SAVAGES (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal and Grisly Violence, some Graphic Sexuality, Nudity, Drug Use and Language throughout

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Directed by: Oliver Stone

Written by: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow & Oliver Stone

(based on the novel SAVAGES by Don Winslow)

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro & John Travolta

SAVAGES sounds like it has all the makings of a stellar crime-thriller. Controversial director Oliver Stone is behind the camera and using ingredients of drugs, violence and gangsters all blended into a film that could have and should have been great. In a sad turn of events, SAVAGES is not great. It’s not even good. Instead, this is an utter disappointment that suffers from a mixed bag cast of characters and messy pacing in spite of stylish sensibilities. This is a basic, run-of-the-mill kidnapping thriller.

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Chon and Ben are two dope-dealing best friends who share the same girlfriend, Ophelia. A particularly unique type of marijuana has turned these up-and-coming dealers into wealthy criminals. Ben handles the peaceful business side of things, while Chon takes care of the violence that occasionally arises in their highly illegal line of work. Meanwhile, Ophelia doesn’t do much except for smoking weed, having sex and lying around in the sun. When Ben and Chon are approached by the cartel and a highly questionable business deal goes bad, Ophelia is kidnapped by cartel leader Elena and vicious enforcer Lado. Together, Chon and Ben must use their brains and brawn to take down the crazed cartel and save their mutual girlfriend.

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The cast of characters is a combination of good and bad. Benicio Del Toro is great as Lado, a fearless thug who delights in every single one of his sick actions. John Travolta also gives one of his better performances of the last few years as a crooked DEA agent. Even though he’s a minor character in the grand scheme of things, Travolta adds much-needed talent to this movie. Selma Hayek is only okay as Elena. She is an intimidating villainess at points in the film, but there’s also a forced attempt to flesh out her character as a loving mother struggling to have a relationship with her daughter. At least, Hayek’s cartel leader has far more development than any of the three protagonists. Taylor Kitsch comes off as a bland tough guy and Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays laughably silly hippie. Meanwhile, Blake Lively doesn’t do much save for play a damsel in distress, look pretty and give an irritating voice over throughout the film. The stuff she’s describing is happening right before our eyes too, so there’s really no need for it to begin with.

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Oliver Stone directs SAVAGES with style and a slick look. There are definitely well-executed scenes on display, but they’re bogged down with pacing that drags for too long before arriving at any of the exciting stuff. Since the characters aren’t well-developed to begin with, that leaves us with almost an hour of screen time before Ophelia even gets kidnapped. By the time that happens, one might expect the film to pick up drastically. You would be wrong, because the action scenes and revenge moments are few and far between. There’s an appropriately savage vibe to the violence on display (things get gory and downright brutal) which is a good thing given what this story is about. However, the conclusion is a huge cop-out! This felt like an ending that cheated the viewer in every possible way. The final moments are dishonest and out-of-place.

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SAVAGES might have been a great, rip-roaring thriller if it had the right script and cast behind it. Instead, this comes off like a pretty standard by-the-numbers B-flick that underwhelms. Style, gruesome violence, a few good scenes as well as Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta aren’t enough to save this film from mediocre writing, a really stupid ending, poor characters, and bland performances. SAVAGES is strictly a middle-of-the-road effort.

Grade: C

THE GUEST (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language, some Drug Use and a scene of Sexuality

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Directed by: Adam Wingard

Written by: Simon Barrett

Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelley, Leland Orser & Lance Reddick

Adam Wingard is a director whose projects either hit or miss. I was not a fan of his early films (HOME SICK and POP SKULL), but I’ve grown an appreciation for him thanks to a rise in quality and a knack for Simon Barrett (his constant screenwriter) putting a unique spin on old movie tropes. Their unconventional serial killer film, A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE, and simply balls-to-the-wall entertaining YOU’RE NEXT are both great. The duo’s segments in V/H/S and V/H/S/2 were genuinely frightening too. THE GUEST is their first foray into thriller territory and the results aren’t quite in the vein that one would expect.

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The Petersons are recovering from the loss of Caleb, a beloved son and sibling to his family, in the Iraq war. Then comes the sudden arrival of David, a charming young man who served in Caleb’s squad. Offering comfort to the mother, a drinking buddy to the father, a protector for Luke (the bullied son) and a watchful guardian for Anna (the rebellious daughter), David becomes everybody’s best friend. However, not all is as it seems. When Anna begins digging into David’s past, it looks like he’s not who he claims to be. In fact, David may be someone whose presence is a danger to the family in many ways.

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The story is executed in two very different styles, depending on which half of the film you’re watching. The former offers an almost Hitchcockian level of set up with some real entertainment value to boot. The latter is where things begin to fall apart at the seams. This isn’t a horror film, much like the ones the duo have become so famous for in the independent scene. Props to Wingard and Barrett for exploring some unfamiliar territory, but that’s no excuse for the level of clichés and silly moments that litter the second half of the film.

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The film has professional production values and sports the least amount of shaky-cam of Adam Wingard’s films (which is usually a pet-peeve of his detractors that I’ve noticed). Some of the action scenes are fairly well done and the build-up in the first half is massively entertaining. That’s about all the positives I can say about THE GUEST, because the script is a mess and the execution is downright bad. There’s no beating around the bush on this one. The explanation of the true identity of David is vaguely given. In another movie this may not have been a problem. However, when so much shit is hitting the fan and the mystery of who he is has been plaguing the audience for the first hour, I find this to be a pretty big problem.

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Then there’s the performances themselves. Again, it depends on which half of the movie you’re viewing. For the former, it’s decent enough. Dan Stevens comes off as a likable stranger harboring something dark inside, as hinted at by the long sinister stares that end a few scenes to ominous music. In the second half though, he goes so far off the edge into over-the-top territory. The same can be said of the other cast members, who either become idiots or annoyances (in the case of Brenden Meyer’s character, Luke) in the latter half of the film.

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My main issue with THE GUEST is that it seems to do a switch-flip in tone halfway through the movie. It’s half Hitchcockian suspense thriller and half predictable action B-flick. The combination doesn’t work well for the film as a whole. It seems as though, despite the superior production values and lack of handheld camera work, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have taken a step backwards in every respect. The ending doesn’t do the film any favors either. This might be a somewhat serviceable effort from a first time director, but from the pair that brought us YOU’RE NEXT and two segments in the V/H/S series, this should have been so much better. It felt like they weren’t trying and gave up entirely by the time a slow-motion shootout was taking place. A disappointment to say the least.

Grade: D+

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