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Movie Review: Savages

Adapting Don Winslow’s 2010 novel Savages was never going to be easy. The book is both revelation and revolution whose joys come from its distinctive prose as its propulsive plot. Winslow’s novel feels like the culmination of years of experimentation in previous books like The Winter of Frankie Machine, The Death and Life of Bobby Z, and The Dawn Patrol, albiet infused with the anger and politics of The Power of the Dog. It has strong sexual content and ultraviolence aplenty — plus, it’s funny and sad and beautiful and a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for Generation Y.

Now it’s a movie, directed by Oliver Stone, working from a script co-written by Shane Salerno and Winslow himself. In many ways, it’s an excellent adaptation of the book, honors the spirit of Winslow’s work with a deft, affecting touch. It has almost as many flaws, including a controversial ending that is sure to outrage fans of the novel.

The film begins in Laguna Beach, California — present day. Botanist Ben (Aaron Johnson, Kick-Ass) and ex-Special Forces soldier Chon (Taylor “Tim Riggins” Kitsch) produce some of the best marijuana in the world. Ben is the brains, Chon, the enforcer — and both of them are in love with O (Blake Lively, xoxo Gossip Girl), who’s the kind of California girl Brian Wilson writes songs about. The three of them share an unusual but comfortable relationship, until the Baja Cartel, led by Elena comes calling.

When Ben and Chon spur the advances of the cartel’s generous offer to buy their business, Elena instructs the vicious, perverse Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap O. She hopes this will send Ben and Chon into her embrace. Chon has other plans, plans best summed up by Tommy Lee Jones in Rolling Thunder:

“We’re gonna kill a whole bunch of people.” Continue reading “Movie Review: Savages”

Don Winslow, Interviewed by Shane Salerno

Today, the film Savages, based on the Don Winslow novel of the same name, opens in theaters. Check out the trailer, if you haven’t already. Directed by Oscar winner Oliver Stone, the film’s screenplay is the product of a collaboration between novelist Don Winslow and screenwriter Shane Salerno. Winslow and Salerno have known each other for a long time – thirteen years to be exact. They have worked together, including creating the NBC TV series UC: Undercover, trust each other implicitly and often exchange early drafts of their work and talk on the phone every day, usually about film adaptations of Winslow’s work which Salerno produces. At our request, Salerno rang up his buddy Winslow who was in the middle of a cross-country book tour and interviewed the acclaimed crime writer about his life and work.

Salerno: What does it mean for you to be a writer?

Winslow: It means everything to me to be a writer. You know I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. I grew up with great story tellers. My old man was a sailor, and I used to sit under the dining room table when he had his old Navy buddies over, and he’d pretend to think that I’d gone to bed and he’d let me sit there and listen to some of the best story tellers in the world so I always worshiped those guys. And we always had books around the house. My old man came out of World War II, you know 17 years old on Guadalcanal and what he wanted to do was ride around on boats, go to every zoo in the world and sit around and read books. So there were always books around our house and we were allowed to read anything we wanted at any age. There was no censorship, no nothing and so I imagined from when I was 5 or 6 years or so that if I could be a writer that would be the best thing in the world to be.

Salerno: Tell me 5 books that knocked you out?

Winslow: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential–where am I? that’s three?–a book called A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, it’ll come to me, a really beautiful Indian novel about Mumbai, and, without question, All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.

Salerno: Name some authors’ you consistently admire in the genre?

Winslow: Well, James Ellroy, T. Jefferson Parker, Michael Connelly, Ken Bruen and John Harvey, Dennis Lehane and Lee Child.

Salerno: You’ve been married for twenty-five years, and yet all of your characters are a mess. How do you access that?

Winslow: [laughs] All of my characters are a mess?

Salerno: They’re a mess!–Every single one of them.–A beautiful mess in some cases but…

Winslow: Y’know, I think methods are interesting. You know what I mean? Vulnerability’s interesting. I don’t think like ‘steady’ is real interesting in fiction, you know? I think that a character’s flaws are what give a character depth and interest. So, I’ve been married for 25 years but I had a life before I was married. It’s a little hard to remember sometimes but I did and I think I was the same kind of flawed, kind of vulnerable kind of character so it is pretty easy for me to access that .

At the same time, I think, you know any writer looks around him. You know, you look at people you look at relationships, you look at other people you know, you look at people in restaurants and cafés, you sit there and you make up stories about them you hear snatches of conversation you see little bits of behavior and that finds its way into your work. But if I was to just sit and write about myself I think we’d have some damn dull books. It would be about some guy sitting alone in a room typing. Not very interesting

Salerno: Give us a short history of your childhood, your parents and growing up.

Winslow: Oh, man. There’s no short history. My dad was a Navy man, Marine in World War II, and then into the Navy, Childhood was spent on most of the destroyer ports on the East Coast. My mom was from New Orleans, my dad met her while he was on leave during World War II. They got married six weeks later, and she came from a family of gamblers. My grandmother was a ward healer for Huey Long after the depression, and then she worked for Carlos Marcello the Mafia chief who probably had Kennedy killed — who by the way I met as a child we used to go to parties at his house in Algiers.

Continue reading “Don Winslow, Interviewed by Shane Salerno”

Savage Beauty, Savage Poster

One of the most anticipated films for crime fans this summer is the adaptation of Don Winslow’s revolutionary novel Savages. Directed by Oliver Stone, it’s the story of Ben and Chon, two Southern California marijuana kingpins who run afoul of a Mexican cartel. Shenanigans ensue. While Stone assembled a cast that blends established stars – John Travolta, Salma Hayek – and young stars on the verge of breakout success – Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively – images from the film have been few and far between.

Until recently, when viewers got their first look at the poster for the film. The verdict? Not bad. While the style – a series of successive images stacked atop each other – is reminiscent of other film posters, those images are powerful and striking, overall. One of my biggest concerns about Savages is whether or not Stone can capture the novel’s sense of scope. It’s a rapidly shifting book when it comes to perspective, moving from big, exciting set pieces to small, intimate moments from page to page. The top image on the poster, with its white sand, blue sky, and embracing couple, strikes that tone.

I’m also a fan of the use of color here – it’s bright, poppy, with nary a teal or orange in sight. While Winslow’s book is dark and gritty at times, Winslow at his best is fun, engaging, and reminiscent of Elmore Leonard. He’s about as hard to adapt as Leonard, it seems, so any adaptation of his work needs to have that fun, free-wheeling spirit to it.

As for the characters, Taylor Kitsch and Benicio Del Toro look like they stepped right out of the book, Blake Lively looks more like Winslow’s surfer character Sunny Day (from The Dawn Patrol) than a mall-hopping chantruce (could just be me, though) and Salma Hayek looks more than threatening enough. John Travolta, whose character is relatively minor in the book, remains a mystery, but appears to be operating in “scenery-chewing” mode.

While Stone was not my first choice to helm this project, this poster is an excellent start in the ramp up to what’s sure to be one of the craziest movies of the summer. Savages opens July 6th.

Check out the debut trailer for the film below.

’70s paranoia thrillers and why we need them now more than ever . . .

It was never going to last that long. Golden ages rarely do. But for a while there in the 1970s, that’s what we had.

Ten years after Richard Hofstadter coined the phrase “the paranoid style” (in a lecture he delivered just days before JFK was assassinated), the national traumas of Vietnam and Watergate were in full swing. Hofstadter’s point was that “they” weren’t out to get you at all — you really were being paranoid. But by the early ’70s, this paradigm had been shattered. The point now was that they really were out to get you, whether you knew it or not, and generally you didn’t until it was too late.

This dark mood of suspicion and disillusionment was reflected at the time in a glorious run of movies — including Alan J. Pakula’s great troika Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men; Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor; and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. In an almost fetishized landscape of impersonal architecture and encroaching technology (with taut, dread-laden scores, usually by Michael Small or David Shire), these movies chart the gradual alienation and disempowerment of the individual in modern society, the stripping away of privacy, and the growing influence of shadowy power structures.

Although very different from these, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (sun-drenched 1930s L.A., unforgettable noir score by Jerry Goldsmith) is perhaps the greatest of them all. That moment at the end when Lieutenant Lou Escobar instructs Loach to handcuff J.J. Gittes to the wheel of a car, thus rendering him powerless to determine the outcome of events, was a major psychological turning point in American cinema, and it mirrored the greater shift going on outside the movie theater. It was like a changing of the guard. Here, suddenly, were serious, challenging stories where the individual had no moral compass anymore and could casually be crushed by malign, unknown forces.

Continue reading “’70s paranoia thrillers and why we need them now more than ever . . .”