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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Savages; The Watch; The Game; Private Hell 36



SAVAGES (Three   Stars)

U. S.: Oliver Stone, 2012  (Universal)


Savages is Oliver Stone’s adaptation of  Don Winslow’s very knowing and very violent crime thriller: a novel about contemporary drug wars in California and Mexico. Like most of Stone’s crime thrillers, it’s full of extreme violence, sex, bloodshed, socio-political expose’ and bizarre humor — the kind of stuff that modern action movies usually try to give us, but executed with more style, punch and political consciousness. I liked it, except for an awful ending that I wish Stone would dump.

The movie, scripted by Stone, Winslow and Shane Salerno. is about an independent marijuana growing operation, run by two yin and yang best buddies — Taylor Kitsch as Chon the tough, cynical Iraq War veteran and Aaron Johnson (of the John Lennon bio-drama Nowhere Boy) as Ben, the gentler, more idealistic botanist/business guy. Their shared blonde girlfriend, rich-kid playgirl Ophelia, or “O,” is played by Blake Lively, who also narrates the movie. And she informs us right away that that just because she’s telling us everything now, it doesn’t mean that she will survive to the end of the story. Like William Holden in Sunset Blvd., O may be narrating from beyond the grave.

These three lead a sort of idyllic hippie-outlaw-rich-druggie existence (like young, successful moviemakers maybe), with lots of money to spend, lots of ganja to smoke, and lots of sheets to muss up — in paradisiacal surroundings on Laguna Beach, drenched in the blazing colors and the lush foliage of beachside life on the Pacific, as shot by cinematographer Dan Mindel. Then their dream world begins to crumble. The guys receive some videos of people who’ve had their heads chain-sawed off: independent growers who unwisely didn’t heed an invitation/warning to join up with a powerful Mexican drug cartel run by a sultry-looking, cold-blooded boss-lady named Elena (Salma Hayek), her ruthless, sleepy-eyed chief enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro). and her mob mouthpiece (Demian Bichir).

These three — along with John Travolta as a balding, pudgy two-faced snake of a Drug Enforement Agency agent named Dennis — make up one of the most entertaining sets of movie villains in recent memory. Especially Del Toro — who’s so damned scary that you can’t take your eyes off him — unless it‘s to look at Salma, or unless it‘s to marvel at how seedy Travolta and his make-up men have made Dennis.

But the kids have their moments. Chon, the cynic, doesn’t really trust any outsiders, and especially not Elena‘s crew. Ben, the dreamer, trusts too many people and wants to retire anyway. So they take a little too long answering the cartel‘s offer, and Lado gets trigger-happy. The war is on — and eventually Elena and Lado have one hostage (O) and Ben and Chon have another: Elena’s daughter Magda (Sandra Echevarria). And we’re all set up for a final showdown and maybe even a Rio Bravo-style hostage exhange. Except that this is a meaner story and it has a meaner ending…SPOILER ALERT

…. Or to be more precise, it has two endings: One mean, one sappy. (The endings are connected by a kind of backtrack device that may have been partly inspired by the rewind scene in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games.) That second “happy” ending really hurts the picture, which should have finished right where Winslow’s book did. But Stone, unaccountably (it’s hard to believe Winslow would have wanted this) has made the same mistake he made in Natural Born Killers — trying to clean up a down-and-dirty, violent, terrifying ending that would be much better if he left it down and dirty.


Like most of Stone’s better movies — Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers, Any Given Sunday (as well as his best scripts for others, Midnight Express and Scarface, ) Savages shows an American Dream (of sorts) taking an edgy dive into an American Nightmare. And it’s written and directed with wild bursts of energy and eroticism and savagery, wrapped around a vision of the dark side of American and Mexican life, with a crime-thriller plot that explodes on screen like a tabloid bomb. Here, he seems to be  in the kind of territory he knows and does best, with a cast that can deliver the goods. And they do. At least the vets. Now, if only we could talk Stone into getting rid of that second ending…


THE WATCH (Two Stars)

U.S.: Akiva Schaffer, 2012 (2oth Century Fox)

Somehow, the other night, I found myself in this movie called The Watch — and, let me tell you, it was a chore, a bore, a genuine nightmare. Nothing made sense. Everything was ridiculous. I kept wanting to leave, but I couldn’t, because I had to write about it.

In the movie — which was first called Neighborhohod Watch, then changed after the Trayvon Martin case for reasons of bad taste (Taste? This movie) — the world was invaded by bloodthirsty extraterrestrial monsters and our only defenders were four hopeless idiots in an amateur suburban neighborhood watch, who kept trying to be funny and failing miserably. The entire show, seemed to be an attempt to put Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and a British comedian named Richard Ayoade (pronounced ai-yo-wah-de) — together in a big dumb funny, trigger-happy comedy with a lot of guns and blood and guts and dirty jokes about penises. But all they seemed to be able to manage was the big and dumb and trigger-happy and blood and guts and penises parts. Funny somehow eluded them.

The plot was borrowed (sloppily) from Invasion of the Body Snatchers  and bits and pieces of every goofball-buddy comedy you can think of — with Stiller, Vaughn, Hill and Ayoade behaving as if they were all trapped in a misfiring “Saturday Night Live” sketch that never ended. (But should have.) Star Stiller played the standard Ben Stiller part of Evan, a troubled suburban schmo in “Glenview, Ohio,” here trying and failing to have a baby with wife Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), and later ignoring her even when she dresses up like a lingerie ad. Does he need a machismo injection?  Evan manages the local Costco warehouse store, where one night the night watchman Guzman (Luis Nunoz), who just became an American citizen, gets killed, skinned and splattered by some mysterious maniac, probably from outer space. Since the police are mysteriously unhelpful, Evan decides to harangue the local high school football game and put up posters and recruit some neighbors for a neighborhood watch — excuse me, a watch.

Anyway, three civic-spirited chaps, all seemingly strangers to Evan, though they live nearby, show up at his house: Vaughn in the standard Vince Vaughn part of Bob, a fast-talking Good Time Charlie, who just wants to hang out with the guys; Hill in a standard Jonah Hill part as sullen Franklin, a would-be cop who flunked his tests and has his own private gun collection; and Ayoade, an amiable British TV star who does relatively little except smile engagingly, do reaction shots, make one weird confession and wait for all the good reviews he’s getting from reviewers who have seen his apparently very funny British TV shows and films. (I haven’t.)

The movie begins by trying to get us to laugh (maybe) at Evan’s sexual dysfunction and at horror night at Costco and fast-talking macho Bob and all the penis reference, then tries to bring on an alien invasion, part of a sinister conspiracy to snatch human bodies and conquer the earth. But these guys mostly won’t call the police or the FBI or the government or the Army, no matter how bloody and awful things get, maybe because the one cop Evan does talk to — Will Forte as sarcastic Sgt. Bressman — has a bad attitude. Instead they run around the neighborhood peeking through bushes and staking out the Costco parking lot and arguing about the beers Bob brought, and otherwise acting like four doofuses who’ll do anything to try to milk a laugh. (So will the space aliens, who turn out, perhaps inevitably for this movie, to have their brains in their penises.)

One thing (among many) wrong here: These vigilantes get too easily distracted. Bob is prone to running off in the middle of crucial moments, to try to keep his teen daughter Chelsea (Erin Moriarty) out of the hands of the local high school stud. At one point, they find an outer space bazooka and start firing it off (without any instructions), blasting vehicles and trees and other targets. Nobody complains about this shooting spree or tries to stop it, or mentions it afterwards.

Then there’s Evan’s very friendly across-the-street neighbor, played incognito by Billy Crudup — who seems to be trying to invite him over for some kind of orgy, probably (but not definitely) sexual. Crudup, who doesn’t take a credit, delivers the best performance in the movie, if not the best orgy. Maybe they all should have demanded anonymity, including…


Akiva Schaffer (“S.N.L.”), the director.


That goes triple for the writers. The biggest problems with most failed Hollywood comedies these days are the crummy scripts The Watch has one of the crummier ones. It was manufactured by Jared Stern (The Princess and the Frog) and Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad), but however they divided up the labor here, it’s a lousy, lazy job.

In fact I can only think of one logical explanation for this screenplay  and that‘s that, before these three guys started writing it, monstrous aliens from outer space burst into their working rooms, took their places and wrote the script themselves, maybe with their penises — as part of a sinister conspiracy to befuddle moviegoers, and then, while everybody was wandering around dazed, conquer the earth. Maybe they already have.

No Extras 


THE GAME (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)

U.S.: David Fincher, 1997 (Criterion Collection)

Watching David Fincher’s The Game, at its best and worst, is a bit like being trapped in a sentient computer program that keeps spitting you out into one false reality after another — which is to say it’s a cyber-nightmare for the 1990s and beyond. It’s a suspense drama with great technique and serious themes: It’s about the ways our perceptions have been altered by the electronic and cybernetic ages, and it’s also about the ways we experience, perceive or misperceive life, as through a computer-screen or TV screen, darkly.

The Game, which came out in 1997 disguised as Michael Douglas yuppie chiller, is a cyber-shocker and a paranoid fantasy and a dark, dark comedy: a Kafka-cum-Philip Dick chronicle of the wild, weird ride of a rich San Francisco investment banker named Nicholas Van Orton (Douglas) who, on his 48th birthday ( a birthday fraught with significance for him, but seemingly ignored by the rest of his world), is suddenly plunged into an escalating nightmare that might be real, a fantasy, a manufactured game, or all three.

The ride begins when Van Orton sita down in posh environs with his black sheep brother Conrad (Sean Penn), who gives him, as a birthday present, his ticket to the game, and then leaves him in the clutches of the game-masters. That would be a company blandly called Consumer Recreation Services, represented by the skeletal and salesman-like Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn, perfectly cast). As we understand it, Nick is now going to be precipitated into “an experiential book-of-the-month club, in which he will seem to be living a life and having adventures that have been planned and staged especially for him. These events will seem real, even seem dangerous, but Van Orton will still maintain control.  He can exit The Game any time he wants.

No, he can’t — which is the only one of the rude shocks what will come down on him like an experiential avalanche. The point of the Game, it soon becomes clear, is to take everything away from him, hurl him into the abyss, and leave him a running man with the whole world against him. So, soon Van Orton will be pursued by seeming killers, chased by malevolent cars, get on the wrong side of the law, find his life and home a shambles, pick up a sort of unknown heroine (the knifelike Deborah Kara Unger as Christine), and flirt with vertigo and fear of falling on a skyscraper’s edge — all on his 48th birthday. Its significance? It was on his father’s 48th birthday, that his dad committed suicide.

Is that what awaits Van Orton? Only his brother Conrad and Consumer Recreation Services know for sure — as well as all the people hired by CRS to take part in his Game, which, for all he knows, for all we know, could be everybody in the world.

The script, by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, could be better, but it’s good enough. And the whole thing is smashingly well done, if not especially emotionally affecting. Moviegoers with a taste for David Fincher’s films usually prefer Se7en, Fight Club, The Social Network and maybe The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, of all his movies. The Game, by contrast. is sometimes dismissed as a typical formula techno-thriller — and, in a way, it is. But that is part of the game too, as David Sterritt notes in his appreciative, excellent Criterion essay, where he also argues that The Game is one of the most personal and accomplished of all Fincher’s projects. If we see the show as a parable of moviemaking and movie-going, that may be true too. .

What Van Orton goes through here is something like a movie, and the fact that it’s all been calculated and planned, supposedly for his entertainment, heightens the resemblance. — as well as the fact that Nick is a movie star (Michael Douglas), type-cast, surrounded by a group of actors who are likewise type-cast (Penn, Unger, Rebhorn, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Carroll Baker) living through a movie that we’ve sort of seen before or feel we have, albeit one full of wickedly predictable twists and turns, all at the service of a nightmare that keeps pulling us deeper and occasionally thumbing its nose at us. Jefferson Airplane‘s Lewis Carrollesque “White Rabbit‘ (Gracie Slick singing “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small…) is its signature tune, and the movie most often cited within The Game is the Judy GarlandMervyn LeRoyVictor Fleming Wizard of Oz.

Fincher compares his own movie to Oz, The Sting and The Twilight Zone — and it‘s one of those Rod Serlingesque fables, of mad worlds and come-uppance, that his picture most resembles. Those of course, were stories that played dreams as if they were real, madness as it were sanity, and life as if it were a puzzle and a game, with a surprise ending. So….Happy Birthday, Nicholas Van Orton. You’re 48. Here’s your ticket. Remember, it’s not whether you win or lose….

Extras: Commentary by Fincher, Douglas, Brancato, Ferris, cinematographer Harris Savides, and four of The Game’s visual experts; Behind-the-scenes footage; Storyboard-to-film comparisons of four major set-pieces, with commentary; Trailer and teaser; Booklet with Sterritt essay.


PRIVATE HELL 36 (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Don Siegel, 1954 (Olive)

A cop gone bad (Steve Cochran), discontent with his ill-paid lot, pulls his straight arrow partner/pal (Howard Duff) out into the cold with him, when they find a satchelful of loot and the bad cop decides the hell with honesty, they should keep most of it. Also in on the morally sticky action are the film’s sometimes brilliant co-producer-writer Ida Lupino, as Cochran’s shrewd night club singer girlfriend, radiant Dorothy Malone as Duff’s empathetic wife, fatherly Dean Jagger as the cops’ perceptive boss, and nervous King Donovan as a junkie burglar.

Here’s a crisp, smart, neatly done little black-and-white crime drama that, with all that talent, and that cast, feels as if it should have been much better than it is. It’s not bad though. Private Hell 36 isn’t first rate, but it’s not a waste of time. Perhaps Lupino, who was working here with ex-husband Collier Young, producer-partner on her now revered ’50s directorial efforts, should have directed the picture herself. The movie feels a bit more like drama, even domestic drama, than a thriller.

Siegel can be a genius with ‘50s “B” material, like The Lineup and Riot in Cell Block 11, and Private Hell 36 may simply not have enough juice to get him going, or enough dark comedy and dark psychology. The film could also have used more scenes and interaction between Lupino and Duff, who married in 1951, costarred on TV in “Mr. Adams and Eve.” and who, until they divorced in 1973, were a smart, sharp-tongued Hollywood couple with lots of chemistry, onscreen and off.

Maybe I simply expect too much from Siegel. But we should. After all, he’s the guy who directed Dirty Harry and Charley Varrick.

No extras.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon