Tim Grierson Reviews 'The Amazing Spider-Man' and 'Savages'
Reviewed by Tim Grierson
July 04, 2012
"Savages" may not be high art, but its pulpy, down-and-dirty vitality makes it a rather bracing experience. Expert pot growers Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) are best friends who happily share the same woman, the free-spirited O (Blake Lively). But when they run afoul of Mexican drug lords, led by a fearsome Salma Hayek, O is taken hostage, forcing the two men to stop at nothing to rescue her. Directed by Oliver Stone -- who takes a page from the amoral, hyperbolic flash of "Natural Born Killers" and "U Turn" -- this action thriller flaunts its pungent atmosphere and seedy characters, and the film has plenty of spark, thanks to enjoyably hammy supporting turns from the likes of Benicio Del Toro as a dimwitted, frightening goon and John Travolta as a corrupt DEA agent. But the movie's real strength comes from the byplay between Johnson and Kitsch, who compellingly portray criminals who want to believe they still have souls worth saving.
Too closely following the formula of last year's "Justin Bieber: Never Give Up," "Katy Perry: Part of Me" lacks the wit and zip of the 27-year-old pop star's candy-colored videos. Chronicling her massive 2011 world tour, this documentary goes through the motions in laying out Perry's rags-to-riches backstory and playing up her determination not to let anyone crush her dreams. There's potentially interesting material here -- including her upbringing as a strict Catholic and her painful divorce from comedian Russell Brand -- but "Part of Me" mostly wants to sell a product, which turns the film into little more than a cheery infomercial.
Mark Duplass has had a great year as an actor ("Your Sister's Sister," "Safety Not Guaranteed") and, with his brother Jay, as a filmmaker (the underrated "Jeff, Who Lives at Home"). The hot streak continues with the Duplasses' "The Do-Deca-Pentathlon," a deceptively straightforward comedy about two very competitive, immature brothers. Though happily married, Mark (Steve Zissis) can't resist the goading of successful professional poker player Jeremy (Mark Kelly), who challenges him to a rematch of an epic 25-event contest they waged in their youth to determine the superior sibling. What could have been a silly, obvious satire of male tomfoolery is instead a smart, affecting film about family dysfunction and adult malaise. As with all the Duplass brothers' movies, "Do-Deca" is a small marvel of believable, naturalistic human behavior, and Zissis and Kelly adroitly explore their characters' humanity rather than go for easy laughs.
While he's not necessarily most people's definition of an auteur, director Rob Reiner used to make incredibly entertaining mainstream films (the recent death of Nora Ephron was a reminder of how smoothly he executed her script for "When Harry Met Sally"). But in recent years, Reiner seems to have lost his way, especially with his most recent misfire, "The Magic of Belle Isle." This squishy comedy-drama stars Morgan Freeman as a widowed, alcoholic, wheelchair-bound novelist who long ago lost interest in writing, along with just about everything else. Luckily, he moves to a small town and ends up living next to Virginia Madsen and her three predictably adorable daughters. "Belle Isle" plays out exactly as you would expect -- for the film's undemanding audience, that's no doubt a chief selling point -- but Freeman does manage to invest his complete cliché of a character with his typical warmth and calm gravitas.
Those who recoil at the feel-good niceties of "The Magic of Belle Isle" might prefer the misanthropic edginess of "Crazy Eyes," a semi-autobiographical tale from director Adam Sherman about a rich, drunken Angeleno (Lukas Haas) whose infatuation with a tempestuous, inscrutable beauty (Madeline Zima) results in a complicated, close friendship that never leads to sex, even though they start sharing a bed. Sherman's unorthodox love story travels roads that traditional indie romances bypass, but while both leads ably play sympathetic, screwed-up people, the film's warmed-over nihilism tends to be off-putting and intriguing with equal force.