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Monday, June 17, 2013

Savages Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Three-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone returns to the screen with the ferocious thriller Savages, based on Don Winslow’s bestselling crime novel, one of The New York Times’ Top 10 Books of 2010.  Laguna Beach entrepreneurs Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) raise and sell some of the best marijuana ever developed, while sharing a one-of-a-kind love with the extraordinary beauty Ophelia (Blake Lively).  Their idyllic life is shattered when the Mexican Baja Cartel demands that the trio partner with them.  But the cartel’s merciless boss, Elena (Salma Hayek), and her brutal enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), underestimate the unbreakable bonds among these three friends.  Ben and Chon—with the reluctant, slippery assistance of a dirty DEA agent (John Travolta)—launch a seemingly unwinnable war against the drug lords that escalates into a savage, high-stakes battle of wills.

Film (3 out of 5 stars) 

Savages is a nasty story about a trio of damaged people who end up taking on a drug cartel to save their own pot growing business and their own lives.  This movie is kind of a sun-drenched follow-up to Oliver Stone’s earlier work on Scarface.  This time, the drugs aren’t as hard, but it’s just as brutal and gritty as his former film was.  This bloody war is contrasted by the beautiful locations it was filmed it which provides a strange dichotomy between the two. The story behind the movie is pretty slight but the movie is immeasurably helped by the talented cast that Stone assembled for the film.
This story about two independent pot growers, militant Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and his hippie best friend Ben (Aaron Johnson) have a successful marijuana business that was kickstarted by the seeds that Chon brought back with him from his deployment in Afghanistan.  Ben is a scientific genius who has created several potent and popular strains that have brought them riches, houses, cars, and a shared girlfriend named Ophelia (Blake Lively) who likes to go by “O”.   The two men are such good friends that neither minds O sleeping with both of them.  For Chon, their business is just that – business.  But for Ben, it’s also a way for him to do philanthropic work throughout the world.
Their happy existence ends when they receive a disturbing video that show a group of chained men that have had their heads severed by a chainsaw.  It’s an opening negotiation tactic by Mexican cartel enforces Lado (Benicio del Toro) to show them that they mean business.  Lado is the front man for his cartel that’s run by Elena (Salma Hayek) who wants not only Chon and Ben’s strains, but also the knowledge of how they run their business.  A meeting is set up between the two camps and Chon and Ben refuse the cartel’s offer, which does not go over well with the cartel.
In an effort to learn just what they are going up against, Chon and Ben meet with a corrupt DEA agent named Dennis (John Travolta) who tells them to take the deal before things get out of control.  His warning proves correct when the cartel kidnaps O which puts Chon and Ben on the warpath.  Chon enlists the help of some of his former Navy SEAL friends and they retaliate against the cartel by ambushing Elena’s men and killing seven of them.  They also frame Elena’s negotiator (Demian Birchir) for the ambush which starts making Elena paranoid enough to order Lado to torture her own man to learn if it’s true.  The war between the two camps escalates even further and Elena learns the hard way that playing hardball can work both ways.
Savages is well acted and a beautiful film to look at (minus the brutality) and it clearly shows how an eye for an eye can ruin everyone and turn them into actual savages.  This should have been Taylor Kitsch’s year with a huge starring role in John Carter that should have been bigger than it was, and with this film with his strong performance as a follow-up.  He’s very good here as the no nonsense Chon and it’s easy to see that he could have future in action films if he wants to.  Aaron Johnson is also good as the peace loving Ben who is forced to grow up and become a lot harder to save O.  I almost didn’t recognize him as he looks much older than he did in Kick-Ass.  Blake Lively is also good as the happy-go-lucky O who comes out of the war far worse than Chon and Ben because of her ordeal.
The rest of the great supporting cast are excellent in their roles with John Travolta providing some laughs as the greedy agent and Benicio del Toro once again playing one of his familiar bad guy roles well even if we’ve seen him do similar roles before.  Hayek is fine as the ruthless Elena but isn’t entirely convincing as someone who can keep the psychopathic Lado in check.  The script is fairly slight but Stone keeps the viewers attention with the escalating nastiness.  The movie would have been stronger if Stone hadn’t bungled the ending by trying to do something clever that just backfires in a big way.  The movie never recovers from that point on and it mangles the ending to a strong act two that was going well.  I won’t spoil what happens at the end but it was a bad idea and one that leaves a bad last impression of the movie.

Video (5 out of 5 stars) 

This 1080p (2:40.1) transfer looks amazing and it really adds a whole new level of enjoyment of the movie for me. The southern California locations just pop off the screen with their varied vibrant colors.  From the inviting blue water of the ocean to Chon’s colorful Hawaiian shirts, this transfer just looks gorgeous.  Detail in this movie is also extremely impressive and during the many close-ups peppered throughout this movie, you can see every pore, hair, and blemish on the actors’ faces.  The flesh tones look natural and consistent and the black levels are suitably dark and solid. You can see Oliver Stone’s love for the atmosphere and climate of Laguna Beach in this transfer as he and cinematographer Dan Mindel have captured it all so well.

Audio (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

Savage’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is also impressive but not quite on the level of its video quality.  Dialogue is clear and clean with none of the actors’ lines being drowned out by the sound of gunfire, explosions, chainsaws, etc. The rear channels also provide some nice ambiance that perfectly captures the laid back southern California lifestyle of Chon and Ben, with the ocean waves breaking on the beach and the sounds of the environment all around. There’s also a lossless Dolby Digital 2.0 mix as well for those people that would prefer that.

Extras (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

Universal has provided a couple of options to view the film in this combo pack as there’s the Blu-ray, a DVD, and a digital copy of the film, as well as two versions of the film – the theatrical cut that played in theaters and the unrated version that offers more violence and some more character moments.  All of the extras are in high definition.
  • Deleted Scenes - There’s sixteen minutes of deleted scenes included and while some are interesting, none of them are important enough to bemoan them from being cut from the finished film.
  • Stone Cold Savages - Over thirty minutes long, this five part series covers the making of the film and its look with plenty of comments from Stone.  This is the best extra on the set in my opinion as it allows access to Stone’s thoughts, ambitions, and intentions for the film.
  • Feature Commentary with Director Oliver Stone – If the five part look behind the scenes didn’t satiate your thirst for more knowledge about the film, then this commentary track might help.  Stone is a relaxed presence here and he talks about the film and what went on during the making of it.  He doesn’t talk non-stop, but it is interesting and informative.
  • Feature Commentary – Here’s another commentary but this time it’s with Producers Eric Kopeloff and Moritz Borman, Co-Screenwriter/Novelist Don Winslow, Executive Producer/Co-Screenwriter Shane Salerno and Production Designer Tomas Voth.  With this many people involved there’s no dead air which keeps this track moving quickly.  It’s interesting to hear Don Winslow’s thoughts on the movie since he wrote the novel that the film is based on and co-wrote the script.

Summary (4 out of 5 stars) 

I liked Savages but I think it could have been even better if Stone had reined himself in a little bit more and cut down on the non-stop brutality and not tried to add an unnecessary twist at the end of the movie that actually hurts the movie.  This Blu-ray on the other hand is easy to recommend with its excellent video and audio quality.  I wish that more extras had been included, but what is here is interesting and informative. The film’s cast is also a great selling point as this eclectic cast are all good in their roles, even if some of them could probably play these roles in their sleep.
Order your copy today!

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