screaming. When the 3D Carly Rae Jepsen document short subject comes out, though, call me maybe.