Monday, July 30, 2012

John Travolta in "Savages"

Recently, I was one of the folks in the cineplex audience for a late morning weekend showing of the new Oliver Stone movie.  (Yes, I was taking advantage of the AMC movie theatre discount prices.)  Oliver Stone is pretty intense for starting off a sunny weekend summer's day.  It's like being on an amusement park thrill ride after having eaten a heavy German meal.  With beer.  You just want the experience to end quickly so you can get some relief.  That's exactly how I felt about Savages.  Three attractive, non-famous young actors are the leads.  Three Oscar-nominated veteran stars are the supporting actors.  It's basically about drugs, money and sex in upscale Southern California.  If you dig a movie that's drenched in excessive violence, this is the flick for you.

Here's the trio of screen veterans:  Benicio Del Toro, Oscar winner for 2000's Traffic...Salma Hayek, Best Actress Oscar nominee for the biopic Frida and one of the few women directed to a Best Actress Oscar nomination by another woman (Julie Taymor)...and two-time Oscar nominee John Travolta.  Savages is not an Oliver Stone zenith.  As a director, he's never embraced the "less is more" philosophy of filmmaking.  He claims that when he read the script to this vehicle, he said, "It's Jules and Jim meets Scarface."  That's the big problem.  Why the Sam Hill would those two subtle and subtitled 1962 French characters want to meet an overbaked Al Pacino as a violent Cuban crimelord in the first place? Tepid reviews plus recent unsavory and curious entertainment news reports about John Travolta overshadowed one of the best movie performances the actor has delivered since Pulp Fiction.  Travolta is on top of his game in Savages as the federal agent dealing with two pot-growing entrepreneur brothers in Laguna Beach.  The two brothers and the wealthy pretty blonde they both love get involved with a ruthless Mexican drug lord.  Tragedy ensues.  We go from surfside sex in Southern California to chainsaw beheadings in Mexico during the first ten minutes.
From the blonde's opening narration, we get that vibe that her two boyfriend brothers want to grow pot to make money and help people. Think "medical marijuana."  But they head in for a meeting with a deadly Mexican cartel as if walking in to pitch a product to the Shark Tank panel on ABC.  Travolta as the aggressive Dennis is like those great film noir characters who may be on the side of the law or may be the one to pull the double cross that's a staple in many film noir crime thriller classics.  Travolta is so alive, vibrant and interesting in this role.  It's a smart performance in an unsatisfying film from the director of Platoon, Wall Street, JFK, The Doors, Any Given Sunday and Natural Born Killers.
Salma Hayek plays the drug kingpin.  Or queenpin, if you will.  This is the second time a film a featured Travolta as a law enforcement figure and Hayek as a criminal.  In Lonely Hearts, based on a real-life headline-making crime story, Salma starred as a cold-blooded killer who is red-hot sexy and batshit crazy.  It may not be a great as The Honeymoon Killers, a critically acclaimed 1969 indie film based on the same crime, but I couldn't take my eyes off Hayek.  She burned up the screen as the femme fatale leading a clueless man by the nose and fully engorged penis into a life of crime.  Travolta is a detective on the case in which lonely women with money are being conned and killed.
Lonely Hearts co-stars James Gandolfini as the other detective on the late 1940's case.  Jared Leto plays the con man whose brains are mostly in his throbbing wiener.  This 2006 movie got far less publicity and studio promotion than Savages did yet it's a much better and more entertaining film.  Keep Lonely Hearts in mind as a weekend DVD rental.  Leto was a revelation as Ray, the lover to Hayek's psycho babe, Martha.
In the beginning of this piece, I referred to the recent entertainment news reports about Travolta as being "curious."  I used that word because the reports make me wonder who's got it in for actor John Travolta.  We're talking about Hollywood here.  If I was a masseuse booked to show up at a client's place and the client boldly wanted something other than a rubdown when I got there, I'd leave.  I would just pack up my work items and leave the home or hotel room.  I would not stay there, be insulted and then demand thousands and thousands of dollars months later to settle my adult male nerves.  First of all, if you're a man and you belong to a gym, whether you're straight or gay, you know this is true:  There's always that one guy who is way too naked too much of the time in the locker room.  He's there practically every day and seems to be getting fatter.  Why?  Because he spends about two minutes on a treadmill and four with a barbell.  He spends more time sauntering around the locker room butt naked, with Benny and the Jets on full display, than he does working out.  So, when you see him coming, what do you do?  You move.  You leave.  Or you mind your own business.  Unless, of course, you want to do back-up on Benny and the Jets.  I never heard a reporter question "Why are these similar stories about John Travolta coming out now and around the same time?  What's that all about?"  Trust me, he would not be the first Hollywood player who wanted a "happy ending," if  those reports are true.  Unfortunately, tabloid news helped obscure his excellent work in Savages.  To a degree, this movie is like a Nancy Grace show on cable TV or a network morning news program in regards to where the viewer's attention is directed --  dozens of innocent minorities are being killed in escalating Mexican drug cartel violence and...OH MY GOODNESS!  A CUTE, YOUNG AMERICAN BLONDE HAS BEEN MISSING FOR ONE HOUR!  QUICK!  PUT HER PICTURE ON THE SCREEN!
Director/screenwriter Oliver Stone has done better work.  But John Travolta does some of his best work since his 1994 Oscar-nominated performance in Pulp Fiction.
What a shame it's got to deal with a disappointing film around it and allegations about his private life outside of it.  Hayek and Del Toro are also good and overcome the script.

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