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Review: “The Savages” (2007)

“The Savages” is so credible — sometimes mortifyingly so — in its depictions of nursing homes and elderly parents that it could be a documentary. That is to be expected, since Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are the kind of relatable actors who look and act like actual human beings. They act in ways that make it seem like they aren’t acting at all, but going through the motions of life as the script prescribes. “The Savages,” an awkward gem, requires them to play caregivers to the aging father, Lenny (Philip Bosco), who never cared very much for them. Wendy and Jon Savage are not prepared for this, but who is? Spoon-feeding your father applesauce while he lies, shrunken and dopey, in a hospital bed is unnatural. 

There aren’t many films that endeavor to capture the undignified end as it is. Rosey films like “The Notebook” romanticize senility, turn dementia into fodder for romantic drama or melodrama. There are sloppy crocodile tears and wailing when a parent, grandparent or spouse stops recognizing loved ones. In “The Savages,” director Tamara Jenkins sidesteps this road. She romanticizes nothing, intuiting that melodrama is something the family of a disabled elderly person does not have time for. It’s hard to cling and weep when nurses keep changing diapers. Jenkins emphasizes the small details that tell the emotional story underneath, like the way Wendy insists on decorating her father’s room with knicknacks even though he could care less. She argues tearfully with Jon (Hoffman) that Lenny should go into the best facility they can afford; he observes pragmatically that their father won’t know the difference anyway and he was a terrible father, so why waste the money. There’s no drama in this scene, only the truth that the drastic change in Lenny’s life will affect theirs.

Most of “The Savages” plays out in Lenny’s facility, where he devolves from a hateful misanthrope to more or less an infant. It sometimes happens this way in such places, the devolution from adult to child. There’s something intrinsically unsettling about this end-of-life process. Jenkins doesn’t highlight the transformation in any splashy way; this only serves to make it more real. Bosco manages both aspects of Lenny quite capably. Lenny’s not a nice man, never was, but watching the spirit seep out of him is sad. Wendy, a playwright living in New York City, and Jon, a professor/author from Buffalo, must to decide what to do with Lenny after his girlfriend dies and he’s unable to live alone. He’s moved from Arizona, cursing and spitting, to a place in Buffalo so they can visit him. Wendy and Jon don’t want to visit him, and when they do they feel as twitchy and out of place as we all do in nursing homes. Wendy takes the couch at Jon’s place and notes his odd relationship with his girlfriend — he won’t marry her to keep her from being deported, but he cries when she cooks him breakfast (trust Hoffman to make this seem touching, not weird). Wendy’s own romantic life is mired in a pointless affair with a married man (Peter Friedman), and her kiss with a kind nurse (Gbenga Akinnagbe) ends in disappointment. Still, the more Lenny’s situation draws Wendy and Jon together, the more they realize how his abuse stunted them. They don’t speak of this in grand terms; it’s more of a gradual realization that bonds them when they aren’t looking. 

“The Savages” is Jenkins’ second “unconvential” film. The first, “Slums of Beverly Hills,” centered on the Abromowitz clan, a nomadic family held together by shared neuroses. It’s the same with Wendy and Jon Savage. Perhaps only together could they handle bearing witness to the reality of dying: the bedpans and diapers, the pills dissolved into pudding cups, the silent moments that come after talking is pointless, the wait for some kind of end. When it comes in “The Savages,” Wendy can only ask: “Is that it?” It might sound callous, but to those of us who have watched an elderly loved one die with a whimper and not a bang, it’s a home truth that’s frustrating and beautiful in its own way. 

Grade: A

Review: “25th Hour” (2003)

Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” opens with Monty Brogan (Edward Norton, low-key and smoldering as ever) rescuing a half-dead dog from a New York City alley. Curious. Is it a fond memory? Does it speak to some innate goodness in Monty’s nature? It could be both. Or it could point to a less happy ending, a twist of fate. Both are, in a sense, sitting ducks — the dog in the beginning, Monty in the end. The key difference is that the dog didn’t do anything to deserve his circumstances. He is innocent. Monty, we will learn, is not.

Even if Monty’s not innocent, he’s a genial enough guy. He’s strong-willed, street smart, cordial but never overly familiar with his clients — all good qualities for a drug dealer to have. Greed turns out to be his undoing. It’s Monty’s last night of freedom before he starts a seven-year prison term for cocaine possession/intent to distribute, so at times “25th Hour” feels like a death march with one probable ending. Monty’s childhood friend Frank (Barry Pepper) reasons that he actually has three choices: He can do the time and come out broken, commit suicide or run. Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Monty’s other best friend, has a more hopeful (possibly “delusional”) outlook: He will visit Monty in prison; he will care for his dog; and when Monty’s sentence is over, life will go back the way it was. Jacob wonders why prison has to change things. That Frank and Jacob discuss this in an apartment with a window overlooking ground zero is telling, an atmospheric touch to underscore the grim mood of this evening. Monty’s girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) can’t think seven years ahead; she’s just worried that Monty’s gradually pulling away from her. His fater, James (Brian Cox), alternately tries to bolster Monty’s spirits and wonders aloud how Monty let himself get into this situation. Monty’s quick to remind his father that he wasn’t so critical when the drug money kept his bar afloat.

Unusual about “25th Hour” is the way the secondary characters’ motivations and lives are more intriguing than the protagonist’s. This could be seen as a flaw, or a subversion of expectations. Monty has an expiration date stamped on his freedom; the course of his life has been decided. There’s little room for spontaneity. What’s surprising is the way his friends deal with this looming expiration date. Hoffman’s Jacob is a poor schlub, a teacher besotted with one of his students,  Mary (Anna Paquin). He channels his frustration over Monty’s situation into an ill-advised kiss with the 17-year-old, whose expression is a silent scream. Pepper, all bravado and suppressed hostility, needs someone to blame for Monty’s fall. Naturelle is an easy, vulnerable target (a “gold-digging spic,” he calls her). Dawson reacts like a wounded animal, making it clear she understands that Monty’s friends and associates suspect. No one has to say it. And why not? She’s as guilty as everybody else — guilty of enjoying Monty’s steady cash flow, of waiting too long to urge him to get out of the business. Dawson is terrific in the part, determined to make Naturelle deeper than a trophy girlfriend in a skin-tight silver dress.

The subtext Spike Lee infuses into “25th Hour” is that everyone is looking for someone to blame for Monty’s mistake, which provides a natural — and artfully rendered — metaphor for post-9/11 New York City. Lee certainly doesn’t hide this, even beginning “25th Hour” with a shot of NYC’s skyline with the twin beams of blue light is striking. It’s a doozy of a mood setter that suggests Lee will chronicle how those attacks knocked New York City’s people flat, stumbling and furious like bees stunned by smoke. He illustrates all that frustration, all that anger no one knows where to direct, in a breathtaking scene where Norton spies “fuck you!” scrawled on a pub’s bathroom mirror and launches into a powerful, no-holds-barred tirade against everyone he can think of: Korean grocers, blacks, Indian cab drivers, Enron-styled rich crooks. It’s a moment where one rant captures the collective anger of millions of people. For that scene alone, “25th Hour” may be the definitive portrait of New York City reeling back after 9/11.

Grade: B+

No. 43: “Boogie Nights” (1997)

“You know, I’m gonna be a great big, bright shining star.” ~~Dirk Diggler

Watch enough Paul Thomas Anderson films — which won’t take a full day, considering he’s only made five major motion pictures — and a trademark starts to emerge. It’s not the long shots (he’s wonderful with those) or the use of the iris in/out technique (that too). What strikes us, and quite forcefully, is Anderson’s repeated focus on warped, unconventional family dynamics. “Punch Drunk Love” had Barry and his seven wretched sisters; “Magnolia,” the twin stories of Jimmy Gator and Earl Partridge, who slowly poisoned their marriages, their children and themselves. “Boogie Nights” may beat them both, though, in terms of questionable family relationships for its emphasis on a clan of pornographers — actors, directors, producers — who cling to each other out of emotional necessity. Their real families won’t have them; no one else will, either, and so they love the ones they’re with.

This unorthodox sense of togetherness smudges the line between parental love and sexual love, especially in the case of porn stars Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). Freud could have a field day with the peculiar yet loving relationship these two people have. Unable to see her son, Amber has a hole in her heart she needs to fill with something. Cocaine passes the time, but she needs to be needed. And Dirk, a clueless kid determined to escape his own abusive mother, needs a surrogate.These two are a match made in heaven and also hell — they nurture each other, they fill gaps, but they also have a codependent relationship that’s headed nowhere good. More stable is Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, displaying actual depth and empathy), the porn director with a conscience who discovers Dirk bussing tables at a nightclub. “I got a feeling that behind those jeans is something wonderful just waiting to get out,” Jack observes, and he’s not being crude. Jack Horner is a man with an eye for untapped potential. He’s also a man who wants to help a struggling, uncertain high school dropout make something of himself. He adopts a fatherly attitude toward Dirk, who finds makeshift siblings in fellow actors Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly, all childlike innocence) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham).

Remaining characters trickle in and out much like kooky relatives at a family reunion: Maurice Rodriguez (Luis Guzmán), a nightclub owner/Don Juan in his own mind; Colonel James (Robert Ridgely), Jack’s financial backer with a disturbing, illegal secret; and gay boom operator Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman, agonizingly awkward), besotted with Dirk. There’s assistant director Little Bill (William H. Macy, brilliant as usual), whose reaction to his porn star wife’s (Nina Hartley) infidelity is a game-changer in “Boogie Nights.” Also intriguing is Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), who wants to give up his unfulfilling life of sex on camera, meet his soulmate and open a discount electronics store. Little details like that are the mark of a gifted filmmaker. And one thing Anderson, for all his skills behind the camera, never skimps on is the depth of his characters. He can draw impressive performances from actors — Graham, Reynolds and pre-“Departed” Wahlberg — not known for giving them. Even the characters we get fleeting glimpses of, like Thomas Jane’s arrogant Todd, Philip Baker Hall’s visionless financier Floyd or Alfred Molina’s whacked-out drug dealer, leave indelible impressions. Anderson writes “Boogie Nights” so that every person is concealing a story, and we get just enough of a taste of those stories to want more. Anderson backlights the characters’ tensions with his single takes (he holds when other directors would cave) and exquisite soundtrack choices, proving himself as good at illustrating eras and emotions with songs as Scorsese.

In the long list of thingsAnderson does well, there’s something else to tick off: merging multiple storylines into a satisfying conclusion. His endings are poetry, and the final minutes of “Boogie Nights” — shocking for MPAA in the ’90s, they prompted Reynolds to fire his agent and punch Anderson on set — is no exception. Anderson feels for his characters, and he gives them the kind of bittersweet adieus that sit with us indefinitely. It’s not what we expect, but it’s exactly what we need.

No. 42: “Magnolia” (1999)

“I’ll tell you everything, and you tell me everything, and maybe we can get through all the piss and shit and lies that kill other people.”
~~Claudia Wilson Gator

Epic in length, ambition and raw acting talent, “Magnolia” is not an easy film to break down. This motion picture defies quick summary, and that’s not because of a convoluted plot or characters with mystifying or unknowable motivations. Stripped of the gut-churning, elegaic soundtrack (including Aimee Mann’s devastating, Oscar-nominated “Save Me”), “Magnolia” is film about the most mundane of things: people interacting with other people. Under Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction, though, something so ordinary becomes extraordinary. Where other directors might see banality, he sees a life-affirming symphony of emotion.

In making “Magnolia,” Anderson had a rare opportunity for creative control. He decided to seize that opportunity — a wise move considering that a motion picture this theatrical about plain people might not have gotten made any other way. Making something like “Magnolia” involves a gigantic leap of faith that places an equally gigantic amount of trust in viewers. Could they see beauty in two lonely ne’er-do-wells (John C. Reilly, Melora Walters) bonding over a terrible cup of coffee? Or be moved to tears by the plight of a loser (William H. Macy) who lives so deep in the past he can’t see what’s ahead of him? It’s a risk few directors would take; that’s not Anderon’s way, however, and thank God for that. Anyone with a touch of patience and a willingness to accept coincidences will find much to love about “Magnolia,” which at its core is a meditation on the emotions we feel every day, many times a day: anger, sadness, pain, hope, lust, love, betrayal, jealousy and so much more. It is one of the best films ever made about the human condition.

One of the elements to love about “Magnolia” — not shocking given Anderson’s ability to assemble winning ensemble casts — is the performances. Anderson does not write any part, down to a dying man’s nurse, as one-dimensional. There are unfathomable depths to every character, and every actor finds those depths. Because “Magnolia” relies on the everyone-is-connected-somehow theme, there are no true main characters and no stories that preside over all others. Dying patriarchs Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), however, do stand at the middle. Earl pleads with his caretaker Phil (Hoffman) to find Frank (Tom Cruise, who hits a career high), the son Earl abandoned years ago. Frank, a manipulative slimeball who’s made a career of selling his womanizing strategies to regular guys, wants nothing to do with Earl. He also wants nothing to do with Earl’s trophy wife Linda (a wrenching Julianne Moore), who sublimates her guilt with any sedative she can find. Jimmy’s life is approaching its expiration date, and he cannot reconcile with his daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), a cokehead. An inept, kind-hearted cop named Jim (John C. Reilly, a sweetly floundering Everyman) falls for Claudia when her neighbors file a noise complaint against her. Claudia’s father is on the verge of losing the thing that means most to him in the world: his successful game show “What Do Kids Know?” One of the young stars is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), whose father is pushing the boy right up to the breaking point. Donnie Smith (Macy in top comic-tragic form), former child star of the show, watches Stanley with jealous, knowing eyes. Donnie understands the dangers of peaking so young, and his anguish is plaintive: “I do have love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.”

Macy touches on one of the more important prevailing themes — and a universal human problem — in “Magnolia” with these two sentences of dialogue. These people, all bumbling and stumbling through life, have emotions too big to stuff down. Mann’s aching, weary voice perfectly underscores this plight, and Anderson’s tracking shot in the quiz show sequence builds the tension to uncomfortable levels. Like the characters in “Magnolia,” we pray for sweet release. When release comes, we are not prepared and we do not understand. Maybe we don’t need to. Maybe this, Stanley would say, is something that happens.

No. 32: “Happiness” (1998)

“I wake up happy, feeling good … but then I get very depressed because I’m living in reality.” ~~Bill Maplewood

When you think about it, there aren’t that many kinds of happiness. How different, really, is one upbeat, bouncing happy person from another? They aren’t. The reasons for happiness vary, naturally, but happiness itself, as a state of being, is … indistinct, generic. Miserable people, on the other hand, are like snowflakes. There are thousands, probably millions, of ways to be unhappy. In essence, happiness makes us common; misery makes us unique.

Such is the way that director Todd Solondz, an odd, dark little man with an odd, dark little vision, sees the world, and such is the way he paints that world in “Happiness,” an ensemble drama so uncomfortably funny that it belongs in a class of its own. Contrary to the film’s title (is that sarcasm, Mr. Solondz?), none of the people in this world are happy. “Happiness,” set in New Jersey, is a veritable geyser of melancholy. Everyone deals with that unhappiness in different ways. Some, like smug stay-at-home mom Trish (the perpetually overlooked comedic genuis Cynthia Stevenson) and her aimless sister Joy (Jane Adams), labor so hard to project an air of contentment that they almost fool themselves. Others, like shy loser Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Trish’s husband Bill (the phenomenal Dylan Baker), funnel their sadness into juvenile, illegal and immoral hobbies. And some, like Trish’s mom Mona (Louise Lasser), watching her marriage dissentegrate, just weep to the lady at the condo rental office, who tells Mona “divorce is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Coming from a lithe, blue-eyed blonde with up-to-there legs, that’s almost insulting.

On and on the misery merry-go-round goes. You’ve got to wait your turn to hop on; this ride is full. Trish’s sisters Joy (Jane Adams), a broke wannabe musician, and Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), a successful author who kept her New Jersey apartment because she loves “living in a state of irony,” find themselves grasping at relief — usually in the form of any male attention — from the tedium of life. Their father Lenny (Ben Gazzara) has 86’d his 40-year marriage to Mona because he “needs space”; for what he’s not quite sure, since he’s “in love with no one.” One of the saddest characters of all is Kristina (Camryn Manheim), Allen’s frumpy neighbor who finds him in a drunken stupor and resorts to caressing his face to get human contact. There’s an elegant sadness to this scene, the kind that threatens to knot up in your stomach, because we know Kristina. She works with us or rides the subway with us or lives in our building.

Right. So the rotten core of “Happiness” has been established. Why should anyone pick up this strange and disturbing film, let alone weather the full 140 minutes of loneliness and rejection and repressed anger? That all depends on the viewer’s threshold for boundary-pushing subject matter. Solondz’s treatment of children, for example, is questionable. They are not respected or treated with particular kindness; to be blunt, they are objects passed around by adults, used as needed and then discarded rather cruelly, or dismissed altogether. The toughest subplot involves Bill’s growing inability to repress his pedophilia, then a truly shocking, core-rocking scene where he hatches a plot to give in to his urges. Solondz does not write him as a monster but as a man held hostage by his perverse desires. Baker plays him as such, proving he has the talent to do the unthinkable: humanize a pedophile.

Solondz takes similar risks in his grimly comic script (if you like your humor icky/grim), like crafting a joltingly honest sex talk between Bill and son Timmy (Justin Elvin) or Helen admitting that she’s “so tired of being admired all the time.” Solondz makes no bones about the fact that his film is a shock-and-awe campaign, that he will not capsule-up this bitter pill to make it go down smoother. This makes him an uncommon director who’s either reprehensible or commendable for refusing to water down his vision. Question his morals if you want, but you can’t question his gumption. He takes chances few others touch.

Review: “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007)

Hoffman and Hawke relearn that old lesson -- no plan is foolproof -- in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

Hoffman and Hawke relearn that old lesson -- no plan is foolproof -- in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

Here’s the plain truth: Sidney Lumet’s grim, gripping “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” won’t so much wear you down as break you down … hard. In frame after frame, Lumet uses his disjointed, objective direction to build the momentum, and he never hesitates or shrinks back. Neither do the actors. So the hits — emotional and physical — keep coming until the film steamrolls into a conclusion that’s profoundly unsettling. “Devil” is as draining as it is invigorating to behold.

Part of that energy has to do with the way the story (epic in scope) unfolds. The narrative is nonlinear, so the characters are introduced in jarring flashbacks and meta-flashbacks. This a multi-layered story, with plots and subplots weaving in and out, but there is a common thread: Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a man who believes money will rebuild his broken life. Andy convinces his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to commit the perfect crime: Rob their parents’ jewelry store, pawn the merchandise and walk away with $60,000 each. It’s a win-win, since Hank is months behind on his child support and Andy’s living light years beyond his means (thanks to his money-hungry wife, played by Marisa Tomei). But Murphy’s law (or karma?) mucks up Andy’s scheme from minute one, and nothing about the robbery goes as planned. Things go very, very wrong, leaving Andy and a shell-shocked Hank with blood on their hands and their father, Charles (Albert Finney), hell-bent on finding out who planned the robbery.

To say more about the plot would be to ruin the experience of watching “Devil.” There are grueling twists and surprises aplenty. In fact, the film feels much like a vase that’s been broken and glued back together wrong, with sharp edges jutting out and pieces shoved into nooks where they don’t really fit. But that’s why “Devil” is so absorbing — the pieces are all there; it’s up to viewers to put them in order. In Lumet’s mind, it seems, the viewers are the detectives. He makes us work for it.

The actors deserve much of the credit for injecting even more energy into “Devil.” The supporting cast is large, but the players make their performances singularly unforgettable. Finney is quietly effective as Charles, a man reeling from the fallout of a crime he can’t fathom. But his is not a one-note performance, for Charles isn’t an ideal father, and Finney isn’t afraid to let the cracks show. Hawke, too, plays it subtle; it might be the best work he’s ever done. Known for playing fake-charming womanizers, he shrinks himself to portray Hank, an emotional cripple whose coddled upbringing didn’t prep him to deal with reality. He cowers when things go wrong. Tomei, who just keeps getting better, is impressive as Gina. Essentially, Gina’s a trophy wife; she spends more time romancing Andy’s platinum card than Andy. But watch what Tomei does with her eyes, particularly in the scene where Andy breaks down. There are hints of depth there. Gina may be one of the film’s few female characters, but Tomei makes her more than just a party favor.

As for Hoffman, this may be his best performance — and he won an Oscar for “Capote.” In “Devil,” Hoffman gets another meaty role, and he does not disappoint. On one level, he exceeds at demonstrating Andy’s many flaws. Here is a man who craves money and success, a preternaturally calm control freak who refuses to admit he’s sinking too fast to pull himself up. He steals and lies, then wonders why the parts of his life “don’t add up.” But leave it to Hoffman to find beauty where there is none. When Andy finally lets loose, Hoffman rips into the pain like a man possessed. He shows that Andy is an insecure man who has numbed his feelings to the point where he believed they no longer existed. It’s the exhausting, awe-inspiring lit fuse that fires Lumet’s exquisitely crafted and tumultuous Greek tragedy character study.  

Grade: A+

It gets better than Heath Ledger (maybe)

Words on the streets (and by streets I mean the Internet Movie Database) is that the illustrious Johnny Depp and the ever-spectacular Philip Seymour Hoffman (a.k.a. Truman Capote) may star as The Riddler and The Penguin, respectively, in the next Batman installment. I think I speak for shrewd moviegoers everywhere when I say: “Exsqueeze me? Baking powder?”

That’s right — PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN and JOHNNY DEPP. As villains. In an already spectacularly improved Batman franchise. This, I believe, is the best thing to happen since the elimination of Cher Horowitz — I mean, like, Alicia Silverstone — as Batgirl.

Let us all hope, though, that Ledger has not ushered in a Batman pox, the kind that will have paparazzi and/or janitorial staff finding Hoffman or Depp OD’d on a potent (but certainly pleasurable) cocktail of Vicodin, Xanax, Lunesta, Ambien, Oxycontin, Oxycodone and Benadryl.

(Am I the only person who finds it ironic — or is that paradoxical? — that one of Ledger’s last few movies was “Candy,” where he played a heroin addict, and then he offs himself, in part with Hillbilly Heroin?)

OK, back to the point: If you are not excited about this news, stop reading this column because there is simply no talking to you, as I suspect that, deep down, you thought George Clooney made a really, really bitchin’ Batman.