Savages You Can Count On

In 2007’s The Savages, Laura Linney turns in an Oscar-nominated performance of Kenneth Longergan’s Oscar-nominated screenplay about a sister whose tragic childhood scars her and her brother well into adultho–

Wait. What? That was 2000’s You Can Count On Me?

Oh, right. Sorry.

In The Savages, Laura Linney turns in an Oscar-nominated performance of Tamara Jenkin’s Oscar-nominated screenplay about a sister whose tragic childhood scars her and her brother well into adulthood.

Snark aside, the movies aren’t that close. In the older movie, Linney has adjusted pretty well and is sort of a rock for her brother, Mark Ruffalo, who is much less stable. About all she can do for him is be there.

In Savages, Linney and Hoffman are both maladjusted, with Linney somewhat more adrift, but neither able to grow up. You know, the first thing that needs to be pointed out is that the trailers make this out to be sort of whimsical. There are some humorous moments–especially punctuating what would otherwise be overly heavy-handed scenes–but this isn’t a movie with a lot of yuks.

In fact, I thought at first the movie was going to be a real slog. Linney’s character thrives on melodrama, and she’s happy to lie to get a reaction she wants. Hoffman’s character is flat–not his acting, but his character, I know some of you hate him, but I liked him in this–and dull, not given to open expressions of emotion, which in this case means his emotions emerge in weird ways.

When the movie starts, their father, played by Philip Bosco, is being kicked from his house, apparently as his dementia worsens. Although they haven’t talked to him in a long time, as his family, the responsibility of taking care of him falls to them. The back story, not terribly fleshed out, is that he was abusive and their mother simply ran off. Somehow they survived and while they must have relied on each other–they talked with each other even though they haven’t talked to their father in 20 yers–they’re not exactly warm to each other.

Anyway, it’s a (perhaps not so) curious thing. They are likable, even with their flaws. I’m not sure, for example, in that situation, whether I would feel any particular obligation to take care of an abusive parent. But they never challenge it for a second. Linney’s character even feels guilty about the quality of the home (which is functional but not wonderful).

You realize pretty soon that this isn’t going to be a “reconcile with Dad” movie (a la Tim Burton). Dad’s a MacGuffin. He seems to have no awareness of his past sins. (It is suggested at one point that his father was abusive, but this isn’t really a cathartic thing.) He’s basically there so that his kids can figure out how to let go of the past.

It’s an indie movie, so there’s no big “happily ever after,” but there’s a nice bit of hope. As contrasted with You Can Count On Me, where you know the brother’s going to be a screw-up for the rest of his life, in this film, you have reason to believe that the two will get past a least some of their dysfunction.

This movie’s been floating around for three months now and probably isn’t going to be released widely (can it really have wide appeal?) but it’ll be on DVD within two months, I’ve heard. Hollywood’s put me into this quandary, though: They’re not really turning out the quality fluff these days. I love independent and foreign films but come on: A guy’s got to have desert, too!

Anyway, Laura Linney kicked ass as the CIA chief in Breach. Enough of the dysfunctional sisters, I say!

Die Mönefachers: The Counterfeiters

Die Fälscher won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language picture and happens to be the only one of the nominees to actually make it to a local theater (a few days) before the ceremonies.

You can’t ever get enough WWII stories, apparently. This shows us yet another angle we’ve never seen: Nazi counterfeiting rings. (Well, at least not in this detail.)

This is the story of a Jewish counterfeiter who’s captured by the Nazis and placed into a concentration camp where he manages to survive by doing portraits of various representatives of the Master Race long enough to be enlisted into the Nazi’s scheme to fund their war effort and bankrupt the allies by forging pounds and dollars.

The movie gets off to a bit of a slow start, but builds nicely as the counterfeiter (Karl Markovics, whose oeuvre I’m unfamiliar with, though there are familiar faces from Das leben der anderen and Downfall) goes from a near sociopathic state to something a little more human.

It’s not an easy transformation: The counterfeiter (Saloman) is constantly forced to act in self-interest to survive. The world is telling him to act as he’s always done, but he doesn’t like the world that this creates. By the time he’s confronted with the reality of funding the Nazi war effort or dying and letting his fellow concentration camp inmates, he’s clearly conflicted. Intriguingly, he has one code (don’t squeal) that he holds on to when almost everyone else is surviving at any cost.

The movie is nicely bookended with Saloman visiting Monte Carlo with a briefcase full of cash.
You have a different view of that at the beginning than you do at the end.

I don’t know if it was the best foreign movie of the year, but it was the best of the five I’ve seen.

Juno, Romanian Style

I went to see the Romanian flick 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days before if vanished from the local cinema. I didn’t take The Boy. He already hates commies and like Das leben der anderen, this film isn’t going to enamor anyone of communist regimes.

This is not a movie for everyone, as I’m fond of saying, because it’s an ugly story and it’s paced like a Kubrick movie, without the long tracking shots. Think Schultze Gets The Blues, only devoid of humor and life. And, actually, Schulze sets up a shot and the characters move through it, but in this film, the camera sits there and the central characters barely move at all.

The premise of the movie is simple (and if you want to go in blind, you shouldn’t read this): It’s 1987 Romania and college1 student Gabita is pregnant. She uses her roommate to help her get an abortion. This results in unexpected costs. and nearly two solid hours of bleak despair.

The director is remorseless in this regard. The movie–the events of the movie–could be cut down to 40 minutes easily. There are long shots where no one talks and very little happens. This heigtens the uneasiness, the awkwardness, and the general discomfort–but also made it hard for me to stay awake during the climactic scenes.

Actually, the movie this reminds me the most of is Caché, even though that movie is a metaphor disguised as literal events, where this movie is a very literal series of events which could be seen as a metaphor. But Caché has the trappings of a mystery, which it isn’t, and if you watch it that way, you’ll be bored. This movie incorporates a lot of the elements of a thriller, but never carries through (and would be an entirely different, and less real, film if it did). You might still be bored, depending on how much you appreciate the restrained, tense acting that is center stage for most of the film.

It’s really a treatise on the banality of evil. The characters are trapped in this oppressive state, where corruption is so integral to every day life (black markets, bribery, surveillance), that the only time Otilia (the main character) seems awakened to what they’re actually doing, is when she must confront (and dispose of) the evidence.

Like Juno, Mar ardento, and other movies that handle controversial topics well, a commendable thing about this film is that it doesn’t take a side and beat you to death with it. You could argue that it’s pro-choice, for example, especially given the passing reference to the young women’s periods being monitored by the dorm mother. On the other hand, it offers no romanticization of it. It’s clearly anti-oppression and anti-corruption, but those are hardly controversial points.

But it’s a disturbing film, and slow, and contains a particularly shocking scene. This makes it hard to recommend.

1. Forgive the imprecision. She’s at a school, she’s college age. I don’t know if they called them universities, or polytechnics or what.

The Diving Bell in the Sea Inside

I can’t help it. Mar adentro was my favorite film of 2004, so naturally, when I see another movie about a paralyzed guy, I’m going to compare. (I think Murderball, about paraplegics was an awesome documentary I saw in the same year.)

This isn’t a right-to-die movie (and, really, neither was Mar adentro, but it revolved around that philosophical quetion), and the real Jean-Dominique Bauby actually did dictate his memoir by freakin’ blinking his one working eye. So there’s that.

While one has to be amazed that the Spanish made a compelling movie (Mar adentro) where the lead character could only move his head, it’s almost one-upmanship that the French made a movie around a lead character who could only blink his eye.

The imagery is much the same, of course, but the motivations are different. Where Ramon Sampedro (Mar) has no hope of recovery, Jean-Do (Butterfly) has a slim hope that he ultimately works toward (when not engrossed in self-pity). Neither story offers any reason for the injury: Ramon is painted as a proud, physical man, while Jean-Do’s only sin seems to be having left his wife (and his children, though he visits them) for another woman and treating her rather callously–even when his mistress (who he’s broken up with prior to his “event”) hasn’t seen him once while he’s been hospitalized.

This is as it should be, no doubt. Moralizing would be a ham-handed attempt at manipulation for some ulterior purpose. I would have liked a different ending to this film, but that was out of a human desire to see a miracle rather than feeling cheated by someone trying to make a “serious” film.

Now, obviously, this film isn’t for everyone. I didn’t find it depressing–I don’t find movies with sad cirumstances to be depressing, just movies that celebrate nihilism–but it’s not (as one might reasonably worry) dull. If you found Mar adentro worth watching, you’ll probably enjoy this one, too, as its reflections on mortality and morality are much different.

As a postscript, I have to say that I love the way French films I’ve seen show women, particularly older women. The women are shown with scars and wrinkles, and otherwise less than flawless skin, but they’re still portrayed as being objects of desire. And Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Jose Croze, Anne Consigny and the others are all quite lovely.

Cloverfield: Gojira Redux

I don’t rush out to see (or quickly post reviews of) the big movies. You can get that lots of other places. Unlike, say, my keen insight on the latest movies about the Middle East.

But we did go out to see Cloverfield. The Boy pronounced it “the best monster movie I’ve ever seen”.

Well, okay.

Monster movies are inherently a dated thing. Alien–the horror movie of my generation–to him is like Frankenstein was to me. It’s perhaps weird to think of exploding chests in the same category as stiff-legged golems, but it’s not so much a matter of gore, I think, as a matter of what seems more real.

And Cloverfield does a good job selling itself. In a nutshell, this is a Godzilla movie with the emphasis on a group of people who are unfortunate enough to be at Ground Zero when “it” arrives. A plot contrivance forces them to go toward the monster rather than away, which gives us opportunities to see the the beast major as well as all the little beasties that drop off it like lice.

This contrivance takes about 15-20 minutes to set up which had me saying “Thank God!” when the monster finally arrives. (At another point, when the characters have spent lots of time and risked themselves horribly to save another character who appears to be dead when they find them, The Boy leaned over and said to me, “Well, that was time well spent.”)

I’d heard some bitching about the monster, but I liked it and the boy proclaimed it “perfect”. The shaky cam didn’t bother me much and of course The Boy barely noticed it. (I have a theory about that: I think kids today are well-exposed to shaky-cam stuff so their brains automatically stabilize images internally in a way that older folks have to work at, if they can do it at all.)

It’s fun without being campy. Exciting without being too preposterous. Mysterious without being obscure. It’s actually a very old school style movie, with the monster not introduced until well into the movie, and not really shown clearly until the last act. It’s surprising that it works at all, but it does.


The Kickboxer vs. The Mime

Back in the glory days of the teen slasher and the martial arts film, someone got a wonderful idea. A wonderful, awful idea. “Let us marry,” they said, blowing smoke rings into the already hazy room from a fat, hand-rolled cigarette, “the slasher film with the karate film.”

Then, of course, they got the munchies and forgot all about it.

But the idea was out there now. In the zeitgeist, if you will. And somehow–Jung only knows how–the idea filtered into Producer Anthony Unger’s head, or perhaps it was writer Joseph Fraley who saw it in a vision, and someone said unto them, “Hey, I know Chuck Norris.”

And Silent Rage was born.

The premise is simple: Brian Libby (now one of the Frank Darabont regulars) plays a killer who is taken down by the inimitable Chuck Norris. In the morgue, some coroners (those scamps!) decide to bring him back to life using a serum that renders him immortal. (I think the idea is that he regenerates super-fast, like Wolverine or something.)

Now, this plays out like two films: The horror film where the killer goes around killing, and the Chuck Norris film, where Chuck Norris goes around kicking. And that’s all I have to say about that.

But when they finally meet, it’s actually a groundbreaking bit of cinematic goofiness I like to call bullets-can’t-hurt-him-I-guess-I’ll-have-to-kick-him-to-death. It may not be the first example of this, but it’s the first I can recall. (I think the pinnacle of this kind of absurdity was probably Underworld: Evolution.)

Basically, after being shot, run over, dropped off a building, and set on fire, all that’s left is for Norris to kick the crap out of him. He’s slow moving, as all these guys are for some reason, so Chuck gets to wail on him a good long time before knocking him down a well.

Keeping in mind all that he’s gone through up to this point, you’d say, “OK, board up the well. Or fill it with rocks. He’s already fallen further and been fine. Surely you can’t just walk away at this point. NOT NOW?!”

But indeed, the movie ends there, with Norris walking off arm-in-arm with Toni Kalem (late of “The Sopranos”), and the entirely predictable moments-later bursting out of the well by the killer. One of those, “Well, we had to end the film some time and this seemed as good a time as any.”

Though unique (as far as I know) in its status as a genre-blender1, this move is actually very, very typical of movies of the day, and the two genres come off as oil-and-water.

Besides the aforementioned actors, the film features a number of familiar character actors, including Stephen Furst (“Flounder” from Animal House, who would go on to achieve stardom anew by being in and directing episodes of “Babylon 5”) and the great Ron Silver, who really wasn’t so great back in those days. (Though he’s way better than he was in the ‘70s by this point.)

With enough action that you can watch it for fun, and enough goofiness that you can riff on it, if that’s your mood, it’s not a bad film to sit down with.

1. Friday The Thirteenth Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan has a short scene where a karate dude tries to kick Jason around and gets his head knocked off, but if that’s an homage to this film, it’s not apparent. The Buffy universe doesn’t really fit in this category either, since it’s not horror blended with martial arts, but martial arts in an occult universe, where the horror elements are window dressing. (Joss Whedon does the same thing in a sci-fi universe with Firefly.)

Persepolis: Another Movie About The Suckitude In The Middle/Far East

But wait! This one is animated.

And, actually, that’s an important starting consideration. Low budget animation can be very hard to watch. (Check out Adult Swim some time.) This mostly black-and-white marvel manages to evoke the UP-style 2D animation, techniques of Ralph Bakshi, and the occasional florid Yellow Submarine-ish look.

I’m grateful. Really. The animation serves the movie.

I found the story interesting and engaging, which is in itself kind of intriguing, because it has features that I’ve found reprehensible in other recent films. Basically, the story follows Marji Satrapi, who grew up during the fall of the Shah, the subsequent revolution, the Islamic takeover, the subsequence Iraq-Iran War, and the increasing enforcement of Shari’a.

Where The Kite Runner featured a character who was cowardly but obsessed with his shame, Persepolis is about a character who commits no great acts and is primarily self-absorbed. When the movie starts, she’s a child, and it’s understandable that she sees things in terms of herself. (One of the movies subtle yet moving contrasts is that of young Marji’s dreams of being a prophet at the beginning of the movie with her defiance of others claiming to be prophets toward the end.)

When the Iran-Iraq War starts, her parents send her to live in Vienna, where she associates with a bunch of typical teens enamored of anarchist/nihilist type philosophies in the usual shallow way. The ironic part is that when she realizes how full of crap they are (having survived the sort of upheaval they all listlessly pine for) she doesn’t seem to really gain any insight into her own experience. (It’s kind of funny to me, though, that she’s made to feel shame about her Iranian heritage in multi-culti Europe. Iranians in USA seem to refer to themselves as Persians, but I can’t recall anyone caring.)

Even when she goes back to Iran, and the repression is bad and growing worse all the time, she doesn’t really clue in quickly. (As it turns out, she’s still pretty young, around 20, which is sort of shocking given all she’s goes through in her teens.) There’s a persistent undercurrent of anger and victimization which is somehow not off-putting, perhaps because it’s rather warranted.

The story wisely stays away from trying to figure anything out. The situation in Iran has been complicated for some time, and it’s clear even the characters don’t really get what’s going on (though it’s fairly clear they’d like it to stop, please).

We’re often told that Iranians are a lot like us and that the smart thing to do in Iran is encourage them to make the choice they want to make anyway. And it’s hard not to admire a people who are willing to party when the consequence of being caught partying is death. Like the Afghanis depicted in Kite Runner, we’re left with the trite observation that things have gone horribly wrong there and the world would be much benefited from stability and freedom in those parts.

I have to wonder, though: Can we get a story like this about Iraq?