Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012) – Oliver Stone may not wield the power in Hollywood he once did in the ’90s when he could get a blockbuster sized bankroll for a three-plus-hour collection of JFK assassination theories comprised almost entirely of dialogue scenes, but he still keeps managing to make movies about socio-political issues as they are happening. He’s just not quite as good at it as he once was. Stone’s last two efforts were the George Bush bio W.(made during the final days of that triumphant presidency) and Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (made just as the reality of the recession kicked in). His latest film, Savages, is Stone’s drug war action flick focusing on beheading Mexican drug cartels and multimillion dollar legal Californian grow-ops that are both peaking in headline-grabbing notoriety right now. He’s not really leaning too heavily on commentary this time though, probably irritated that no one “got” his muddled take on the current financial system in Wall Street 2. This flick is pretty much a straight-up action/thriller and also one of Stone’s most purely enjoyable efforts since the ’90s. It obviously still suffers from Stone’s inability to play any scene at a volume below 11 (when he’s violent, he’s vicious; when he’s corny, he’d make Capra gag), but for all its many, many flaws Savages can still a damn fun movie to watch, made by a filmmaker with ideas even if those ideas can seem pretty confused at times.
The film’s biggest weakness is that it’s told from the perspective of easily the least interesting character. Blake Lively stars as O (short for Ophelia, and don’t worry—the Shakespearean references are laid on thick), a blonde beauty who lives in a three-way hedonistic relationship with two weed farmers/semi-legal drug dealers. One is botany/business major Ben (Aaron Johnson), a hippie type who believes in loving the planet and giving away profits to charity. The other is Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a war veteran who handles the muscle and business side of things when necessary. Together they are O’s perfect man. “Ben is the earth,” she says while also claiming that Chon has “wargasms” while she has orgasms during one of her typically irritating and faux-profound voiceovers that Stone must have written while indulging in the trio’s drug of choice himself. The O/Ben/Chon trio are a pretty drab and boring lot, but thankfully they get tossed into the middle of a whole lotta action.
One morning they get a video emailed to them from a cartel showing a collection of severed heads. It’s a cartel, they want to make a deal together. The potheads aren’t comfortable and try to sell the business, but the cartel isn’t having it. Led by Salma Hayek’s Elena, the cartel wants to study the stoners’ working methods for three years to copy them and when they try to skip town to avoid that fate, Elena strikes back. She has her US-based strong arm, Benicio Del Toro (who amusingly conceals hits by driving around with Mexican sidekicks dressed as a landscaping company and has them use loud gardening equipment to conceal his gun shots), get back by kidnapping O and forcing the deal. Since wargasm specialist Chon doesn’t take too kindly to that and has some old army buddies willing to help cause a ruckus, the stoners get their own revenge. They bribe their FBI contact John Travolta for just enough info to hit Elena where it hurts and things get a bit nutty from there.
Stone seems infinitely more interested in his bad guys this time out, so as dead-eyed boring as the Lively/Kitsch/Johnson combo can be, the Travola/Hayek/Del Toro team more than make up for it. The veteran actors have more of a sense of humor about the style of ludicrous pulp that lends the movie the playful tone it needs. In particular, whenever Del Toro is on screen in his ludicrous mullet wig, you’ll wish Stone had gotten a chance to make an entire movie following him working his way through the cartel. Hayek and Travolta can go a little too far over the top at times, but this is an Oliver Stone movie, so no one goes father over the top than the filmmaker himself. Though not as nauseatingly stylized as Natural Born Killers, Stone trots out plenty of tricks for a glossy visual presentation filled with fancy pants editing, bleached out cinematography, and not one, but two endings with the film rewinding to change the capper from a romantic shoot out to an ironic drug bust.
It’s a bummer that the movie isn’t about the characters who are actually worth watching, but as a result Savages is the most streamlined piece of action/entertainment the director has attempted in years. The twin settings have some current political and cultural resonance, but once they are established Stone essentially pushes those issues to the side in favor of a twisty-turny thriller that works well despite the awful heroes and occasionally irritating directorial flourishes. It’s not a film destined to win awards or be remembered amongst Stone’s finest outings, but it is a rip-roaring piece of pulp for viewers too old to get wrapped up in the adventures of teens in tights.
Universal’s Blu-ray was clearly pulled together before the movie bombed in theaters over the summer and is treated that the beloved hit it never was. The transfer is gorgeous and given the sun-drenched locals and Stone’s typical visual nuttiness, it looks incredible on Blu-ray. Special features-wise, you get a unrated cut that adds ten useless minutes to the running time, additional deleted scenes, a fairly extensive 30-minute documentary, and one of Stone’s usual motor-mouth commentaries. It’s a great package for a deeply flawed movie that deserved a slightly better reception than it good. Sure, there are definitely deeper and more interesting stories to be told about the California weed trade and Mexico’s vicious drug cartels that Stone could do well. However, we didn’t get that. We got a star-packed, machine gun thriller instead and on that level Stone did a decent job. Let’s hope he’ll still be able to get the occasion in La-La-land after his recent string of bombs. – Phil Brown
The Campaign (Jay Roach, 2012) – The Campaign tries to strike a balance between R-rated raunch comedy and political satire and it comes surprisingly close to pulling it off. Ultimately, it’s more about the baby punching and wife-banging, but more than enough of those gags land to make it worth your money and laughter. The satire is more of a pleasing aftertaste to make the movie slightly more than Talladega Nights with voting booths. It’s probably going to prevent the movie from being the massive comedy blockbuster everyone involved hoped would come from combining Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, but that also makes The Campaign a better movie overall. Whether or not a movie with jokes about sucking the filling out of Twinkies will help raise any awareness in voters about easily manipulated campaigns going into an election year is a reasonable question. It seems impossible, yet it’s at least nice to have an R-rated comedy that doesn’t insult your intelligence out there by someone other than Sacha Baron Cohen. Let’s just hope it makes enough money to happen again.
Ferrell stars as a variation on his famous George Bush persona, a perennial congressman so used to winning unopposed that he assumes simply saying the words “freedom” and “Jesus” will get him back into office (in fairness, it’s not a bad tactic). However, the election spiking billionaire Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd playing thinly veiled versions of the Koch brothers) have other plans. They decide to plug millions of dollars into getting their hand-picked good ol’ boy candidate into office to help pass their new “insourcing” program that will bring cheap Chinese labor to the US. The candidate is Marty Huggins, played by Galifianakis doing a variation on his effeminate, absurdly polite, and easily offended southern alter-ego Seth Galifianakis (complete with fannypack). As soon as he faces an opponent, Ferrell launches a smear campaign that kicks off a dirty war of drunken backstabbing, sexually explicit campaign ads, and as the trailers flaunted baby-punching (thankfully the super-slo-mo close-up of said infant taking a fist to the face was saved for the big screen and good lord is it ever a bad taste show-stopper). Galifianakis remains good natured despite the dirty dealings forced upon him by his “man in black” campaign manager (a surprisingly funny Dylan McDermott) and eventually these sorts of movies must end with the better man discovering his conscience.
Ferrell’s built a career on this brand of verbal-diarrhea spouting alpha-male with more confidence than intelligence and delivers the goods as expected. Not required to be the hero for once, he does slide the character past the realm of likability many times and clearly has a blast pushing the asshole button harder than he ever has before. Galifianakis’ alter ego hasn’t really been used outside of his early stand up and TV appearances, so it should be a pleasant surprise for audiences who only know him as “that crazy guy with the beard.” Even though he’s a walking cartoon, there’s something unerringly good natured and sweet about the character that helps give the movie a faint resemblance of a heart once all the bad behavior settles down for a moralizing finale. Other performers like McDermott and Jason Sudeikis get a handful of funny moments to add to the film, but this really is the Ferrell/Galifianakis show from start to finish and they are two performers more than capable of matching each other offensive remark for offensive remark and humiliation for humiliation. Hopefully it won’t be the last time they stage a comedy war because this one is a draw.
Jay Roach directs combining the surreal insanity he brought to the Austin Powers movies with the political frustration he brought to his underrated HBO films Recount and Game Change (let’s forget and forgive the guy for the Fockers franchise for now). He was the right choice for the project because the gentle mockery and exposure of how campaign funding billionaires can easily control elections is important and never ignored. Towards the end, the film can admittedly get a little preachy hammering the point home. There’s nothing subtle about the comedy or commentary in The Campaign, there’s even a line of dialogue that says “Big money is ruining politics in America” and any other point the filmmakers want to impart. However, that kind of sentiment even slipping into a mainstream Hollywood comedy is nice and at least everyone involved wants to say something beyond “Isn’t it funny when grown men act like children and/or swear?” The film tries to be non-partisan about the affair, but I think it’s safe to say what direction everyone involved leans. The Jesus bashing kind of gives it away. I know what you’re thinking right now and yes it is absolutely shocking that a political comedy came out of Hollywood with a liberal bias. Who could have seen that coming and what could possibly happen next?
The Blu-ray Extended cut release comes in a nice looking and okay sounding package, and adds (as per usual with these types of cash grabs, 11 extra minutes of sub-par laughs that would go unnoticed. The theatrical cut is the real way to go here. There’s also a requisite gag reel, some deleted scenes (including a weaker alternate ending, but a stronger mid-credit sequence), and another useless Line O’ Rama with Ferrell and Galifianakis praying to the improve gods for comedic gold. – Phil Brown, review. Andrew Parker, special features
A Little Bit of Heaven (Nicole Kassell, 2011) – I try not to judge DVDs by their cover, but with this one it was really hard not to. Big smiles, Kate Hudson’s perfect curls, Gael Garcia Bernal looking slightly in pain, and that title? That tagline, “Hold on to love”? The back describes it as a gregarious, beautiful woman afraid of commitment until a visit to her doctor changes everything. Two words: Rom. Com.
So I was half right. Rom for sure, Com not so much. Marley (Hudson) is a successful, career-driven ad exec with a wicked sense of humour and great lust for life, and for dudes. She gets sick, heads to the doctor (Garcia Bernal), flirts with him shamelessly, and he sends her for tests. The diagnosis: an advanced form of colon cancer. Marley has to reassess her life, including her relationships with her parents and her friends. Eventually she and her doctor, Julian, fall in love, and that throws another wrench into her life, as the two of them confront each others’ foibles and Marley’s prognosis.
It’s not a well-done film. There’s a side plot with Whoopi Goldberg as God that doesn’t add much of anything, and a silly scene with Peter Dinklage, who has no business doing this type of movie these days. The rest is Chick Flicks 101: a Shopping Spree Scene, with all The Girls and the Gay Best Friend; Dramatic Kisses and Declarations of Love and Seeing People for Who They Really Are, Laying Out All My Regrets, and so forth. The fact that Julian is dating a patient is almost completely glossed over because of love, and of course Marley runs from the relationship because she’s dying, and of course they reunite and profess their love for each other, because that’s what happens, dammit. Kate Hudson just cannot look sick or tired at all. At most her hair is limp and half-brushed and she goes without makeup in a few scenes, but she stays gorgeous right to the end. The actual cancer part, and the process of treatment is pushed aside because dealing with the realities of clinical trials, chemotherapy and the attendant side effects is apparently not as important as the fact that she’s in love but she’s dying, everyone! The jokes are not particularly funny, the drama is not particularly moving, and none of the characters are particularly engaging, so I didn’t bother watching the included interviews with the cast and crew. Even if Marley was cool enough to have a jazz funeral, she wasn’t cool enough for me to care what Hudson had to say about playing her. – Jenna Hossack
Ruby Sparks (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2012) – Amid a seemingly endless firestorm of quirky romantic comedies that constantly show men as tortured souls and women as endless founts of mirth that can break anyone out of their rut with a well timed song or a great record collection emerges a blast of fresh, cool air called Ruby Sparks. Expertly written, intensely thoughtful and emotional, and even a slight bit intellectual, the film has great fun sending up the standard “manic pixie dream girl” character that has run rampant in film for far too long by objectively looking at the mechanics behind it through the eyes of two very memorable characters.
After achieving great success early on in his writing career and following the dissolution of a particularly meaningful long term relationship, novelist Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) has coasted by on the success of his debut and finds he’s unable to break out of some crippling writer’s block. At the urging of his therapist to write him a story about anything at all, Calvin begins having dreams of a girl named Ruby (Zoe Kazan), full of all of the attributes he wants in a companion and lover. Aside from the obvious psychological help, Calvin keeps creating the character of Ruby until one day she magically appears in his kitchen like she had been there the whole time. At first, this naturally raises questions about Calvin’s sanity, but it soon becomes clear that Ruby is there to stay and that Calvin can write and change her any time he wants to.
From the outset, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (making their first film since they made waves with Little Miss Sunshine) position the characters in a world of fantasy not too far removed from our own. The idea of a person simply materializing from someone’s brain isn’t immediately accepted even by the directors, and their pacing of the story zips along so fast that nothing is every allowed to nag or eat away at the viewer.
The real power of the film comes from the script, written by Kazan, which amounts to a storytelling clinic. She confronts the notion of the much maligned “manic pixie dream girl” on film and exposes the cliché as being something no one would ever want to date in reality. The film has the guts to go to some pretty dark places starting around the halfway point when Calvin starts to find it necessary to begin making drastic changes so he’ll never lose Ruby, and this desire to talk about manipulative and unhealthy behaviour in relationships is nothing if not admirable.
Her on-screen muse here and real life boyfriend Dano gives a great assist to his other half with a finely nuanced performance of a man so constantly on edge that even his happier moments can lead him to dark places. As Ruby, Kazan plays the not so fictional dream girl as a wholly sympathetic entity; an adult Pinocchio that can’t control anything in her life because the creator could never cut the strings. The leads get a couple of nice assists from some old pros in small supporting roles, especially Elliot Gould as Calvin’s shrink and Steve Coogan as his somewhat seedy mentor and colleague.
Despite things coming together a little too pat in the final five minutes, the Blu-ray brings this underrated summertime gem home to what one hopes is a truly more appreciative audience, even if it’s they type of film that only has some making-of featurettes and no commentary track. All you need to know is up on screen, and what’s up on screen is more than enough. – Andrew Parker
Mad Men, Season 5 (Various, 2012) – Looking back on the popular fifth season of television’s only truly great American period drama still on the air, it’s hard to fathom that this year’s gutsy season – which almost entirely hits the reset button on everything that came before it – wasn’t able to garner any Emmy awards this year. In its most recent season, Mad Men solidified what I like to refer to as “the AMC template”. Alongside fellow network war horses Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, the show constantly finds new ways to pull the rug out from beneath its audience with each passing episode.
Mad Men moved on from a depressing and down trodden fourth season to a more lighthearted tone by the start of the fifth one, but that doesn’t mean things don’t get heavy for the neatly dressed cocktail downers at the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce ad agency. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) starts scheming his way to the top by any means necessary. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has to adjust to a new marriage, leading Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) to thinking that he no longer gives a damn about his job. Roger (John Slattery) is trying out LSD, which only serves to make him more paranoid.
Eventually chaos reigns once again, but for the most part season five of Matthew Weiner’s series focuses more on stand along stories than grand crises having previously established a tone for the series to work within. Overall, it’s a strong if unspectacular year for the series, moving things forward just enough for a transition from the 50s to the 60s where everything will eventually come crashing down.
The four disc DVD set comes with some interesting looks at crafting the musical score and the dialogue writing process, but for those who really want to know the inner workings of the show, they are best served by the multiple commentary tracks on each episode that provide far greater detail. There are also some intriguing featurettes about the show’s historical context, including a look inside Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball and the impact of Daylight Savings Time. Most intriguingly, however, is an examination of the work of surrealist painter Georgio de Chirico, who provided some inspiration through his views on humanity and modernity. It’s almost too academic to be entertaining, but it’s certainly an interesting inclusion to this package. Much like the painter’s work, it looks at solitary characters removed from their own history in their own time. – Andrew Parker
[REC]3: Genesis (Paco Plaza, 2011) – REC 3: Genesis marks Spanish found footage trailblazer Paco Plaza’s third and very different entry into his hand held horror film series. In lieu of the teetering and dim footage effects afforded by a camcorder, REC: 3 Genesis sees Plaza capturing flesh eating zombies with smooth and properly lit camera sequences. It’s taking this markedly different stylistic approach to what Plaza’s previous two zombie tenement films bloodily established which will undoubtedly divide REC fans’ trust in both Plaza and this frightening series. REC 3: Genesis is a different type of terror and those who appreciate the slower and at times purposely farcical nature of the zombie flick will dig it. But those expecting REC’s gritty, demonic, zombies-right-in-your-face jolts should look elsewhere for their bloody fix.
REC 3 takes off from an intriguing and new premise: a zombie outbreak during a wedding. Taking place in an old castle complex, Adrián (Àlex Monner) – cousin of the groom Koldo (Diego Martín) – cruises around the ceremony and wedding reception interviewing friends and relatives and making for some funny pre-carnage viewing. Hints of horror begin to reveal themselves when Adrián captures odd sightings of men walking the premises in hazmat suits, as well as Koldo’s uncle slowly degenerating in to bloodthirsty madness. REC 3: Genesis unravels into a gory survival drama after Koldo and his glimmering bride Clara (Leticia Dolera) are separated when the zombie outbreak hits and desperately try to reunite.
While it’s nice that Plaza tries to change things up by using a more cinematic perspective, REC 3 would be about ten times scarier if it had been shot with his typical hand held style. Still, Plaza’s switch from shaky to steady cam is great because it showcases a whole other side to this director’s obvious talent. Plaza’s eye for cinematic detail is clear cut and calculated, and while the feeling of all out chaos that accompanies the first two REC films isn’t quite established in REC 3: Genesis, Plaza shows us that his eye for classic horror is just as sharp. REC 3 also benefits from exquisite acting on the hands of all its characters. Protagonists Koldo and Clara make a convincing couple surviving the zombie apocalypse, and everyone down to the zombie extras are plausibly performed. As Clara mows down zombies with a chainsaw, all the while wearing her wedding dress, Plaza shows that he can at least do something memorable with REC 3: Genesis. Although lacking in Plaza’s expected conventions, I’m happy to see REC 3 more as an entertaining pledge from this skilful filmmaker to keep his style fresh. – Brandon Bastaldo