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Sunday, Dec 9, 2007


When film fans think Hong Kong, their mind typically envisions martial arts mania, dedicated shaolin’s kicking period piece butt with a highly skilled and disciplined vengeance. Or perhaps they fast forward a few decades, and see various gangsters and triad members shooting it out in waves of symbolic slow motion ammunition. However, it’s a safe bet that the last facet of Asian cinema they anticipate is the raincoat crowd styled sleazefest - especially when the Shaw Brothers production moniker is on the marquee. But that’s exactly the kind of flesh feasts the company experimented in, especially considering its genre jumping tendencies. A perfect example of this ideal is 1975’s Se sat sou, also known by the more sensationalized name Killer Snakes. Lovers of chop and/or socky need not apply. Instead, this Eastern promise (new to DVD from Image) delivers nothing but sin, skin, and lots and lots of reptilian scales.


When he was young, Chen Zhihong witnessed his parents’ bizarre sex practices. They’ve had a numbing effect on him ever since. Only capable of being aroused by the most serious bondage and discipline pornography, he spends his days looking at dirty magazines and his nights pursuing local prostitutes. Living in a shack near a Chinese snake peddler, he comes across an injured serpent one day. Nursing it back to health, he names it, and befriends many of its equally harmed species. After he’s robbed by a local hooker and her gang of bumbling thugs, Zhihong vows revenge. Using his snakes, he takes on the criminals. Soon, the city is abuzz, as police investigate a series of bite-related deaths. Meanwhile, our hero sinks further and further into madness. Obsessed with a local toy cart merchant, he’s horrified to learn she’s been taken in by a pimp to work in a dancehall. Naturally, with his slithery pals in hand, he hopes to set things right.


The Shaw Brothers sensational Killer Snakes is like cramming the rat revenge epic Willard into every exploitation cliché ever created. More seedy than scary, with as many guilty pleasure delights as solid cinematic tricks, this is Me Decade Hong Kong horror at its most surreal. Helmed by genre journeyman Chih-Hung Kwei and featuring a disturbing turn by actor Kam Kwok-leung, this humiliation into vengeance effort is hard to completely define. Clearly created to explore the seamier side of sex, yet tied directly to the payback style of action adventures thrills, this wonderfully schlocky experience is like a Viagra laced fever dream. Women do get the short end of the stick here, and no matter how hard Chih-Hung tries to balance it out with terror, the bondage and rampant nudity dominate the discussion. Still, for all it gets right, we easily settle in and wait for the wantonness.

It’s hard to find an underlying theme within this otherwise grind-housed gratuity. The Shaws could have been trying to explore the growing divide among the classes of the newly urbanized Hong Kong. The focus on poor, put upon Chen Zhihong and his near homeless existence complements the constant referencing to rich pimps and ruthless businessman. However, this lowlife vs. the highfaluting dynamic is barely touched on by Snakes. Instead, the main narrative centers on our hero’s psycho-sexual distress and love of porn. Chih-Hung spends several minutes on miscreant montages, layouts from X rated magazines matching the equally erotic fantasies fouling up Zhihong’s mind. They swirl and pulsate like a teen boy’s nightly bed wettings. Toss in the virginal toy seller who winds up become a dime-a-dance gal, and the pathway to the perverted is paved with scads of sicko smuttiness.


Yet it’s the title fiends that pack the most punch. Like Willard, Killer Snakes has Zhihong rescuing an injured reptile (as in most Asian cultures, the serpent is sought for its gall bladder, which supposedly contains aphrodisiacal qualities), and once nursed back to health, the cobra becomes his best pal and familiar. Whenever his caretaker is threatened, this snake calls up his comrades and does some hilarious toss fu on the bad guys. Indeed, the one warning you will not read on this film’s credits is “No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of this Movie”. We get vipers having their organs cut out, others being stomped and thrown about wildly, and a last act attack featuring numerous creatures literally cut in half. Pro-PETA audience members will palpitate at the sight of such slaughter It makes the Italian animal torture of the Cannibal films feel tame.


If one is looking for a deeper meaning here, the snake’s stance as a symbol of virility and manliness can easily be worked into the narrative. Zhihong is constantly viewed as impotent and weak, a push over without a single macho or virile attribute. The vipers are his scrotal substitute, the figurative balls he lacks in his daily dealings. Yet even when they are taking his place in a fight or exacting revenge on those who have wronged him, this wimped out weasel can do little except crouch in a near fetal position, giggling grotesquely. It really is a noxious portrayal of one man’s dementia, and when you add in the sex and violence, it becomes an odd Shaw anomaly. It’s too bad the new digital package doesn’t provide some context to explain its role in the company’s creative canon.


For anyone who’s a fan of the glorious days of American exploitation, however, Killer Snakes plays like a reunion with a favorite film friend. The taboo busting extremes in some of the scenes (a classy whore is ripped to shred by a pair of komodo dragons) fall lockstep into similar manic moments offered by the likes of Harry Novak and David F. Friedman. Even better, Chih-Hung uses the traditional view of human reproduction as a starting point for more and more disrespect. It’s clear that this film looks down on white slavery, and challenges the concept of women selling themselves for money. And yet, do these gals deserve to be raped by snakes? In the pure patriarchy of the old world East, such a chauvinistic system is seen as normal. Killer Snakes tries to make it as vile as possible.


It all adds up to a filthy ball of fun that changes the perception of the Shaws as much as it exemplifies their studio’s many filmmaking facets. Innocence is corrupted, not saved. Weirdness is celebrated, not sheltered. Nature remains the ultimate decider of fate, and humans who fail to fulfill their promise end up with several hundred fang marks in their face. There will be some who grow bored when Chih-Hung calls on another breast accented montage to probe his character’s madness, and some will be shocked by the full blown fatalistic ending. But Killer Snakes is meant to be an earnest example of excess, not a realistic depiction of human horrors. And for those of us in sync with the 42nd Street freakiness of decades past, we wouldn’t want it any other way.


 


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Saturday, Dec 8, 2007


They represent the last word in physical comedy, their surefire slapstick a crazy cut above everyone who would eventually try and imitate their art. While the formidable silent film approach to humor had long been abandoned for more sophisticated laughs (i.e. the majestic Marx Brothers), the so-called Stooges still believed in its visceral, unequivocal effectiveness. Working both live and on film, they perfected their timing and false fury in a way that would forever change the format. In fact, when people think of the appropriately named comedy style, the Stooges come up more often than other, more mercurial examples.


It’s safe to say that they now own the genre – and this without the complex, narrative inspired gags that one time illustrated its cinematic language. No, aside from an occasional clay/pie/cream puff fight, Rube Goldberg inspired tumble, or interaction with a collection of well-placed props, the trio touted as The Three Stooges were the most hands on of the body-oriented buffoons. From the moment their shorts aired as part of a trip to the movies, the eye gouge, the cheek smack, and the stomach poke were never quite the same. 


Fulfilling the wishes of longtime fans, Columbia has finally wised up, dropped the three short per package DVD format, and delivered The Three Stooges in a logistically sound chronological breakdown. Covering the first three years the performers pitched their vaudeville shtick to motion pictures (1934, ‘35, and ‘36) the 19 mini-masterworks presented all contain the classic line-up that most devotees prefer: mean leader Moe, absent minded minion Larry, and unbelievably brilliant bundle of butter, Curly. There is no Shemp, no Joe Besser, and definitely no Curly Joe DeRita to muck things up. While there is nothing wrong with any of these later stage substitutes, nothing beats the magic of the original Stooges. Looking over the titles offered, there is not a bad apple in the bunch.

Still, if you don’t get the genius that is The Three Stooges, don’t fret. Not everyone embraces the masterful at first. What you need is some manner of perspective, a compare and contrast if you will between the boys’ unquestionable wizardry and all the other warmed over wannabes. Think the trio is too low brow? Look at their contemporaries Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. They practically lived along the bottom rungs of subterranean common denominators. Find their actions too brutal and abusive? Watch modern mirthmakers attempt the same physical shtick. It’s all unnecessary violence with none of the boys’ panache.


No, the Three Stooges remain viable cinematic icons nearly 75 years after their motion picture debut because, in an era which still embraced slapstick as viable everyman entertainment, they understood the rules, rewrote the syntax, and defined the genre for all who would come after. In fact, you could argue that the Stooges both showcased and strangled the artform. Before them (BTS), individual anarchy was an approachable element for any film. But once they came along (ATS), their flawless bravado couldn’t be matched. Instead, most bowed to the masters and moved along.


It’s not hard to see the immediate impact of the trio. Looking at the four films from their first year at Columbia (they had some previous success as part of the MGM family with straight man Ted Healy), their impeccable style and skill with comic timing is more than evident. Granted, “Woman Haters” does the dumbest thing possible with the boys – it turns them into shuffle bum singers in an all rhyme (and no reason) variety review. The premise has possibilities, but outside the standard slapstick, the rest of the short stumbles.


“Punch Drunks” was the perfect comeback. It gave Curly his first great goofball roll (a fighter who goes nutzoid the moment he hears the song “Pop Goes the Weasel”), and sets up the trio’s working dynamic – Moe as the cantankerous leader, Larry as the sullen sidekick, and Curly as constant source of frustrated bemusement. By “Men in Black”, the hospital/doctor setting could barely contain them. The Oscar nominated effort is so overloaded with sight gags, physical flailing, and memorable lines (“Jeez, the joint is haunted”) that it accurately reflects the growing confidence between the studio and its stars. It would all be taken to dizzying new heights with the football themed funny business of “Pigskins”.


By 1935, the Stooges were established. After a couple of minor period piece stumbles (both “Horses’ Collars” and “Restless Knights” have their non-narrative moments), the threesome hit a string of inspiration that would forever illustrate their power. Unlike the costumed craziness of an era specific outing, the timeless aspects of the gang worked best when butted up against the current social morays. It’s just more fun to see Curly court and dress down a snooty dowager than a Wild West cowgirl. They were better as social commentators, the downtrodden taking on the haughty rabble, than as members of a specific historic sect.


That’s why the art school spectacle of “Pop Goes the Easel” soars, its last act clay fight a delicious combination of comeuppance and cruelty. It’s why the whiskey crazed swells of “Pardon My Scotch” and the cockeyed Confederate gentility of “Uncivil Warriors” make the perfect backdrop for the boys’ unbridled mayhem. Even the insular short “Hoi Polloi” figured this out. It actually made taking down the privileged part of the plotline. It’s obvious that the Stooges work better as the storm amidst the calm, not visa versa. The minute they step on the elitist golf course to challenge the links in “Three Little Beers”, their presence perks up (and perplexes) all around them.


Still, those behind the camera didn’t quite grasp this comedic compartmentalizing – at least, not yet. They still believed the boys could work well within every filmic format. Proof of how wrong they were arrives toward the end of 1936. The first six shorts the trio made that year featured present-day circumstances (exterminators, performers, war veterans, trial witnesses, starving hoofers, and firemen) and used modern slang and jargon to complement the physical hijinx. Then it’s back to Dodge City as the guys give the frontier another try. True, the Stooges were fantastic as part of a Civil War setting, but “Warriors” would be the exception that confirms the overall rule.


“Whoops! I’m an Indian” is not bad, it’s just not a stunner. It takes too long to payoff, and along the way, the boys are seemingly forced to be funny. That’s not how the Stooges are supposed to work. When matched with the effortless laughs of “Slippery Silks” (the furniture gowns remain one of the shorts’ best sight gags), or the public domain delights of “Disorder in the Court” (who HASN’T seen this legal lampoon), it simply stands out as something underwhelming. And since this incarnation of the act would go on to make another 78 shorts (97 in all), it would remain a prickly premise the studio would insist on. After all, how many different settings could the storied group’s havoc fully function in?


It’s important to note that there was more to the Three Stooges than location, location, location. Many believe the boys to be inept in the arena of scripted jokes, but buried throughout the first three years of their Columbia existence are consistent examples of verbal wit. From a classic witness box exchange invoking the spirit of ’76 to a dessert as feather bed reference, the trio used lots of imaginative wordplay as part of their performance. Even the titles created were typically spoofs of current popular films (“Men in Black” for Clark Gables Men in White) or parodies of well known songs or sayings (Pardon My ‘Scotch’ subbing for ‘French’).


In fact, those who would marginalize the trio as being nothing more than jocular juvenilia, the pre-post-modern equivalent of fart jokes and toilet humor, have probably never really studied the Stooges. They are much more than boxers battling within a craven comedic context or arrested adolescents using fists instead of quips to earn their keep. They are artisans working in the almost impossible arena of physical wit. That they continue to delight a quarter century later is both a testament to their timelessness and their unequivocal quality control. Sadly this first Volume only whets our long dormant appetite for the rest of their amazing output. 


Back in the mid-80s, it was argued that The Three Stooges were the male equivalent of a chick flick – that is, the kind of entertainment that hit men in the merriment harder than it did the ladies. Of course, there are numerous ways to argue out of such a broad overgeneralization, but for the most part, the comment has a small amount of truth. Sold as a baser experience, as the artistic equivalent of a knee to the groin, the short films made by these amazing performers can be considered gut level laugh getters. But does this mean women are above the experience, or simply that, searching for a way to describe the decades old appeal of the act, scholars slipped into stereotyping?


Whatever the case, it’s clear that there are more than gents holding up the Stooges’ lasting legacy. Constantly bringing new generations into their farcical fold, as long as there are viewers, there will be fans for the threesome’s fantastic follies. Bellyache all you want over the lack of packaging or added features, but The Three Stooges Collection Volume 1: 1934 – 1936 is performing one invaluable service – it’s protecting the boys’ mythos for future aficionados to enjoy. And when it comes to skilled slapstick, a true obsessive will take preservation over puffery any day of the week.


 


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Thursday, Dec 6, 2007


For the weekend beginning 30 November, here are the films in focus:


Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead [rating: 8]


Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is kinetic. It’s dynamite laced with electricity. It’s a perfectly played puzzle that’s final images make for an astoundingly satisfying statement.


Sidney Lumet has made some of the greatest films of the modern era, stellar works with titles like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict. He’s also hacked his way through some undeniable garbage including The Morning After, A Stranger Among Us, and the god awful Gloria remake. With his last significant film being the uneven Vin Diesel vehicle Find Me Guilty, many believed his best days were behind him. After all, at 83, the one time master of the TV drama had come a long way from the medium’s Golden Age. Bowing out gracefully was obviously not in the cards - until now. Even if he never makes another film, Lumet has relit his fading limelight with the amazing thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Fragmented and ferocious, it’s one of the best efforts of his often uneven career. read full review…


The Savages [rating: 7]


Walking precariously between real world gravitas and the far too isolated and idiosyncratic, The Savages is a wonderful premise undermined by some unnecessary pretense.


It’s a crime how we treat the elderly in America. Disposable, burdensome, and no longer warranting dignity, we warehouse the old in an odd attempt to master our own fleeting mortality. We create buzzword balms like “assisted living”, “retirement community” and “senior hospice”, all in an attempt to avoid the more scandalous label “nursing home”. Adult children caring for their enfeebled parents have become a post-modern social phenomenon, a glorified gut check for often distant siblings and their inadvertently affected families. In her latest film, writer/director Tamara Jenkins explores the effect that infirmary has on The Savages - a brother and sister whose abusive father is slowly succumbing to dementia. Yet instead of investigating only the comic or dramatic possibilities of the story, the filmmaker falls into some often unnecessary quirk, rendering important themes and issues slightly surreal.  read full review…


The Golden Compass [rating: 6]


The Golden Compass has to do a lot of Pullman and Dark Material‘s heavy lifting. Sadly, it can’t handle it all.


Have no fear, Tolkien lovers - Phillip Pullman is not about to steal the big screen title from our beloved Lord of the Rings. The greatest trilogy of all time is still safely sitting in first place, having vanquished previous pretenders to the throne such as The Chronicles of Narnia, the awful Eragon, and the recent The Seeker: The Dark is Rising. All hoped to become future franchise epics. All fully failed to achieve said sense of scope. While there will be a second installment of C. S. Lewis’ veiled theological tall tale, the search for the next big flight of fantasy continues. The latest installment comes from New Line, the company that took the risk on Peter Jackson and wound up winning. Sadly, The Golden Compass feels more like an afterthought than a solid cinematic challenger. While it strives to be the all-inspiring spectacle the genre requires, its universe is too self-contained to truly connect with audiences. read full review…


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Thursday, Dec 6, 2007


Sidney Lumet has made some of the greatest films of the modern era, stellar works with titles like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict. He’s also hacked his way through some undeniable garbage including The Morning After, A Stranger Among Us, and the god awful Gloria remake. With his last significant film being the uneven Vin Diesel vehicle Find Me Guilty, many believed his best days were behind him. After all, at 83, the one time master of the TV drama had come a long way from the medium’s Golden Age. Bowing out gracefully was obviously not in the cards—until now. Even if he never makes another film, Lumet has relit his fading limelight with the amazing thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Fragmented and ferocious, it’s one of the best efforts of his often uneven career.


It all begins with a botched robbery. The tiny Mom & Pop Hanson family jewelry store is hit one fateful morning, the thief taking everything he can get his hands on, including the life of loveable co-owner Nanette. Luckily, she plugged the perpetrator before he could get away. The loss of their matron devastates the Hansom clan—or at least, that’s how it seems. Father Charles becomes obsessed with finding out why his store—and wife—were targeted, while siblings Andy, Hank, and Katherine are distraught. What no one knows, however, is that the burglary was masterminded by the two brothers. Andy has been stealing from his job, and using the money to indulge in all manner of perversions. Hank’s failed marriage has landed him in debt, missing child support payments hanging over his head like a dark cloud of guilt. The notion of robbing their parents’ small store seemed like the easy way to solve all their problems. But desperation never leads to flawless execution, and before long, the crime complicates matters in ways no one, not even the conspirators, could imagine. 


Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is kinetic. It’s dynamite laced with electricity. It’s a perfectly played puzzle that’s final images make for an astoundingly satisfying statement. It’s about greed and the lack of money, morality and the lack of ethics, love and the lack of commitment. It takes standard human foibles and amplifies them to the stuff of glorified Greek tragedy. With amazing performances, pitch perfect direction, and a story that crackles with flawless mechanical timing, we wind up with another stellar example of that solid suspense subgenre—the dark double cross. In a year that’s seen the equally exceptional Gone Baby Gone and No Country for Old Men, Lumet’s return to glory stands right along side them. It’s depressing and daring, showing that even six decades in, this heralded director is not about to go softly into that good night.


This is a movie about desperation, pure and simple. Andy, the cocksure older brother, is desperate to get his life in order. He’s been stealing from his employer. He’s been blowing the money on drugs and male prostitutes. He’s convinced his wife is onto his numerous excuses about their finances and his free time. If he can talk his younger brother Hank into knocking off their parents pride and joy—a strip mall jewelry store—all his problems will be solved. And he’s picked the right accomplice. Hank’s situation is no better. He owes his ex-wife thousands in child support. He lives in a rundown, dumpy apartment. He’s tired on living in the shadow of his seemingly successful sibling and longs to regain the favor he once had with his father. For him, the cash would settle debts and reestablish his reputation.


Lumet then locks these two (thanks to an excellent script by feature first timer Kelly Masterson) in a dangerous game of trust and trickery, mirroring their frightening flawed nature with the results of their best laid plans. Plot is crucial to enjoying this crackerjack effort, and yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead does something very interesting with the narrative. Instead of playing it out linearly, following the Harmon’s plans from start to finish, the material is mixed-up, Pulp Fiction/Rashamon style. It allows motives to hang over the most innocuous sequences, while consequences cloud the conspiring. It lets us see beneath the surface of Andy and Hank, and once the deed is done, the effect their bungling has on everyone involved.


Lumet lines up some powerful talent to pull this off, and his casting is confident. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose everywhere this awards season (he’s also in The Savages and Charlie Wilson’s War), literally bares all as the slimy, scheming Andy. From an opening sex scene with co-star Marisa Tomei to his confrontations with grieving father Albert Finney (who appears to wear a perpetual mask of horror on his aged face), Hoffman is all open sores and conniving deceit. He uses his stocky shape to suggest power, but in his eyes we see nothing but a little boy lost. Equally impressive is Ethan Hawke. An often marginalized actor, he is very good here, turning the hapless Hank into a well intentioned but basically inept adult. He’s the necessary catalyst for Andy’s lofty ambitions. He’s also the mechanism that will drag both of them down.


The ripple effect that occurs post crime is so delicious that to go into further detail would ruin many of Devil‘s delights. Some may see the Coen Brothers in Lumet’s latest, and the comparison is not accidental. Longtime collaborator Carter Burwell supplies the musical score, and his Miller’s Crossing meets Fargo influences are felt throughout. Lumet also loves location, be it a rundown city apartment or an ultra modern rent boy’s penthouse. He explores the space, letting the camera linger on elements that offer insight into the people we are dealing with. In addition, there’s a level of personal juxtaposition here that cannot be ignored. Andy lives in a luxuriant flat, its tastefulness hiding his blackened heart. Hank is practically destitute, his home a jumbled wreck of hand me downs and leftovers. Yet aside from his never-ending money problems, he’s a decent man, undeserving of his eventual fate.


It makes for a volatile combination, one doomed to fail and bound to be painful on the rocky road down. Yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is ultimately about cruelty of karma, of how one man’s simmering evil comes to taint and twist everyone around him. Andy is indeed the corrupting influence, a disconnected child who feels entitlement allows for any transgression, no matter how horrible. He turns his brother into a killer, his father into an obsessive, his wife into an adulteress, and ultimately, he becomes the literal and figurative ender of life. The title here is taken from an old toast, a beer-soaked bragging about beating Satan at his own game. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead may signal a reinvigoration of Sidney Lumet’s standing, but it’s much more than that. It’s filmmaking as art, and endearing entertainment. Its impact will remain with you long after the final frames fade away. 



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Thursday, Dec 6, 2007


It’s a crime how we treat the elderly in America. Disposable, burdensome, and no longer warranting dignity, we warehouse the old in an odd attempt to master our own fleeting mortality. We create buzzword balms like “assisted living”, “retirement community” and “senior hospice”, all in an attempt to avoid the more scandalous label “nursing home”. Adult children caring for their enfeebled parents have become a post-modern social phenomenon, a glorified gut check for often distant siblings and their inadvertently affected families. In her latest film, writer/director Tamara Jenkins explores the effect that infirmary has on The Savages—a brother and sister whose abusive father is slowly succumbing to dementia. Yet instead of investigating only the comic or dramatic possibilities of the story, the filmmaker falls into some often unnecessary quirk, rendering important themes and issues slightly surreal.


When we first meet the deteriorating Lenny Savage, he is scribbling obscenities in feces on his barely coherent girlfriend’s bathroom walls. When she eventually dies, her family wants nothing to do with the degenerating man. A call to his kids on the East Coast sets a series of events in motion. Wendy is a single NYC writer making ends meet as a temp while hoping to land an artist’s grant. Jon is a professor at a local upstate New York college. Together, the duo travel to Arizona, gather up their failing father, and place him in a local Buffalo care facility. Wendy hates it, seeing it as a less than honorable end for her dying dad. Jon couldn’t care less. He just wants the problem solved. Both are bothered by the notion of caring for a man who abandoned them 20 year before, yet his crimes against the family seem insignificant when compared to his present state. Still, for the Savages, this backhanded reunion is bringing the past into perspective—and they really don’t like what they see.


Walking precariously between real world gravitas and the far too isolated and idiosyncratic, The Savages is a wonderful premise undermined by some unnecessary pretense. It stands as a stoic effort, an excellent attempt at getting to the heart of the whole ‘kids caring for their parents’ problem. But with its lack of focus and frequent flights of unnecessary fancy, director Jenkins constantly corrals her ambitions. We can tell that this story strikes a nerve in the filmmaker. She fills the screen with passion, turning a pair of angst-driven artist types confronting the realities of life and death into a manifesto on humanity. But then the narrative drops in too many literary signatures—the sage Nigerian orderly, the world weary Polish girlfriend—and the film gets sidetracked. Perhaps if Jenkins had figured whose story this really is—Lenny’s, Jon’s, or Wendy’s—we’d feel a deeper emotional connection. But their father’s illness is not the catalyst we anticipate it being. Instead, The Savages marks it as part of a three act arc, and then forgets to properly finish it off.


Lenny’s plight is indeed the most intriguing element here, probably because it’s the least self-centered. Both of his children live lives of proscribed isolation, existing within a wounded world of their own creation. Wendy can’t commit, looking for a “Daddy” to substitute for the clichéd father figure she never had. Yet that only partially explains her on again, off again trysts with in-it-for-the-sex middle aged married Larry. In fact, all throughout the film, she seems more interested in one-upping her professor brother than achieving a happy parental medium. Jon is also insular, but at least he appears functional. Sure, he can’t connect, allowing a three year relationship to fizzle because of an expired visa. Yet he’s not the volatile mess the movie hints at (we hear a great deal of innuendo about the physically abusive childhood he had at the hand of his dad). In many ways, The Savages is all set up. We keep waiting for the catharsis, the moment when the old wounds finally open, seep, and then start to heal. It never comes. 


Instead, we keep circling around our characters, convinced they will provide the reveal that the material mandates. From the opening, we know that Lenny has been a distant, inattentive parent, part of a lifelong pattern in the Savage clan. And Phillip Bosco’s amazing performance provides some insight into such a horrifying history. Though his degenerative disease amplifies his anger, this is clearly one bitter, brutal man. His rage mirrors the meekness of his adult children quite well. While it would have been nice to learn of the real life horror show that occurred all those decades ago, Jenkins feels that suggestion speaks louder. It really doesn’t. Since Wendy appears flighty, not clipped, and Jon jaunts around as if this is all a matter of everyday dealings, we never really see the stereotypical signs of a life spent in the presence of a paternalistic ogre. Instead, The Savages wants to broaden the scope. It thinks we’d be more interested in watching Wendy and Jon zone out on stolen Percocet, or moderate the responses of African Americans to Al Jolson’s blackface routine from The Jazz Singer.


Eccentricity can work to lighten a dark and dire narrative, but Jenkins relies a little too openly on the odd juxtaposition to give her film the right authenticity. Jon and Wendy manage to move their father rather easily, and once in the nursing home, he becomes a kind of storytelling stopwatch. Plot points revolve around his increasing illness, and the disposability of his dilemma turns into an anticlimactic epiphany. Most families in the Savages situation have to wait a long, heartwrenching time as their loved one slowly fails and fades away. Here, it’s a Thanksgiving to Christmas cross to bear. In addition, we never really see much interaction between the trio. Jon and Wendy visit their father often, yet we only catch them when Lenny is snoozing or explosive. The siblings never discuss the problem, offering only predetermined responses to keep things settled. The best moment comes when Jon confronts his sister’s senseless desire to move their father to a ‘higher class’ facility. “There’s nothing but death in there” he shrieks, face showing the pain he obviously masks. Everything else, he points out, is just window dressing for the guilt ridden families footing the bill.


Indeed, it’s the performances that save The Savages, giving it far more weight than the script can supply. Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives Jon the requisite quiet side, yet you can feel a real ache within his soul. Though Jenkins tries to thwart his efforts (he has an important moment while strapped into a homemade traction device), he’s the tenderness the rest of the characters lack. Bosco again deserves praise for being both completely fearless and all but archetypal. Who he is as a man is never more important that what he symbolizes as a stigma, but we still find dimension in Lenny. Laura Linney will, perhaps, be the biggest problem for audiences. She’s a totally written wreck, a scattered screenplay invention that feels incredibly phony half the time. Her problems appear menial, a measure of a life lived in the shadow of something devastating. Yet because Jenkins has determined that the facts stay buried in the background, The Savages never opens up. Instead, it uses its earnestness and entertainment value to truck along to a nominal conclusion.


Granted, not every tale centering on the ravages of aging needs to be a grim dramatic tour de force. For ever family facing the prospect of death with clothes renting hysterics, people pass without so much as a considered whimper. Had The Savages shown us Lenny’s limited life before death finally came to call, we might feel shortchanged. We’d wonder about his family, and their apparent lack of caring. Jon’s routine remains relatively unchanged throughout the course of the film, so we gain no additional insight from following his plight. And Wendy—she’s a Woody Allen heroine without the snappy repartee. She’d be a bad story subject if only because she’s too peripheral to all that’s happening. So maybe Tamara Jenkins was right in making her movie a statement about all three. Too bad then that the final assessment is so slight. The material definitely commands something much deeper.



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