Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

                 Take Me Home, Country Roads
                                       Review by Ken Burke
A unique combination of gritty realism and the fantastic in this simple, allegory-like tale of forgotten, defiant people on society's margins, enduring a Noah-worthy flood.
            When I first began to hear about Beasts of the Southern Wild it conjured up associations with other stories that resonate with what director Behn Zeitlin and co-writers Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar are exploring in their tale of an isolated Louisiana community beset by a natural disaster as told through the eyes and imagination of a very young child, wise beyond her years due to her daily struggles for survival in this land beyond the levee.  The first thing I thought of was Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, another story of an outcast collective with this one set in the Florida Everglades beset by the powerful 1928 Okeechobee hurricane where protagonist Janie Crawford, granddaughter of a slave, and her husband, Tea Cake, endure the damaging weather but not the storm of aftermath events that lead to his death and her eventual acquittal for murder (adapted as a TV movie in 2005 by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, directed by Darnell Martin, starring Halle Berry, a version of Hurston’s story as maligned in its time for overemphasis on erotic romanticism as the novel was in its day, even by many Harlem Renaissance writers and critics, as too laden with backwoods sensuality and dialect—although now it is praised for the honesty of those very qualities and is lauded as a great work of American literature).  There’s none of the magical aspects in this book as you’ll find in Zeitlin’s film, but there’s clearly the parallel of being embedded in a rural Southern community that has only passing interest in the outside world.
            Another pre-screening association to Beasts of the Southern Wild for me is Julie Dash’s mesmerizing 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust, in which the extended Peazant family living in their Gullah heritage on the islands off the Georgia/South Carolina coast tears apart at the turn of the 20th century, as many of them decide that it’s time to leave the security of their Ibo Landing home and migrate north into mainstream U.S. civilization, although the aged matriarch and a few others remain behind to preserve their West African heritage, mixed with decades of the stain of slavery (just as those of the family who process native indigo dye for sale to the outside world live with permanent purple stain on their hands) whether they are somewhat recently-freed from bondage or are descended from escaped refugees, living in the sand and salt-water marshes of these ignored islands, spinning myths about ancestors who rejected their imposed fate by walking across the ocean back to their African homeland.  Not only do the Peazants live in a world separated from the mainland and the larger culture that they are peripheral to, just as do the citizens of the outlying district known as The Bathtub in Beasts of the Southern Wild, but their narrative is presented with the same mysterious, magical happenings as we find with Beasts’ young protagonist Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her rendering of an apocalypse where lumbering monsters are on the march to bring about our final destruction.  Both of these films are also narrated by a child, although Hushpuppy is the centerpiece of her own story while the yet-Unborn Child (Kai-Lynn Warren) in Daughters of the Dust is speaking to us from an ambiguous place between past, present, and future and is known only as a ghostly presence to a few in the poetic narrative that she presents of her large soon-to-be cluster of relations.
            Other associations with Beasts of the Southern Wild would certainly be the horned critters in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (book first published in 1963; Spike Jonze film adaptation released in 2009), with its version of a child’s imagination informing a journey from a stable but unsettled home into a mystical land of wonder and terror, and the recent film Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011), where tormented Curtis (Michael Shannon—robbed in my opinion of a Best Actor Oscar nomination because his nuanced performance could easily have replaced George Clooney for The Descendants [Alexander Payne] or Brad Pitt for Moneyball [Bennett Miller]) has premonitions of an oncoming natural disaster that leads everyone around him (including those of us watching Curtis on screen) to fear for his sanity, until the unsettling conclusion where a storm of unmitigated proportions looms off the Atlantic coast offering a calamity possibly not as absolute as in Lars von Trier’s 2011 Earth-ending Melancholia (see my review in the December 12, 2011 posting if you like) but certainly a life-changer, as is the hurricane that devastates Hushpuppy’s Bathtub home in Beasts of the Southern Wild.  It may not have been Zeitlin‘s intention to craft a lyrical realism study of economically-challenged folks living and dying on the edge of imminent disaster with so many clear connections to similar expressions across many years of American culture, but that’s how I was primed to perceive this film even before I got into the theatre.  Once there I was as equally mesmerized by his rendition of these magical, tragic, and life-affirming events as I had been previously by their various predecessors as I journeyed again through familiar territory—not just from the literary and filmic antecedents noted above but also from the locale of a community teetering on what easily becomes an island at best or a lagoon in more disastrous times when the tides rise during tropical storms.
            Like the residents of The Bathtub, I also grew up on the Gulf Coast, on the large island of Galveston, TX (a place ironically featured in a novel I’m now reading, Philip Carter’s Altar of Bones [2011], with my childhood church, Sacred Heart, as the location for the murder of a priest, which, of course, has nothing to do with any of my own precious childhood thoughts), where I was on the safe side of a levee (the 20 ft. seawall) that largely protects the city from the onslaught of hurricane-churned waves after the great disaster of 1900 washed virtually everything away and prompted a barrier against the watery forces of nature, but that still doesn’t stop a hurricane’s high winds nor the backwash from the bay nor tornadoes that come screaming from the skies, as with Carla in 1962 or the even worse Ike in 2008.  I lived several times through the onslaught of rampaging forces such as the ones that pound The Bathtub in Beasts of the Southern Wild, allowing me to fully understand the peril felt by Hushpuppy and her neighbors as well as appreciate the resilience of the survivors after the storm has passed.  (Another parallel for me was the presence of an oil refinery on the “civilized” side of Hushpuppy’s levee, just as I could feel a bit more kinship to being in The Bathtub when looking [or smelling] across Galveston Bay that separated me from the Texas City mainland where a number of refineries sent their noxious odors toward us every time the wind took a wrong turn; unlike Hushpuppy or her community I was neither female, black, nor dirt-poor so I can see how they’d see me as living behind the isolating levee, but when I think back on the Galveston-Texas City dichotomy I can also get a bit of a sense of The Bathtub’s isolation, especially when our hurricanes roared through, preventing last-minute evacuation by bridge or ferry and where many of our residents were fierce “B.O.I.”’s [Born on the Island] just as willingly entrenched in their homes as were Hushpuppy’s extended family and as proud of their uniqueness as were her neighbors who would rather drown than leave.)
            Hushpuppy herself is an embodiment of resilience, as even at her tender age she must deal with a departed mother that she can’t find when her father’s illness escalates, a father who has her best interests at heart but can’t properly care for her in his weakened physical state, an environment where poverty would be a step up from The Bathtub’s current socioeconomic condition, and an ongoing vision of impending doom that minimizes the harsh-enough realities of all that is immediately challenging in her life.  That Wallis is able to convey all this through natural abilities rather than any formal acting training is remarkable for a person of any age, let alone a pre-grammar-school girl left to her own devices for much of the film as both the hurricane (not specified as Katrina, despite the New Orleans proximity of the setting but clearly indicative of that horrible chapter in Louisiana history) and the wild beast aurochs of either her imagination or our prophesized end come closer to terminating all human life in The Bathtub (and elsewhere?).  Yet, she remains true to her central philosophy that “The whole world depends on everythin’ fittin’ together just right,” which drives her on to forge that fit, especially in getting help—magic more so than medicine—when her father desperately needs it (as with Chicago [Rob Marshall, 2002] where you can either view the depicted environment as a place where song and dance are just as natural in a jail cell and a courtroom as on a stage or that most of the musical numbers are mental enhancements of mundane reality by Roxie Hart [Renée Zellweger], it’s intentionally unclear in Beasts of the Southern Wild whether the apocalyptic implications are fantastically literal or simply alive in Hushpuppy’s mind and made seemingly literal on screen so that we can do a mass Vulcan mind-meld with her).  She even seems to be working off the guilt of bringing on his demise as we see in one scene where in her anger at him (as a response to his anger at her for burning down part of their dilapidated trailer home) she gives him a shove that seems to kill him (as if her emotions become physical manifestations, like with Tita [Lumi Cavazos] in another lyrical realism classic, the sensuous Like Water for Chocolate [Alfonso Arau, 1992]).  However, nothing is necessarily as it may look in this film, so Dad isn’t dead but does inconsistently appear at times in a hospital gown, indicating his growing illness which Hushpuppy tries to cure through an unproductive quest to locate her long-gone mother.  This seems to all be connected to shots of icebergs melting (not anyone’s fantasy; I just read this morning about a chunk of a Greenland glacier the size of San Francisco, about 49 square miles, falling away into the ocean because of warmer temperatures near the Arctic Circle than other places on the globe [!]) and the huge musk-ox/warthog-like beasts lumbering closer to Louisiana, even as the winds and clouds also gather for their own assault.
            Hushpuppy’s seemingly not the only one who interacts with a magical world in Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Her mother is described by her father as being so hot that she could make water boil simply by walking near the pot (obviously an option as a sexual metaphor, but in this film you shouldn’t assume anything is merely metaphorical), while Daddy—or as adults know him, Wink (Dwight Henry, another impactful amateur, which is making this film sound more like aspects of the Italian classic The Bicycle Thief [Vittorio de Sica, 1948] all the time, although you won’t find much magic in that one unless you believe that Antonio stumbling onto the thief just after he sees the seer was really the result of her “prophecy” rather than just an unanticipated, lucky coincidence in a crowded city)—always asserts that “I’ve got it under control,” so much so that he teaches his daughter how to catch fish barehanded (with just one hand so you can knock them unconscious with the other) and seems to have a personal relationship with the oncoming storm, therefore he fires a gun at it in order to protect Hushpuppy and the community.  (Again, in literal terms he’s likely just having delusions in his state of ill-health when he’s literally shooting at the wind, but if his tiny daughter can seemingly turn back the giant beasts when they finally arrive simply with an attitude of “I’m on a quest right now so I don’t have time to be trampled by you!” which results in them turning away from her, who’s to say that a well-placed gunshot couldn’t mortally wound a hurricane?)  The only salvation after the flood hits, however, is at the floating nightclub/brothel called (appropriately enough) Elysian Fields, where the survivors get some sustenance before blowing a hole in the levee so that the flood waters drain out of (again, appropriately) The Bathtub to restore drenched “dry” land to the residents.  That’s not enough for the rescue team from beyond the levee, though, who swoop in and force all of them to relocate to an unappreciated shelter (here we seemingly are in metaphor territory, regarding the catastrophic post-Katrina debacle at the Superdome) until Wink leads a rebellion back through the receding overflow into The Bathtub once again, his final act of social defiance before reality overcomes any interpretation of fantasy and he dies, leaving his assertive daughter to find her own fate in this hard-scrabble community.    

            Beasts of the Southern Wild is unlike most films you’ll ever see (except for a few that I’ve cited above, also from the lyrical realism branch of cinematic storytelling), is not always easy to follow with its combination of low-budget handheld camera shots and sense of real-time editing, and confusing in its blend of gritty reality and disturbing fantasy (not to mention what seems to be some non-linear chronology at times), but if you’re willing to immerse yourself in something completely different from the usual movie-going venture I think you’ll be rewarded for your curiosity.  Certainly this film runs the same risk that Their Eyes Were Watching God and Daughters of the Dust did in terms of reinforcing what some see as stereotypical squalor of the poor, especially poor Southern blacks (without even the possible protective cover of being made by African-Americans, as are these previously-cited works), but the poor do exist with as much individual complexity as any of those of us behind the levee, no matter how they’ve previously been depicted.  (They also exist in all social manifestations, as shown by the racially-integrated residents of The Bathtub; when your circumstances require you to cook cat food for your dinner by firing up your stove with a blowtorch—Hushpuppy’s culinary expertise so far—such a minor difference as skin color makes no difference to the locals; furthermore, if you want a successful cinematic balance about the destitution and determination of so-called “poor white trash” you can always check out Winter’s Bone [Debra Granik, 2010] with a stunning performance by pre-Hunger Games [Gary Ross] Jennifer Lawrence).  Beasts of the Southern Wild is just as magical a total experience as are Hushpuppy’s visions of the prehistoric aurochs; you just have to let yourself flow with the rising waters of the story elements, take refuge when you need it in the relief that you shouldn’t even try to explain everything that you encounter, and then recede back into the “real” world with a better understanding of why even a stubborn B.O.I. (not me; I was born in Austin, TX, the hippie capital of the Southwest, although the folks in Taos, NM might disagree, or maybe they’d prefer to be called the “spiritual capital,” those snotty soul-suckers) or someone like that deserves our time and attention just as much as the (sometimes refined but not always inclined to define their decline) refinery managers who dwell in more traditional “safety" behind the levee.  To wrap this up, I’ll note that Beasts of the Southern Wild won the prestigious Caméra d’Or prize at Cannes and the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, so whatever difficulties it may present it’s been well-received on the festival circuit, however “levee-ish” that may be within the bigger cultural picture.
         Now, in the benignly bizarre spirit of Beasts of the Southern Wild I’ll take an unexplained diversion to address anyone who may be thinking, “Damn!  What’s with this guy?  He gushes about how wonderful this film is, then he only gives it 4 stars, just like all the others he supposedly liked so much.  What’s it take to satisfy this jerk?”  In response I’ll offer you this analogy for my rating system:  I’m usually lucky enough to avoid 1 star films because of being warned away by other ratings that forewarn me of Texas City-style stink; 2 stars usually go to those that for some reason I saw hope for but it didn’t work out for some reason; 3 stars are the ones I’m glad to have seen, rented, or streamed because they were well worth spending time with; 4 stars are normally as high as I go, representing films with a notable degree of quality that I might even buy a DVD of to enjoy again; 5 stars for me are the superb achievements of the cinema, classic to contemporary, the ones that I’d move the 4-stars off my shelves for if I needed more space for adding a 5-star film to my collection of magic moments that I’d gladly watch on a regular basis.  So, as my old WWE heroes that called themselves DX (Degeneration-X, Triple H and Shawn Michaels) would say, “If you’re not down with that (and based on my just-completed annual spaghetti-wine-trilogy ritual with my astoundingly wonderful wife, Nina), then I’ve got (for clarity of my system, 5 stars and) 2 words for ya”:
(At least for Parts I and II; when you get to III you may need a little extra wine whenever Sofia's on screen ["No, Dad!"], but otherwise it's an offer you can't refuse.)         

            With the diversion done, we'll return to our regularly-scheduled programming.  If you’d like to pole your pirogue down the bayou in search of some jambalaya (sing along with Hank Williams at and further exploration of Best of the Southern Wild here are some suggested links:  (a featurette on the making of the film)

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man and Savages

  Law and Disorder
     Review by Ken Burke       The Amazing Spider-Man
Possibly the best of the Spider-Man movies yet, with a solid focus on the human feelings and motivations that propel Peter Parker into action against the dangerous Lizard.
An energetic, cinematic combination of flesh—hot young bodies for the set-up-to-be-sympathetic-dopers leads—and the devil—cruel, evil Mexican drug cartel villains.
            Producers of media products, including comic books and movies, face many challenges in both entering into and maintaining themselves in their desired marketplaces.  It’s hard enough to break through the increasing competition to even get your prized creation before the public, but then if you’re skilled and lucky enough to make a connection that sustains your “baby” over the years then comes the difficulty of keeping the idea “new” for ongoing generations of readers and/or viewers.  It’s been increasingly difficult for the DC folks (and their movie colleagues at Warner Bros.) since the late 1930s to keep refreshing Superman, Batman, and other Justice League characters (case in point, they used to be the Justice Society in the WW II era but evolved into different versions of themselves over the decades, spawning the coming-and-going mulitverse of similar manifestations in different dimensions in the process) over the decades and even attempt to preserve some continuity of the involved characters, but the creative team assigned to reboot the cinematic Spider-Man franchise had to contend with overhauling the most financially-successful same-director-commanded superhero trilogy of all time, with screen incarnations that had been released just in the last 10 years.  (I’m being very precise in my terminology here so that the 6-episode Star Wars and 7-episode Harry Potter aren’t in consideration, nor are the earlier Batmans, with various directorial visions from Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher along with an ongoing change of actors in the title role.  Admittedly, this makes the Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man trilogy in competition only with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films as a planned movie mini-series, with Raimi’s grossing about $1.1 billion vs. Jackson’s $1.035 billion [and that’s domestic U.S. and Canada; worldwide the totals reverse with Jackson’s trilogy grossing about $2.9 billion and Raimi’s $2.5 billion], but my point is that the previous Spider-Man movies are a powerful, contemporary, worldwide phenomenon, building on a well-known, beloved character with great recognition value from a variety of media—including the star-crossed Broadway version, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which finally opened after long, problematic delays in 2010—so that new franchise director Marc Webb has a lot to live up to, including the upcoming competition from the other singular-vision superhero-trilogy director, Christopher Nolan, when his The Dark Knight Rises opens next week.  Nolan likely won’t win the franchise money race as he’s only at about $738.6 million domestically and $1.4 billion worldwide, but if Batman proves to be as popular this year as he was in 2008 with The Dark Knight Webb will certainly have a literal run for his money in terms of 2012 box-office impact.)
            Webb and company chose the route of origination homage by titling their new film The Amazing Spider-Man, just like the earliest version of a regular-issue Spider-Man comic from the early 1960s, balancing their hero’s new-found pubic persona with the reality that he still has to contend with the raging traumas of high school as his day job, and following the comic-book chronology by using Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield) original love interest, Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone)—although in the comic book he doesn’t get involved with her until he goes to college—before she was replaced by Mary Jane Watson, whom Peter connected with immediately in the previous movies starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. (Gwen, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, even pops up in the 2007 Spider-Man 3 as a short-term rival for Mary Jane, but that just further confirms that the old and new series seemingly take place in parallel universes [Or is that just a DC comics device?] where we’re not supposed to see all of these plots as contributing to one over-arching narrative, just as the life of Nolan’s Batman isn’t supposed to be integrated into the previous actions of Burton’s and Schumacher’s Bruce Wayne; this can get confusing if you expect a general sense of continuity with the lead character as you’d find in the James Bond films from 1962 [Dr. No, Terence Young] through 2002 [Die Another Day, Lee Tamahori], although Bond didn’t age much over that 40-year span, but even he has been rebooted via the Daniel Craig versions beginning in 2006 with Casino Royale [Martin Campbell], so if you want consistent continuity in your fantasy film heroes you’d better stick with Jackson and the self-contained The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings story where no one has yet attempted a remake with Bilbo and Frodo trudging through different neighborhoods of Middle Earth where Gollum rides on an orc and doesn’t spout Yoda-speak [in fairness, though, Gollum was talking like that in the books long before we knew about the Jedi).  In the current film, Gwen is a charming, confident presence in Peter’s life, even though her police captain dad (Denis Leary) initially abhors Spider-Man’s vigilante actions, at least until his daughter is in mortal danger, as is the constant problem for Peter in any of these movies where his loved ones are the usual target of the villains (along with, collaterally, the rest of NYC; as I noted in my review of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers [see posting from May 12, 2012] the budget for urban repair in that place would make many small countries envious), along with his identity being revealed at a rate that would astound Superman, who kept everyone at bay for decades with just a pair of glasses whereas Spider-Man’s true self comes dangerously close to being posted on a Facebook wall in all of his films.
            We also get a lot better sense of Peter’s adolescent life with his Uncle Ben (Shouldn’t he have been cooking rice at some point?  Oh, wait, that’s his half-brother from a mixed-race family.) and Aunt May, played by long-time respected actors Martin Sheen and Sally Field (You like them, you really, really like them!), nicely balancing newer-but-still-well-known-screen-presences Garfield and Stone (who’d better keep their off-screen romance stable or there’s going to be more than synthetic webbing slung around when they make the inevitable sequels).  As always, Ben bites the dust, partially as the result of a typically-teenage callous act by Peter leading to his resolve to fight crime on behalf of his fellow citizens, but at least this time we get a better insight into the moral authority that Ben bequeaths to Peter with Sheen bringing appropriate gravitas to the role just as Field provides a recognizable, therefore calming, presence as May, whose steadfast devotion to Peter’s well-being helps him see past his own preoccupations and remember her needs as well, even at the finale when he’s considerably worn down from the night’s downtown web-slinging that ultimately saved the city’s population from all turning into humanoid lizards.  Ben and May provide a safe refuge for Peter, before and after his accidental transformation into Spider-Man, a grounding of human decency in a world where crime often runs roughshod through the streets and supervillains emerge just as quickly as do superheroes (but at least we’re just focused on 1 powerful antagonist this time rather than the attention-diverting overload of troublemakers from Spider-Man 3 or some of the earlier Batman movies).  Ben even steers Peter away from the “dark side” of his new-found powers (not realizing what his nephew is truly capable of) with a lecture on the stupidity of revenge-taking, a needed lesson for a young guy whose raging hormones aren’t always a good match for his agility, strength, and hyper-responsiveness.  (Not to mention his early problems with sticking to everything he touches.  I’m trying to keep these comments on a family-friendly level, but I also can’t help but think what might happen when those hormones start raging in Gwen’s direction and some other “sticky stuff” comes shooting out—let’s see how long it takes for you to get that image out of your mind!)

            In The Lizard, the genetically-transformed persona of Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) as the result of his experiment with trying to regenerate limbs to replace his missing right arm, we have a villain worthy of combat with the energetic, acrobatic Mr. Parker.  He has noble ambitions in his desire to use inter-species experiments to help ailing humans, he has mysterious connections to Peter’s disappeared and deceased parents (a plot line clearly kept back for now, with implications of more revelations in the sure-to-come sequels), he’s as overwhelmed by his own genetic transformation as is Peter with his new-found mutation (careful, Peter, prepare yourself for an onslaught of membership applications from the X-Men), and his passion to accomplish something significant also mirrors Peter’s final focus on using his new abilities for the public good.  It’s just that Connors, at least in his fevered reptilian mode, begins to see humans not as beings who could advance up the evolutionary ladder but as flawed, weak creatures that he despises for their shortcomings so he wants to make them over in his image (sorry, Dr. Connors, but you probably won’t be getting membership applications from the evangelical true-believers).  Soon his salvation mission has transformed as well, into an attempted attack on NYC using a device invented by his former partner, Peter’s father, Richard (Campbell Scott), to douse the metropolis with lizard serum so as to force everyone to become like him.  Unlike Peter, though, with his permanent new powers, Connors’ reptilian manifestation needs periodic injection boosts to restore him to full lizardhood, so he’s able to be captured and continued in human form, leaving the probability that Webb will emulate the previous Spider-Man movies, unleashing The Lizard once again (as we’re also being set up to learn more about what actually happened to Peter’s parents, whose deaths currently provide a sense of mysterious loss for our protagonist rather than the direct inspiration for crime fighting as we see with the vicious murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents in any version of the Batman story; I guess we might have had an opportunity to also encounter The Joker again in The Dark Knight Rises because he was likewise imprisoned rather than killed [as in the 1989 Burton Batman], but with the untimely death instead of Heath Ledger I doubt that Nolan would dare put anyone else in that savage clown makeup), à la The Green Goblin's semi-return in Spider-Man 3.

            Increasingly larger doses of the serum add bulk and power to Connors’ alter-ego making him a formidable opponent for the fledgling wall-crawler, but—as we’d expect with our foreknowledge that it would take a very alternate universe for Peter Parker to die so soon into his career—the masked vigilante saves the city, is finally welcomed by the police (thanks to Capt. Stacey’s support, although, sadly for Gwen, he’s the one to join Peter’s parents in the great beyond—however, as yet another person who knew Spider-Man’s secret identity it probably helps to get him out of the story, along with his final plea to Parker to leave Gwen alone for protection from Spidey’s enemies, setting up another dramatic-tension situation for the next installment), and even finally remembers to get the organic eggs for Aunt May despite being bone-tired from swinging all over the city most of the night.  (It’s amazing how much of that webbing material he can cram into those tiny wrist containers, enough to get him across all of lower Manhattan and up to the top of the Oscorp skyscraper for the final showdown; maybe one of the sequels will use the occasional comic-book device of the reservoir running dry, leading to a perilous fall, a risk that Tobey Maguire generally didn’t have to face because his web spurts were produced organically [although in the 2004 Spider-Man 2 Peter’s powers begin to wane because of the self-induced stress of being the community protector so we have explored aspects of this concept previously—just as I’ve previously noted a relevant book for these post-9/11 concerns with terrorist attacks on NYC and the frustrated fate of the self-sacrificial community guardian, The Myth of the American Superhero by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, an extensive study I highly recommend]—or maybe this new version of Peter Parker can get by without webbing for awhile with his ability to stick to surfaces, although it’s never clear after the initial spider-power scenes how he’s come to control not making a Post-It note out of everything he touches, a funny bit at first but one that conveniently disappears once the humor has made its impact.)

            You may feel bone-tired yourself by the end of The Amazing Spider-Man, especially if you watch it in spectacular 3-D where you really feel yourself flying along with Peter through the concrete canyons of NYC, because the action is intense, the sincere motivations of the characters (along with the flawed egos of the principal combatants) lead reasonably into their various selfless and self-serving choices, and even the absurd science that’s at the heart of such fantasy movies (as opposed to the magic-driven environments of the fantasy approach in Lord of the Rings and Star Wars stories) all combine to make a compelling case for this being the best of the Spider-Man movies so far (using little background touches that display the care that went into every scene such as the poster in the subway car, when Peter first unwittingly discovers his spider-like powers, with the ironic message “This Year Thousands of Men Will Die from Stubbornness,” a statement I’ll leave to your individual interpretation), despite all the good things that exist in the previous Tobey Maguire-starring trilogy.
            Whether you’ll feel as exhilarated by Oliver Stone’s latest, Savages, possibly depends on your disposition toward the protagonists, because I doubt you’ll find much sympathy toward their assailants.  Much as I hate to sound like I’ve moved to the other side of the cultural fence (and I haven’t, I promise me as much as I promise you) since I long ago enthusiastically supported the dope-dealing but freedom-loving, disillusioned-with-the-Establishment anti-heroes Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) in Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969), I’m not yet fully sure that I care enough about the perils faced by Savages’ two main “good” guys, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), and their shared partner/lover Olivia (Blake Lively), or usually just O so as to conflate Shakespeare’s tragic classic Hamlet and Anne Desclos/”Pauline Réage”’s sadomasochist classic The Story of O (this O also has to deal with some harsh treatment, later on in the film), as their boutique but highly-successful marijuana business is put in peril by south-of-the-border interlopers from the vicious Baja Cartel, headed by mostly cold-blooded Elena (Salma Hayak)—running the business after her husband and brothers were killed in the never-ending wars for control (“This Sicilian thing that’s been going on for two thousand years!”—Oh, sorry, wrong film, over-saturation with the annual spaghetti-and-Godfather-trilogy celebration that Nina and I do every summer.)—with her even more fierce enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), only a couple of steps more humanoid than The Lizard and Javier Bardem as the soulless, homicidal Anton Chigurh in Ethan and Joel Coen’s 2007 No Country for Old Men (Best Picture, Best Director[s], Best Adapted Screenplay [Coens], and Best Supporting Actor [Bardem]).  Clearly, “our” guys are set up to be sympathetic given that Chon (Interesting name or could he just not pronounce “John” when he was a kid and it stuck, the way that so many grandparent names evolve from the mouths of babes?) is an Afghan War vet who’s clearly dealing with a case of post-traumatic stress syndrome (but you’d definitely want him and his now-civilian commando team on your side if you needed protection from anything, including The Lizard if Spider-Man’s otherwise occupied with Gwen and that sticky goo) but is the kind of dedicated hard-ass needed to keep things stable on the illicit side of town while Ben is a college business-biology whiz needed to further the amazing THC level (33 %!) of the superweed Chon brought back from the war zone (Ben’s Buddhist to boot, plowing much of their profits into helping the needy in Africa and Asia).
            How much more organic, humane (besides their standard trade they’re even growers for medical marijuana stores—not that there’s anything wrong with that; seriously, because I’ve seen firsthand how needed a medication that can be), and sexually-charged (that’s where O comes in … no, wait, they come in her … oh, never mind, you get the picture, from the picture above of the 3 of them) in their own rough or gentle ways could these pot kings be?  Toss in their Laguna Beach mansion, their master-of-their-domain attitude, and their gleaming Anglo identities in contrast to those … Mexicans! … and you’ve got some ready-made heroes, right?  (In certain parts and minds of Arizona for sure.)  Well, maybe not Spider-Man caliber heroes, but we're now talking about Southern California rather than terrorist-scarred NYC after all.  Heroes can be a relative commodity, unless you’re more of a naturist than a nurturist, so for Stone’s latest cinematic assault these are the folks you’re supposed to root for, unless you’re not quite sure if their good deeds fully justify their protagonists’ positions.  But before you can get too confused with your moral meter things get really nasty with the Baja boys and their queen bee, Elena (shown here dining with hostage O before all hell breaks lose at the end of the story), a group who gleefully decapitates their local problems, then uses the easy strategy of Internet video of their persuasive tactics to convince Chon and Ben that the merger offer wasn’t to be rejected, nor were the Bajas interested in simply buying them out rather than absorbing their expertise as “partners.” Soon, O is a captive bargaining chip, Elena is finding a bit of sympathy for her (given that her own roughly-same-age daughter will barely give her the time of day, despite Elena understanding her disgust with the family business), and Lado is eager to make a mess of anyone who presents the opportunity.
            For me, the best aspect of Savages is implied by the title itself and the way in which the term is used by Chon and Ben to describe their Baja opponents and in reply by the Baja Cartel guys to refer to their gringo counterparts (here we see Lado imposing his presence on Ben, a man reluctantly recruited into the more physical side of his chosen business).  No one is really innocent here, so the question is really one of how much leeway we’re willing to give any of these characters in their various quests for dominance, revenge, and material success.  Certainly our yanquis aren’t vicious killers (except when they have to be to gain O’s release) as part of their everyday business and their glamorous lifestyle in their seaside palace is a very attractive alternative to the humdrum lives led by most of us sitting in the theatre (and some would say that having such a willing business/sex partner as Lively is a further enhancement to the situation, but for me she was the least "lively" of the BFFs in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants films [Ken Kwapis, 2005; Sanaa Hamri, 2008], her role in The Town [Ben Affleck, 2010] is fine but minor compared to so many others in that film, she was unfortunate collateral damage as Hal Jordan’s girlfriend Carol Ferris in Green Lantern [Martin Campbell 2011] another movie where there’s a lot more going on than her whether it all works or not, and while she’s had an ongoing role on TV’s Gossip Girl for several years that just hasn’t been part of my cultural milieu [thankfully], where even Desperate Housewives seemed more worth my time), but despite their intertexual references to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) as a model for their romantic attraction to each other and (seemingly) for us I’ll leave it up to your individual sensibilities as to whether you see the crisis faced by our hot-bodied trio as something to be morally concerned about or just enjoyed for the fast-paced, visually-powerful, relentless thriller that Stone commands expertly.
            Maybe it’s just my old-fartiness, but it was also a pleasure to have the emerging talents of Ms. Lively and her male costars (Kitsch made quite a name for himself in the worthy TV series Friday Night Lights [2006-2011]—one that I would have certainly paid more attention to than Gossip Girl if time had permitted, and the reality that I got enough exposure to high-school football and small-town melodrama by actually growing up in Texas to not need to see it again every week on the tube—and he certainly acquitted himself more successfully in the box-office dud John Carter than he was generally given credit for but I see no sequels on the Martian horizon there [see my review if you like in the March 17, 2012 posting]; Johnson would most likely be known for his performance as John Lennon in Nowhere Boy [Sam Taylor-Wood, 2009] and the title role in Kick-Ass [Matthew Vaughn, 2010] where he’s ultimately overshadowed by Big Daddy [Nicolas Cage] and Hit-Girl [Chloë Grace Moretz], although his turn as the abusive Joe in Albert Nobbs [Rodrigo García, 2011] carries more substance for me) balanced out not only by the more established Hispanic actors Hayak (nominated for Best Actress [Frida, Julie Taymor, 2002]) and Del Toro (an Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor [Traffic, Steven Soderbergh, 2000]) but also the seldom-seen-of-late John Travolta as Dennis, the DEA agent who protects Chon and Ben’s operation but turns out to be an across-the-board double-crosser by also working closely with Lado, as he’s making a move to ditch the Baja Cartel and link up with emerging power El Azul (Joaquín Cosio), and then turning up at the end to arrest Elena during the hostage trade-off so as to enhance his credentials on the right side of the law as well.  Dennis and Lado are emblematic of the shallow loyalty to be found in Savages, where anyone is just a deal away from truly savage self-serving actions that leave dead bodies all over the landscape and corrupt even former innocents such as gentle Ben into being killers as circumstances demand.

            Given that this production was wrapped long before Travolta became a headline-grabber (if that’s all that was grabbed) about the time of the film’s release there’s no way that the following conversation could have occurred during filming (although if I heard the dialogue correctly at one point the Bajaistas note that the return to power of the PRI  will be detrimental to their organization, a prescient prediction given their recent victory of PRI politician Enrique Peña Nieto in the Mexican presidential election so who knows how psychic this film may be), but given the years in the entertainment business that these old larger-than-life pros have shared I could imagine a conversation like this if circumstances allowed:

Stone:  “So, John, any more masseur allegations, or are you accusing them of harassing you now?”

Travolta:  “Nah, Ollie, everything’s cool with the rubdowns.  Say, I haven’t seen your name much on the screen lately?  Been busy polishing up that DGA Lifetime Achievement Award?  Oh, wait, that was Scorsese.  I always get you ‘S’ guys mixed up.”

Stone:  “I’ll mix up your ‘S,' you washed-up has-been!  It’s a good thing I got Cruise out of the Scientology register for Born on the Fourth of July.  If it’d been you, you’d have tried dancing in the wheelchair!”

            After which they throw beer bottles at each other until it’s time for the next scene to be shot, with Travolta now in a properly angry mood to lash out at whichever drug dealer happens to be in his car or his house at that point.  So, with that sort of speculation in mind, overall I found Savages to be compelling to look at, just as the older and newer stars on screen “give good presence” to go along with the typically dynamic manner in which Stone manipulates the footage and moves the story along at a frantic, danger-laden pace (but still in more of the relatively-subdued manner of JFK [1991] than the all-out cinematic assault of Natural Born Killers [1994]).  There’s a lot to like in how Savages constantly dazzles you with spectacular, opulent, bloodthirsty, and, at times, shockingly violent imagery, so I’m more inclined to recommend it than not, but it’s hard to get past that initial question:  If these guys aren’t me, do I really care about the turmoil they have to endure (along with Lively’s ongoing narration that we get to endure) to preserve their illegal empire?  I’m a lot more invested in Spider-Man’s ultimately selfless call to duty, but both experiences will give you good reason to re-order that overdue blood-pressure medicine and give you a clear choice of whether you want to be attacked by a giant lizard-man on the East Coast or border-crossing drug-thugs way out West.  You’ll get your money’s worth either way (unless you lose a lot of screen time covering your face during the brutal Savages moments, but maybe the opening “orgasms vs. wargasms” sex scene between O and Chon will balance that out or the surprise alternate endings—oops, not a complete surprise now, although a clever bit for the film—will serve your creative needs, but I’ll leave the details for you to see for yourself if interested); given the choice, though, I think I’d rather swing with the spiders than panic with the pot.
            If you’d like to go flying above the streets of Manhattan on your own with The Amazing Spider-Man here are some recommended links: (an expanded 4 min. trailer, because you can never get too much Spider-Man can you?)

            If you think that “across the border” refers to a chain of Mexican restaurants then you might need to explore Savages a bit more at links such as these: (a clip from the film with a bit of Blake Lively but mostly Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro in confrontation)

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