Film Review: Savages

Oliver Stone’s Savages does not feel like an Oliver Stone film. That is not to say that it is a bad film, but merely that it feels like a departure from the director’s best known work.

Best friends Ben and Chon live in Laguna Beach with their girlfriend O, and are known for growing a potent strain of marijuana. When a Mexican cartel wants to move into their territory, the pair are not keen to a make a deal. Ben and Chon are forced into a perilous position when the cartel threatens the thing they both love…

Savages is a crime thriller that remains light for the most part. The film never gives the impression that it is taking itself too seriously. And because of this, it is an enjoyable watch. The pacing of the film accelerates appropriately, although the running time could have been trimmed.

The most striking element of Savages is that it bears little resemblance to earlier Oliver Stone films. Based on Don Winslow’s novel, Stone is also one of the screenplay writers. Yet it feels almost whimsical; a far cry from the weighty drama of JFK or the socio-economic commentary of Wall Street. It is as if Oliver Stone has taken a holiday, brushing aside more serious concerns for a thriller with a tongue-in-cheek attitude.

Much of the lightness is garnered from the dialogue. Savages is narrated by O, whose delivery is inconsequential. Given her age, background and location, this is not surprising. Nevertheless, the dialogue negates any illusions of Savages being a serious crime thriller. At times the film feels more Sweet Valley High than anything else. This is not really a bad thing.

There is some commentary to be found in Savages, regarding the legalisation of marijuana. This takes on an overt appearance, rather than being subtly hinted at. However, this message is delivered concisely, leaving the rest of the film to get on with its purpose of entertaining the viewer.

The villains in Savages are portrayed in a caricature manner, which makes them most enjoyable to watch. Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro appear to revel in their roles, offering amusingly over the top characters. Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch meanwhile are well cast in their straight roles.

Savages may not be to everyone’s taste, but those prepared for the lightness should be entertained. Fans of Stone’s more hard-hitting work may be bemused.

Film Review: Somewhere

Somewhere is an aesthetically pleasing film, but the slow pace will not be to everyone’s taste. Somewhere displays flashes of Sofia Coppola’s earlier film Lost in Translation, but fails to live up to the promise of her 2003 hit.

Johnny Marco is a movie star living a vacuous lifestyle at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. When his young daughter comes to visit him, Johnny re-evaluates his life…

The fundamental problem with Somewhere is not that it is a slowing-moving film, but that it is a slow-moving film that fails to pack an emotional punch. Although Johnny is an interesting protagonist, he does not inspire any real emotional reaction. Therefore, it is completely conceivable that viewers will leave screenings wondering what exactly the point of the film was.

There is complete lack of urgency in Somewhere; events are left to unfold at a sedentary pace. Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, expends energy on the subtle rather than very apparent actions. There is little dialogue in the film, Somewhere concentrates on the unsaid.

Somewhere focuses on the vacuousness of the Hollywood lifestyle and the resulting dysphoria. Rather than the glamour of such an existence, Coppola is intent on fixating on the negative side. Even with women throwing themselves at Johnny, it is clear that this is a shallow life where pleasure is fleeting.

Sofia Coppola’s real talent lies in her ability to effectively cut through the glossiness of the world of celebrity to expose the hollowness of this realm. She does this with a sly humour reminiscent of the photo shoot scene in Lost in Translation. Thus, there are the deeply unsexy pole artists putting on a private show for Johnny, the inane questions at the press conference, and the uncomfortable mould-casting session. Like the rest of the film, subtlety is the key in the humour of these scenes.

Stephen Dorff is solid as Johnny; it is fathomable that the actor may have experienced what is depicted in the film himself. Elle Fanning gives an excellent performance as his daughter Cleo, stepping out of Dakota’s shadow in a very convincing way. Benicio Del Toro’s cameo appears utterly pointless.

Coppola’s shooting style owes more to art house and independent cinema than mainstream Hollywood. There are numerous lengthy shots, but thankfully these stay on the pensive side, rather than becoming overly cumbersome. Despite the film’s negative reaction towards Hollywood, locations are shot beautifully.

As subtle portrait of existential anxiety, Somewhere is not as profound as it thinks it is. The film shows flashes of brilliance but feels a little superficial overall. Ironic, given its theme.

Somewhere was screened at the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival in October 2010.

Film Review: The Wolfman

“Even a man who is pure in heart”, the remake begins, instantly impressing the weight of the original on this new version of the lycanthropic tale. In the current climate of the modern gothic in films such as Twilight and television series’ like True Blood, it is refreshing to see a Victorian-set gothic horror. Comparisons will be made to the recent Sherlock Holmes, of course, although The Wolfman feels distinctly unmodern.

Johnston’s film presents a highly stylised vision of late nineteenth-century Britain; all brooding mansions and London fogs. Much of the exterior London footage in CGI, however this does not detract from the fantastic realm that the audience is plunged into. The effect is heightened by the carefully controlled palette, contrasting the monochrome of the Talbot residence with the colour of the gypsies.

The story is inevitably predictable. There are no clever twists or shocks to surprise viewers. The film, however, does function as a gothic horror (as opposed to just gothic a la Bram Stoker’s Dracula), providing a handful of cheap frights that will easily unnerve jittery audience members. The transformation sequences fall on the side of grotesque rather than chilling, paying debt to the 1941 original.

Although the dialogue is at times grating in its attempt at the grandiose, Del Toro’s portrayal of Talbot is successful insomuch as it provokes sympathy. As the tragic gothic protagonist, Talbot struggles with the most seminal of the genre’s preoccupations: duality. The Wolfman invokes that traditional Victorian depiction of reservedness, which is most prevalent through the relationship between Talbot and Gwen. Despite their obvious love and affection for one another, the pair share a single kiss in the film; Talbot stares longingly at Gwen’s neckline rather than any further south.

The Wolfman is perfect as a slice of Victorian gothic escapism. But those searching for an intricate plot or a vein of originality are better off looking elsewhere.