The Savages

The Savages

 

The Savages is the story of a fractured family, separated not least by geography, that reunites on the occasion of an aged parent’s health. Both siblings haven’t seen their father in years, so what was probably a slow decline seems to them a sudden plunge into senility. Both have their own problems, and neither is mature enough or equipped to care for their father. Who abandoned whom?

Curiously, the two siblings have defined their lives by two very different aspects of the theater: Wendy (Laura Linney) is a frustrated writer, endlessly applying for grants instead of actually writing. Rather, she brings a great deal of fiction into her everyday life: she manufactures drama at every turn, not just with her lover but also with her own body (she has a mean case of hypochondria). She is definitely a narcissist; her lover is only slightly older than she, but to her he is an “older man.” Also, note her hysterical (in both senses of the word) rationale for her belief that she is above an affair: “I have an M.F.A.”

savages1.jpgPhilip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney in The Savages

Her brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a college professor trapped in a perpetually unfinished book analyzing Brecht. Based on his attitude towards Wendy and her lover (a theater director), he evidently looks down on those that do the dirty business of actually creating theater.

In a coda, we see that both Jon and Wendy appear to have grown, and become unstuck in the careers and personal lives. Unfortunately, the ending rings false, not in keeping with the tone of the events before it. Is writer/director Tamara Jenkins’ theme that the death of a parent is a final stepping stone in growing up? If so, how and why? As they did not witness their father’s aging, the audience did not witness Wendy and Jon’s offscreen growth.

savages2.jpgLaura Linney and Philip Bosco in The Savages

Two talented Chrises make contributions: Gbenga Akinnagbe (Chris in HBO’s The Wire) appears as perhaps the most mature and sensible character in the film. And Chris Ware was an excellent choice to design the poster and DVD menus, for The Savages would fit very nicely alongside his Acme Novelty Library comic book series.


Official movie site: www.foxsearchlight.com/thesavages

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The Departed

departed.jpg

 

Martin Scorsese works almost constantly, directing documentaries between each higher-profile feature film. But the frequency of his fiction films is far enough apart for them to remain much more hotly anticipated, and every year that went by with him being passed over by the Academy Awards only more firmly established his status as a Great American Director.

Despite finally being the occasion of his long-overdue recognition by the Academy, The Departed probably won’t be ranked among his more idiosyncratic and personal films like Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas (not to mention his still-underappreciated films about religious faith: The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun). The Departed is a remake of the 2002 Chinese thriller Infernal Affairs, and thus should actually be categorized alongside Scorsese’s other star-studded remake, Cape Fear. Both are undoubtedly stamped with Scorsese’s auteur touch, but still not among his most distinctively personal work.

The DepartedSo, Jack, what was Polanski really like?

Seeing the film for the second time, this time on the small screen, this Dork Reporter is struck by the extremely high energy and pace. Like Michael Mann’s Heat (an influence on Infernal Affairs), the story concerns the parallel narratives of a cop — or should I say “cwawp” — (Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costigan) and a criminal (Matt Damon as Colin Sullivan). But unlike Mann’s stately pacing, Scorsese keeps every scene remarkably short and frantically cross-cuts between the dual narratives. Were Marty and editor Thelma Schoonmaker chugging espressos in the editing suite?

One aspect of the plot I still don’t fully understand: what exactly does crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) offer Colin to ensure such undying loyalty? It doesn’t seem enough that Frank provided minor charity to Colin’s struggling family in his youth. What does Colin really owe him?

The DepartedSo, Jack, what was Antonioni really like?

But any nagging pacing or character issues are more than excused by the priceless repartee between Capt. Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) and Sgt. Dignam (Marky Mark Mark Wahlberg):



ELLERBY:
Go fuck yourself.

DIGNAM:
I'm tired from fucking your wife.

ELLERBY:
How is your mother?

DIGNAM:
Good, she's tired from fucking my father.


Official movie site: thedeparted.warnerbros.com

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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead movie poster

 

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a powerful, electric return to form for the 83 year-old Sidney Lumet, director of such canonical classics as 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Network, and, uh, The Wiz?

Kelly Masterson’s screenplay tells the high-tension tale of a pair of wholly doomed brothers as a non-linear narrative from multiple points of view. Each jump in time and p.o.v. is accompanied by a thrilling editing technique I haven’t seen anywhere else but Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider: the current and subsequent scene ricochet back and forth in increasing speed until we’re hurtled through time into another fragment of the narrative.

Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You're DeadSidney Lumet’s masterclass in blocking, Fig. A

The movie is full of examples of a fine director knowing how to use the form to the story’s advantage. For one example of how the composition of a shot reflects the subtext of the scene, note how that whenever Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawk) plot their scheme in the bar, Andy physically looms over Hank and dominates the frame with his bulk.

Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, and Marisa Tomei in Before the Devil Knows You're DeadStarring Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, and Marisa Tomei’s boobs

The acting is great all around, including a devastating turn from Albert Finney as a bitterly disappointed father, and Marisa Tomei as a woman who cast her lot with two of the worst prospects on the planet. And in case you think Hawke and Hoffman are miscast as siblings, well… just watch.


Watch the trailer.

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Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Sense and Sensibility

 

In this Dork Reporter’s opinion, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility is the best of breed of Jane Austen film adaptations. Please note, however, there are two very good reasons to discredit my opinion on this subject:

I. Despite my English major, I am ashamed to admit I have read only one Jane Austen novel: Emma. Yeah, I know, I’ve got to get working on that.

II. Sense and Sensibility features two of this Dork Reporter’s all-time favorite movie crushes: Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. Any film featuring just one of these English roses automatically earns extra credit. Any film featuring Emma and Kate, together, equals porn (especially if they hop into bed together, as they do here… granted, as sisters keeping their toes warm, but still!). Any film featuring Emma and Kate, plus a screenplay by Emma, equals orgasm.

Sense and SensibilityKate’s got a bee in her bonnet

A few extra notes:

  • Dork Report guest commentator (and first-class Austen aficionado) Snarkbait has coined the best phrase for this genre: “Regency Era froth”
  • Actor Greg Wise (John Willoughby) later became Mr. Emma Thompson, after Kenneth Branaugh foolishly let her get away
  • Hugh Grant’s trademark stammer, persistent interest in the carpet, and out-of-control hair are still charming even in 18th Century surroundings. But it is difficult to stifle a snicker when the devilish Grant, as Edward Ferrars, expresses an interest in joining the Church
  • I wish I had Alan Rickman’s (Col. Brandon) vocal cords
  • Hey, look! It’s Tom Wilkinson in a cameo as the soon-to-be-late Mr. Dashwood! The Dork Report thinks Wilkinson is one of the finest actors working today
  • required viewing: Emma Thompson’s 1996 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar acceptance speech (not on YouTube as of this writing, but here is the text)

Sense and SensibilityIt ain’t easy being sensible

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In the Valley of Elah

In the Valley of Elah

 

In the Valley of Elah is a dark story about the psychological damage of war, certainly not a recipe for an entertaining night at the movies. This Dork Reporter will cop to finding it difficult to work up the enthusiasm to see it, fearing the resultant depression (despite my love and respect for cinema as an art form, and staunch sympathy for the anti-war movement, sometimes a person just needs a little light entertainment). But writer/director Paul Haggis structured the plot as a murder mystery, with a few pinches of wry humor, to craft an excellent film that is not punishingly sad.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a pious, patriotic, and disciplined man. But he is also emotionally detached; he investigates the mysterious death of his son as would an almost superhuman detective. Drawing upon his skills as both a former army soldier and police sergeant, he outwits both the army’s own investigators and the resident local police smartypants Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Impressively for an old coot, he is even able to locate a back-alley cell phone phreaker, in an unfamiliar town, using only a diner’s phone book. But the seemingly cold man does reveal his pain and weakness before the end, and even a hidden unsavory side involving racism.

In the Valley of Elah(Don’t Go Back To Sgt.) Rockville

The title derives from the Biblical parable of David and Goliath, a macho mano-a-manu beatdown that occurred during the battle of the Israelites vs. the Palestinians. Aside from the obvious parallels to the locale and participants of the ancient and never ending Middle East conflicts, the tale is also a metaphor for how Deerfield views manhood and how he raised his son: to stand tall against any odds. But as Deerfield learns unpleasant truths about his son (drugs, torture, prostitutes) and his country (unjustified war, institutional corruption), he must, late in life, come to reevaluate his most core beliefs. So what makes this clearly liberal anti-war film special is its respect for exactly the type of person it might indict: the god-fearing patriot.

In the Valley of ElahWhitman’s Sampler, my favorite!

Finally, I’d like to highlight one excellent scene (in every way: writing, acting, and directing): as Deerfield phones his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) to tell her their son is dead, the scene begins in the middle, and in the end the camera pulls back to show Joan has torn apart the room. A lesser film would have shown the whole thing, for the sake of melodrama.


Official movie site: www.inthevalleyofelah.com

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Se, jie (Lust, Caution)

Lust Caution movie poster

 

As a public service, The Dork Report would like to issue a warning to anyone that under the impression that Se, jie (Lust, Caution) is an NC-17 erotic thriller. Judging from the marketing campaign alone, one might understandably imagine that the latest film from the director of Sense & Sensibility and Eat Drink Man Woman would be a sexy drama suitable for viewing with a significant other, but be warned that most of it is quite far from titillating. In fact, the first of three sex scenes can only be classified as a rape (albeit one complicated by the characters’ complex relationship).

Se, jie is set in 1942 Japanese-occupied Shanghai, with flashbacks to the few years preceding. A naive but sincerely dedicated bunch of Chinese student activists form a terrorist cell, with the aim to assassinate collaborator Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). Theater student Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) discovers she is a natural actress and gifted improviser, which unfortunately also makes her a superbly qualified as a undercover spy.

Lust CautionA scene from what might be called Ang Lee’s “Deceive Rape Man Woman”

To fully inhabit her cover story as a married woman, she must first lose her virginity. This happens almost simultaneously with her cell losing their metaphorical virginity as they messily execute their first righteous assassination. As Paul Newman discovers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, murder is hard work, and takes time.

Se, jie was released in the same year as Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and concerns many of the same themes: wartime occupation, violent resistance, and the use of sex as undercover ingratiation. But while Verhoeven couldn’t resist front-loading his film with plenty of cheesecake, Ang Lee and James Schamus take the high road and don’t pretend that the morally empty Mr. Yee isn’t violently twisted, and that Wong Chia Chi doesn’t absolutely suffer for her cause.

Lust CautionThis blog is rated NC-17 for publishing naughty film stills

Official movie site: www.filminfocus.com/lustcaution

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Things We Lost in the Fire

Things We Lost in the Fire

 

Things We Lost in the Fire is a melodrama modeled after 21 Grams in almost every way: the story of a nuclear family shattered by a random death, told as a nonlinear narrative, with conspicuously arty cinematography, and costarring Benicio Del Toro.

Even a single-sentence description of the basic plot conveys how overwrought things get: Audrey (Halle Berry) impulsively takes in her dead husband Brian’s (David Duchovny) heroin-addicted friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro). Audrey’s motivations are semi-consciously selfish; she perhaps thinks that she can retain some connection with her dead husband by indefinitely extending his fruitless effort to help his childhood friend to kick his drug habit.

Things We Lost in the FireThis movie’s kind of a drag, don’t you think?

But unaware of the adage that one must beware what one asks for, she becomes resentful when her plan unexpectedly succeeds. Jerry does in fact begin to kick drugs, a neighbor takes an implausibly quick shine to him and offers him a job, he teaches one of her kids to swim (a task at which her husband had previously failed), and he responds to her flirtatious advances.

Inexplicably, the movie ends with the wrong Velvet Underground song; someone chose “Sweet Jane” over “Heroin.” If the filmmakers thought it too obvious, then how do you explain everything else in the movie?


Official movie site: www.thingswelostinthefire.com

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