The brutal drug-selling business makes them “Savages”

With Oliver Stone, you know you are not going to be teased with
subtleties. Whether his films are exploring his experiences in
Vietnam, the unanswered questions surrounding a presidential
assassination, the biographies of political leaders and musicians,
the cutthroat world of finances, or the intricacies of professional
football, it is going to be done with a wallop.

In “Savages,” Stone takes a gritty and violent look at the illegal
but thriving world of drug dealing. He starts with the simple
premise: If you are a small but successful drug operation, you can
count on some big-time cartels wanting a piece of your action. And if
you think corporate hostile takeovers are brutal, wait until you see
what these guys do when they want to put on a merger.

This is the case with Ben and Chon, two lifelong Southern
California-based friends and business partners who are a comfortable
fit. Ben (Aaron Johnson from “Kick-Ass” and soon to be seen as Count
Vronsky in “Anna Karenina”) is the brains of the operation with his
expertise in botany and business, producing primo weed and keeping
the money flowing and under the radar. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is the
muscle, yet another veteran of entanglements in the Middle East with
the typical psychological baggage of fighting a war in which the
enemy does not wear uniforms and could be anybody, including very
young people.

Like any business, there is vulnerability and in the case of Ben and
Chon, it is O (Blake Lively). O is short for Ophelia, and she is
living the good life in Laguna Beach with Ben and Chon, intimate with
both. This seems a highly unlikely arrangement, given the emotional
pratfalls that come with such relationships. Not a twinge of
jealously here? Right …

O serves as the voice-over narrator, opening with the tease that
just because she is telling this story does not mean she is alive at
the end.

Ben and Chon have done nicely for themselves — as O brags, they
produce the best weed in the world. And to make it seem like they are
not totally hedonistic, O also notes that Ben is involved in
charitable ventures across the globe and has his hands in trying to
develop clean, renewable energy. Also, their product works wonders in
relieving pain for those with cancer.

This idyllic arrangement is upset when Ben and Chon are ordered –
not asked — to meet with Alex (Demian Bichir, the recent Academy
Award nominee for “A Better Life”). Alex is representing Elena (Salma
Hayek), powerful leader of the Mexican Baja Cartel. Elena, facing the
prospect of a presidential election and competition that could put
the squeeze on her business, wants to set up shop in Southern
California and will not take no for an answer.

When Ben and Chon hesitate in accepting the new business
arrangement, Elena is already moving the chess pieces to gain an
advantage. Her main henchman is Lado (Benicio del Toro), who is
lurking around the periphery of Ben and Chon, and alerts Elena about
O. So naturally, O is kidnapped as leverage to get the two
Californians to not only take the offer but also to stay in line.

Ben and Chon may seem to be at a disadvantage but they have their
resources, including a crooked DEA agent, Dennis (John Travolta,
wickedly slimy), a financial cyberspace wizard, Spin (Emile Hirsch),
and some fellow war vet friends of Chon who are quite handy as
sharpshooters.

Thus the trickery begins. Ben has to sidestep his Buddhism leanings
to get vicious, and once the duo find Elena’s vulnerabilities, the
field becomes more level.

The violence is brutal — this drug business is uncompromising –
and making it more effective is that Stone, working from a script he
co-wrote with Shane Salerno and Don Winslow — the latter who wrote
the book on which “Savages” is based — injects some humanity into
the main characters. Dennis may be on the take, but he is dealing
with a wife dying of cancer and soon will be a widower with two
children. Elena has had her share of tragedies and on top of that she
has a daughter who holds her in little regard.

Stealing the movie, however, is del Toro as Lado. In what has to be
his best performance since winning the Oscar for “Traffic” in 2000,
del Toro serves up a character who can be vicious without conscience,
yet a quivering wreck in the presence of Elena. But he might be the
smartest character in the whole movie. Just when you think you know
where his loyalties lie, you will be tricked — although not entirely
surprised. Lado is despicable but in a way one can almost admire his
drive if not his methods.

Johnson and Kitsch present two characters who, aside from an
unlikely willingness to share O, are convincing as two friends who
probably cannot survive without each other. Kitsch, who has been
seen already this year in two films that are likely to be dubbed
bombs — “John Carter” and “Battleship” — has a physical presence
that should carry him further. Johnson has some prime moments as the
sensitive Ben, driven literally sick to his stomach after violent
encounters that Chon seems to thrive in.

Lively gets a chance to go beyond the usual victim in distress mode.
Initially seen as a one-dimensional character living in the moment
with no thought of consequences, she develops some remarkable
perceptivity. An unusual scene in which O dines with Elena is
especially revealing of both characters, so far apart in cultures yet
in many ways alike in their burning passions.

In the end, Stone throws a curve. Is O alive at the end? Depends on
which climactic scene you believe.

Woody’s latest movie explores love in Rome
I have always said that even a mediocre Woody Allen movie usually is
pretty good. Allen, however, has been cursed by earlier successes and
as always his movies are met with high expectations. The prolific
Allen, who despite being 76 years old still averages one movie per
year, is his own worst enemy. Just about the time it is believed he is
washed up, he makes a strong comeback, thus continuing the cycle of
positive anticipation.

Fresh from his fourth Academy Award for the screenplay of “Midnight
in Paris,” Allen visits another iconic city, Rome, in the naturally
titled “To Rome With Love.” The result is a mixed bag with some truly
classic humor and a few elements that do not work. Admittedly, some of
his characters, mired in self-absorption and neurosis, have grown
tiresome. But Allen still can pull moments of brilliance from
his active mind.

“Rome” is another weaving of storylines that do not intersect but
share the location of this Italian city.

The four plotlines include these characters:

– A young small-town Italian couple, Antonio and Milly (Alessandro
Toberi and Allesandra Mastronardi) arrive in Rome for a honeymoon and
a chance for Antonio to meet with rich relatives for a job offer. But
they get separated and sit-com situations arise.

– A retired classical music recording producer and opera director,
Jerry (Woody Allen), and his wife, Phyllis (Judy Davis), visit Rome to
join their daughter Hayley (Alison Pill), who has fallen in love with
and is engaged to an Italian lawyer, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti).

– A famous architect, John (Alec Baldwin), encounters a younger
architect, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and serves as a devil’s advocate in
the young man’s love conflict between his grounded and ambitious
girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) and her friend Monica (Ellen Page), a
struggling and flighty actress who appears as superficial as she is
cute.

– A common middle class citizen, Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni)
inexplicably finds himself a major celebrity, hounded by paparazzi
and other crazed media types.

The storyline that works best is the one that involves John and
Jack. Allen cleverly hints that John, visiting Rome for the first
time in 30 years, may not exist at all but is a voice of reason and
experience, interposing himself into conversations between Jack and
Monica, raising red flags that Jack acknowledges but concedes are
futile because he is falling in love with Monica.

Allen and Davis play well off each other as the long-married couple
who completely understand each other. Allen does the same character
he’s played for decades, a man whose accomplishments just do not
relieve the dread of his own mortality. The cleverest plot element in
“Rome” takes place in this storyline, as Jerry, upon hearing his
future son-in-law’s father, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), singing in
the shower, becomes obsessed with the idea of having Giancarlo
perform on stage. Problem is, Giancarlo can only sing well while he
is in the shower. So Jerry improvises to overcome this handicap.

The story of the young Italian couple has its moments when Penelope
Cruz, an Oscar winner for her role in Allen’s “Vicky Cristina
Barcelona,” shows up at Antonio’s hotel room, while Milly is lost in
the city. She is Anna, a high-class prostitute sent to Antonio’s room
by mistake. She is then forced to pretend she is Milly as Antonio
goes to meet his relatives. Milly, meanwhile, encounters a movie
superstar sex symbol, Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese), with disastrous
results.

The story of Leopoldo, despite the excellent physical comedy of
Benigni, wears thin quickly. Amid the realistic characters of the
rest of the film, this broad lampooning of celebrity worship is a
jarring deviation of the texture of the movie.

Allen’s movie is pleasant enough, but lacks any standout performance
usually seen in his movies. He still can amuse and entertain, but
these days the misses are outnumbering the hits.

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