Join us or die

Perhaps all films are anamorphic, distorted projections that appear normal and are offered up as reality when viewed through the lens of a Hollywood camera. In the case of Oliver Stone's just-released film "Savages," the lens is a high-tech, often-handheld digital camera, the images awash in sun-kissed SoCal colors, punctuated with often-jarring smash cuts, contrasting flashes of black and white and still shots taken with a cellphone. It's simultaneously appealing — really appealing — and disconcerting, the impact synergistic and chilling and riveting.

Adapted from the Don Winslow novel, "Savages" is a film about mayhem — emotional and physical mayhem, often garish and depraved and brutal and always strangely compelling.

The film opens with a 20-something California girl, Ophelia (Blake Lively), walking in the white sudsy water of Laguna Beach, her soft voice-over contemplative. She lives just beyond the dunes with two kindred spirits, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), in a splendid beach house. Ben is a gifted botanist from UC Berkeley and Chon a retired SEAL. Together they have a cottage industry, selling some of the finest marijuana grown on the West Coast. Ben is a Buddhist with a worldview, and Chon is the company's enforcer and agnostic. O, as she's called, is the much-loved glue that holds their yin yang ménage together. She thinks of them as the Buddhist and the Baddist.

Awash in money and stunning views of a cobalt sky and blue-green ocean, life is splendidly fine, until a south-of-the-border crew of psychopath narco-traffickers make them an offer they should not refuse.

And now the film takes a grim turn. Nothing they have done to this point can prepare them to face a depraved, ruthless and sadistic cartel that only cares about the end — drug dollars — and never about the means.

When Ben and Chon balk at partnering up with this outfit, the traffickers come at them remorselessly, taking the one thing they love above all else. What Ben and Chon failed to realize was that they were not in a negotiation; nothing was on the table. It was join us or die. But they soon learn. In spades. The traffickers have the hammer, and everything is a nail.

Stone is a superb filmmaker, and "Savages" is one of his best films since, well, "Platoon." It is pulp cinema, a B-movie with loads of brio. Although it is taken directly from today's headlines, it possesses no pendantry, such as the film "Traffic," the over-the-top melodrama that captured the insidious effect of drugs streaming into the U.S. "Savages" comes at the audience directly, grimly and, yes, violently (be warned), affirming once again our collective appetite for such spare, yet involving storytelling.

To Rome With Love

Woody Allen's recent film, "To Rome With Love," is a frothy, quirky, satirical farce, an anthology possessing little substance. Though a valentine to Rome, shown in glowing colors of cinnabar and gold and beige, each of the vignettes threatens to slip into silliness.

The characters, couples all, are more caricatures than three-dimensional, to include Woody's Jerry, a retired music producer. He resurrects the now all-too familiar, ambivalent, handwringing neurotic. But today, that 30-something mensch, so endearing and inept and incisively comedic in "Annie Hall," is now 80, and his witty one-liners seem a bit frayed, often approaching what Woody refers to as Ozymandias melancholia.

"To Rome With Love" seems merely a collage of set pieces, each with elements of kitsch, to include an opera singer who can only achieve greatness while singing in the shower (and so he does); a young visiting architect (Jesse Eisenberg), who falls in love with his girlfriend's best friend (Ellen Page); an Italian everyman (Roberto Benigni), suddenly famous for being famous while weighing the cost-benefit; and a newly wed couple wanting to sample a bit more of life before settling into staid marital bliss. None of them intersect.

When it comes to wondrous European cities, Allen is a serial monogamist: from London to Paris to Barcelona and now to Rome, each a character in his films, not simply an enchanting location. "Midnight in Paris" transcended. But while Rome, the city, is lovely, "To Rome With Love" strives to be more than a travelogue, of sorts, and never quite gets there.

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