Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

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John Cope
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Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#1 Post by John Cope » Fri Jul 06, 2012 8:26 pm

Oliver Stone appears to be another (along with Eastwood) who has fallen on critical hard times. Some memo appears to have been passed declaring him to be out of fashion. I recognize that a lot of this has to do with the reaction many have had to his last few features specifically but I think it suggests a larger resistance and one that needs to be examined up against what he consistently offers up.


In the case of Savages, I suppose the developing read is that it's just a tired, cheap piece of sensationalist exploitation. It's certainly easy to dismiss it as that if you're so inclined. It's harder for me though as I tend to take a lot of Stone’s admittedly broad sketches of humanity pretty seriously (the comment that Hayek makes here about why the main characters’ threesome works is dead on, for instance). I think he's got a very real understanding of something that goes deep and his best work is that which most thoroughly fills in the details of those larger sketches. For a variety of reasons I doubt Savages was ever conceived to be one of his most thorough societal assessments. Still, there is enough here to justify the experience as more than the sum of its supremely aestheticized parts.


Though the surface is shock cinema/trite thriller (effective enough to make the guy a few seats away from me hold his head in his hands right off during the video of the dismemberment and wail, "JESUS CHRIST!!") that is just the surface and in this case there's more to it than that. Admittedly the "more to it" may very well not convince anyone either as it's more 'o the same from Stone, I guess; but I don't know why that should automatically demand that it be discounted, as though he hasn't been developing an entire cinematic perspective upon these themes and ideas. It's not just the ideas, of course (which are the usual things about false or inadequate notions of civilization, weeding out the weak, women of power vs. presumptive whores, etc.), it's the way that stuff is communicated that irritates people. It's the fact that Stone makes no effort to be subtle with the introduction of any of these themes and, in fact, is often quite direct (this is held against him, under the assumption that it indicates a simplistic morality but is seemingly never held against Michael Haneke). The problem I have with this problem others have is that it overlooks the details of the piece, the way Stone adroitly fills in his portraits and larger descriptions with often ironic information and genuinely nuanced visual cues (the flash cut to the news anchor's partially undone blouse in Natural Born Killers remains one of the most stunning, simple but profoundly powerful examples of this technique).


And that brings us to the already much maligned ending of Savages.
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At first, I was disappointed by it (and by “at first” I mean as it was happening) but it started nagging me almost immediately and has stayed with me since. Now I view it as crucial and possibly even profound, the kind of move that makes the difference between a good film and great one. The knee jerk response has been that it’s either a concession to a happy ending (in other words, Stone lost his nerve–as he was accused of doing in the similarly misconstrued end to his Wall Street sequel) or that it’s some kind of post modern sop, suggesting that what has happened in the narrative doesn’t really matter–it’s all just a fiction anyway (and here we get more of the comparisons to Scott’s Domino which only indicates to me a complete misunderstanding of what was going on there too). But I suspect that the truth is that neither of these apply. While certainly the ending is ostensibly happier than what we thought had happened up until that point, to emphasize that is to give it excessive significance. And neither is this some gimmicky contrivance designed to fashionably denigrate our investment in narrative. What’s really going on seems far more bold to me: it seems intended to emphasize the ultimate banality of these lives and these situations, point to them as commonplace (little details like Ben’s advanced degrees in business and botany underlining that); it does not negate the meaning or validity of the dramatic incidents or the larger thematic ideas but rather absorbs them, indicates the way they exist and inform what we then recognize as only seeming banality.

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warren oates
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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#2 Post by warren oates » Fri Jul 06, 2012 8:44 pm

I'm about as big a fan of Oliver Stone's cinema as there is, but if that post was even intending to, you haven't convinced me that Savages is worth seeing. What is there in this new one for somebody who loves JFK, Natural Born Killers, Nixon, Platoon, Salvador and even to a lesser extent films like Wall Street, The Doors and W.?

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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#3 Post by flyonthewall2983 » Fri Jul 06, 2012 9:09 pm

I think he would benefit from making the switch to television, and developing a dramatic series with someone that can translate the things he is truly interested in and making a decent enough show around it. I'm not sure the way Hollywood is now, is a place where he can produce something with the same gusto he did with his earlier works (this could also do with age, and maybe not having the drive he once had).

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Professor Wagstaff
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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#4 Post by Professor Wagstaff » Fri Jul 06, 2012 10:49 pm

I wonder if Stone needs better people to collaborate with on these films. A. Kitmo Ho was his producer from 1986-1993 and Robert Richardson was his cinematographer from 1986-1997. The absence of Ho seemed to slow Stone's output considerably resulting in much less focused and impersonal films to follow (excluding Nixon and Natural Born Killers). I think a maverick like Richardson defined the style of Stone's films more than their director, with most everything post-Richardson being fairly bland-looking. Maybe it boils down to someone needing to light a fire under his ass.

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Brian C
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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#5 Post by Brian C » Sat Jul 07, 2012 12:22 am

John Cope wrote:It's the fact that Stone makes no effort to be subtle with the introduction of any of these themes and, in fact, is often quite direct (this is held against him, under the assumption that it indicates a simplistic morality but is seemingly never held against Michael Haneke).
I don't want to derail the thread with a tangent, but this seems on the contrary to be the only consistent criticism of Haneke out there (well, that and the related criticism that Haneke is a "scold".)

Anyway, very nice summation of Stone's merits. I'm interested to see Savages just to see what I think about it, as Stone's films typically have some worthy aspects to them even if they're not always well-executed.

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HistoryProf
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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#6 Post by HistoryProf » Sun Jul 08, 2012 8:19 pm

caught a matinee of this today (and at an AMC theater i'd never been to, but will definitely be back as every seat in every theater is a faux leather recliner...but I digress) and I really don't know what to think. Parts were fantastic, but the ending really annoyed me, as did Stone's insistence on over using that guy ritchie uber-filtered-slo-mo-then-really-fast-then-slow-then-normal-speed-then-really-fast-again schtick (and don't forget to randomly zoom in on someone's face so you can see every pore on their forehead or every crease in their lips!). It feels like a Lucasy effort where instead of going back and redoing Natural Born Killers with all the new cool digital toys at his disposal he just made a new one so he could play with them.

The violence didn't bother me, with only two scenes that could be considered excessive. But to be fair, I should say there were indeed some squirmy neighbors in the (90% full) theater. All in all that wasn't the issue - it's just that the general flow of it felt off. it's 20 minutes too long for one, meandering about in the early stages and at times in the middle when it could and should have been a lot tighter. And again that ending. I guess i'll need to let it simmer for a while, but my initial reaction a half hour later is that it had its moments, but in the end was too wishy washy and seemingly self-aware - as though Stone were taking the piss with this one and just fucking around with all the neat little tricks others have utilized in the genre. It's like a Southern California Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels with a bit more style. Some great moments (driving the van to Chula Vista bringing a nice bit of ass-puckering tension), but not enough to tie it all together.

I will say that Benicio Del Toro is fantastic and steals every scene he's in. Travolta is trying too hard, confirming my sense that he's just become a caricature of himself at this point - it was his attempt at Michael Keaton's role in Jackie Brown and it doesn't really work. As the master of the house Salma Hayek was good but not great. The only question I had is: Am I supposed to have the slightest idea who Taylor Kitsch is? I don't even know which of the two guys he was, but i'm guessing the vet? I must have missed whatever TV show he was on, but it was weird how he and Blake Lively seem to have top billing in the opening credits.
Last edited by HistoryProf on Sun Jul 08, 2012 9:09 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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domino harvey
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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#7 Post by domino harvey » Sun Jul 08, 2012 8:51 pm

Taylor Kitsch is one of the much-loved cast members of Friday Night Lights, and because he's gorgeous Hollywood tried to make him a marquee star in John Carter and Battleship, which both notoriously tanked this year. He'll be relegated to support work for a while, I suspect

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HistoryProf
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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#8 Post by HistoryProf » Sun Jul 08, 2012 9:01 pm

ah, okay. I've had FNL in my queue of shows to watch from the start since i've heard really strong things about it. Battleship and John Carter not so much.

Aren't you an avid Devotee of FNL here Domino? It's getting cheap and I keep coming close to pulling the trigger on the first couple of seasons to check it out. I recall watching an episode or two in the first season but then it got lost on whatever night it was aired. Heard nothing but good things about it though, and I love me some Connie Britton.

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domino harvey
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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#9 Post by domino harvey » Sun Jul 08, 2012 9:05 pm

I think on the whole it's among the greatest works of art in recent memory, so kinda. :P I can't really picture someone giving it a fair chance and not liking it-- such a thing seems to be counter-intuitive to being a human being.

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knives
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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#10 Post by knives » Sun Jul 08, 2012 9:06 pm

I actually thought Battleship (made by the same guy who did the FNL movie) was rather decent for one of these big things with a reasonable amount of intelligence. It played out like a slightly dumber Milius film.

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Professor Wagstaff
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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#11 Post by Professor Wagstaff » Sun Jul 08, 2012 9:20 pm

I'll defend Kitsch and John Carter despite some serious flaws in the film. It's a mess, but it's a fascinating and lovingly made one. Kitsch's presence is why I want to see Savages, having more or less given up on Stone some time ago. And HistoryProf, I hope you check out FNL soon. The insights from others on the board have been a pleasure to read. Domino's plug that it's one of the great recent works of art is spot on.
Last edited by Professor Wagstaff on Sun Jul 08, 2012 9:56 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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HistoryProf
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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#12 Post by HistoryProf » Sun Jul 08, 2012 9:54 pm

oh geez...not to derail this even further, but it seems all 5 seasons of FNL are streaming on Netflix. I guess I know what i'm doing for the next couple of weeks. right on.

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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#13 Post by mfunk9786 » Sun Jul 08, 2012 11:15 pm

If you're anything like me, you'll need a few breaks throughout. There's [deceptively] a lot going on.

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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#14 Post by colinr0380 » Mon Jul 09, 2012 4:35 am

Talking about wooden performances, forget about Kitsch - I need to know more about those faux leather recliners!

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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#15 Post by cdnchris » Mon Jul 09, 2012 10:40 am

They have those in an AMC near me as well. They're huge, bulky things, and incredibly comfy. They also recline with a foot stool. Ticket prices are more, I assume since there is less seating (they take up a lot of space) but I'm a fan.

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HistoryProf
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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#16 Post by HistoryProf » Mon Jul 09, 2012 10:54 am

colinr0380 wrote:Talking about wooden performances, forget about Kitsch - I need to know more about those faux leather recliners!
These are the seats:
Image

you see the little black piece on the inside of the far armrest on the 3rd seat? that's how you control the reclining - except I didn't know that..early in the film my keys or something must have pushed it in and I just started reclining. later I wanted to sit up and thought it was manual by pushing the foot rest down but that wasn't working and I was just wrestling with the thing for 5 minutes (in a full theater and no one thought to tell me i just needed to push the damned button). a bit later it just went up by itself - again thanks to my keys after I moved in the seat. Only when the lights went up and I saw others pushing the button to reset theirs did I figure it out.

A cautionary tale for you all...

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Brian C
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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#17 Post by Brian C » Thu Jul 12, 2012 11:57 am

I was pleasantly surprised by this film, and I think that Stone and his writers have done an excellent job of figuring out who their characters are, surveying their circumstances, and put together a very strong narrative around them. It's being marketed as pretty much a straight-up exploitative thrill-ride, but over and over, I thought the story moved into directions that the logic of the situations demanded, and really showed an understanding of basic character motives that extended pretty much across the board.

Its primary weakness is a poor decision to build the story around the Lively character's narration, which was tedious at worst and superfluous at best. I'm not a reflexive voice-over narration basher, but she's the least interesting character in the film in most ways, or at least has the least direct influence on events, and honestly doesn't seem like a very deep soul either way.

But most of the film is excellent. Aaron Johnson is a particular surprise. He was so dull in Kick-Ass, but he has arguably the most complicated role in the film, simultaneously the one with the best-developed conscience and the most in denial about who he is and what he does. It's a fascinating portrayal, and the filmmakers might have been better served to build the story around him than Lively.

I also loved Travolta, which again was a pleasant surprise. His character reminded me of Nic Cage's in Lord of War in some ways, particularly in how they're the ones who keep the fires of conflict burning msotly from the sidelines. Travolta plays Dennis as something like comic relief, but in a weird way Dennis keeps the movie grounded in the real world, because the "war on drugs" could never sustain itself without guys like him propping it up. Not that Stone has made a devastating critique of drug policy or a grand social statement or anything, but it gives the movie resonance beyond the events of the film.

Which, as John Cope said, brings us to the already much maligned ending of Savages.
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I, for one, was actually relieved when the "unhappy ending" turned out not to be the real one, because it was such a familiar shootout scenario that it felt like a letdown to me. The "happy" ending, meanwhile, didn't really seem so happy to me - all that came of it is that the three protagonists went into hiding like they had planned anyway, and were likely in some semi-permanent limbo, while the drug war around them kept right on going as if nothing had changed.

Besides which, the narrative had already laid the foundation for the "happy" ending; short of everyone arbitrarily dying, like in the previous fake ending, there wasn't any other way for it to go. Of course Dennis would turn the situation to his advantage, and of course Ben would have an out - this had already been established, and it made perfect sense given who these characters are.

It only seems like a copout to me if one takes the view that any happy ending is a copout. Would it have been better if Stone had gone straight to that ending instead of the fakeout? It's hard to say. In some ways, I appreciated the attempt to dramatize O's fear and hopelessness, but again, O is not a very compelling character, and I'm not sure the gambit is entirely successful. But that's a different issue to me than simply dismissing the happy ending.

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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#18 Post by Murdoch » Sun Jul 15, 2012 2:34 pm

I saw this last night and in regards to the ending:
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I thought the unhappy faux-ending shootout was Stone's nod to the Shakespearean tragedies he referenced - Lively being named Ophelia, the line about Henry VIII or Henry V. It seemed a wink at the audience expecting this to play out in a Hamlet-like manner of having a climactic battle which leaves all the central characters dead, complete with the reveal of Del Toro as the traitor and the rekindling of love between Hayek and her daughter. Which further supports Cope's argument for the banality of these events as in the actual ending the closure brought about by the fake ending is removed. Sure, Hayek goes to jail and the protagonist trio escape to paradise, but with Del Toro now at the reigns and Travolta a media darling there's the sense that the pretty three protagonists were just active spectators, they engaged for a short time with the gruesome underbelly but they now go on their merry way and the drug trade continues to be run by a despicable thug. It may be a happy ending for the leads, but overall their place within the chaos is minute, their weed becoming a thing of myth with their involvement in the trade all but forgotten.
Overall this was a decent movie, the run-time I thought went by quickly and I'd be hard-pressed to pick out a bad performance. Lively and Kitsch's characters didn't have much depth - the angry, violent veteran and the pretty rich girl ingenue - but it didn't hurt the movie except when Lively would wax poetic on her relationship with the two guys. But Del Toro, Travolta, and Hayek provided a welcome alternative to the young-blood leads and I liked how the film focused as much on Del Toro, et. al. as it did on Kitsch and company.

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Re: Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012)

#19 Post by davebert » Thu Jul 19, 2012 2:34 pm

I would just like to add to the discussion that the film includes both a serious use of the word "wargasm," and that the ending also includes "I looked up the word savage in the dictionary..."

So there's that.

(Also, I think this film references its title more times than any in recent memory.)

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