The Savages

linney hoffman savagesThe Savages is a 2007 film featuring two of my favorite actors, Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as sister and brother Wendy and Jon Savage. 

The estranged pair, both theater people, have been estranged for some time, both having suffered from parents who were never there for them.  Wendy, a playwright, has even written a semi-autobiographical play about their father.  She lives in New York working temp jobs and applying for grants and having an affair with a married man who will not commit to her.  Jon lives in Buffalo and teaches Brecht at a college.

The two are forced to pull together when their father Lenny (Phillip Bosco), who lives in Sun City, Arizona, develops dementia at about the same time the woman he is living with dies.  Over Wendy’s objections, Jon decides to place their father in a nursing home not far from where he lives.  However, Wendy is assigned the unsavory task of accompanying the old man on a cross country flight to Buffalo.

Wendy and Jon must deal with their own personal issues, as well the incapacity of a man they once hated.

There’s no doubt that this is a “slice of life” movie and also an “actor’s drama.”  Those types of movies do not have to be alienating in any way, especially when you have such incredible talent as Linney and Hoffman in the lead roles.  However, I think that even the best slice of life movies must have a hand at the helm that will keep them moving in a direction and I felt that lacking in the script and direction of Tamara Jenkins.

After sleeping on the movie, I did realize that there is somewhat of a character arc for Wendy, but it was so subtle that I didn’t pick it up during the viewing—it only becomes apparent at the end.  It is extremely difficult to see any kind of arc for Jon and yet he has changed at the end of movie, too.  And I must say that Linney and Hoffman give wonderful performances.  The characters are believable, the comedy is very funny, and the drama works extremely well.

I just had the feeling that I was spinning my wheels.  The movie didn’t really seem to go anywhere.  And yet, it had enough of an effect on me that I thought about it overnight and finally saw what I failed to see during the viewing—an actual character development for Wendy.

For fans of good acting, I highly recommend this movie.  For those who cannot take the time to dig the subtlety out of the movie, you might find it tough going.

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The Joneses

1106574_The_JonesesThis 2009 movie saw only limited theatrical release and there’s a reason for that.  Although entertaining, writer/director Derreck Borte has created a project that feels incomplete and contrived.

The idea is that some company has ramped up marketing to the level where they hire good-looking people to pose as an extremely wealthy family, they move these people into a big house in an affluent community, then provide then with products that will make their neighbors so envious they will go out and buy their own.

This particular group of cons is led by Kate Jones (not her real name), played with understated elegance by Demi Moore.  She’s been working the game for a while, while the failed golf pro/used car salesman posing as her husband, Steve Jones (David Duchovny), is a rookie, still learning the ropes.  Their teenage kids, Mick and Jenn (Ben Hollingsworth and Amber Heard) each have their own problems.  Mick is gay, but still definitely in the closet, while Jenn is oversexed and prefers older men.

The wife and kids do well at the beginning because they know what they’re doing, while Steve stumbles along trying to figure out.  When Kate gives him the tip that he needs to find the right person to endorse the products (she’s gayfriending the local hair stylist), he begins to work on the golf pro at the country club and his numbers begin to skyrocket.

During this time, they are making friends and Steve is trying to pursue a real relationship with Kate, which she is having none of.  That’s the set-up and it’s pretty good.  There’s a lot of great places you can go from there and I was looking forward to several promising developments.

However,  Borte has two serious problems.  First of all, for the romance between Steve and Kate to work, there must be chemistry between Duchovny and Moore—it just never develops.  Moore comes across as a real cold fish and Duchovny’s ah-shucks demeanor never quite rings true.  The second problem is that it doesn’t really develop the comedic possibilities.  Instead, it turns stone cold serious when their neighbor commits suicide because he can’t “keep up with the Joneses.”

A better approach would have been to create a situation that forces them into a sink-or-swim mentality, such as the discovery of Jenn’s affair with a neighbor, something that would force them all to work together to convince the neighbors that they were a real family—and then have them develop into a real family in the process.  Now that would be a good movie to watch!

The bend into seriousness really causes problems.  Matt, for example, has a really interesting girlfriend who doesn’t know he’s gay.  There are all kinds of possibilities in that situation, but Borte chooses to have Matt make a pass at her brother.  While they are driving at high speed, the girl, following them, gets into an accident and ends up in the hospital.  This turn away from comedy  is like committing suicide for a writer.  It’s giving up because you haven’t figured out the right plot.

Enough said.  It’s entertaining.  It’s not long, which is a bonus.  The best recommendation for seeing this movie is for film students to figure out what when wrong and how to solve it.

How To Draw A Bunny

ray johnson how to draw a bunnyThis 2002 documentary on the elusive, enigmatic artist Ray Johnson really gives us a lot more than it promises.  Almost from the beginning, it is suggests that “no one really knew Ray Johnson” and then, through interviews and close-ups of his art, the film proceeds to give us one insight after another into the man’s genius.

First of all, if you are not familiar with Ray Johnson’s art, this movie will enlighten you very quickly, whether you are looking at one of his happenings, the many postcards he drew and sent to friends and acquaintances or the masterful collages that he frequently changed or cut up for his customers.

A major influence on Andy Warhol, Johnson pretty much ignored every major bid for success and instead chose to always go his own way, creating work that now seems so obviously brilliant that we wonder how he could have avoided success.  Everyone in the art world of the 1950’s through the 1990’s knew who he was and what his brilliant contribution to the art world consisted of.

Never married, he seems to have had an amorphous life of relationship, palling around with both men and women, including many artistic luminaries such Christo, Jeanne-Claude, Chuck Close, Richard Feigen, Morton Janklow, Judith Malina, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist.

For one commission, he decided to drop footlong hotdogs over Long Island.  Johnson offered a major collage for $2,000, but a patron countered at $1,000.  When they settled on $1,500, Johnson promptly sent the collage with 1 / 4 of it cut off.  He did a number of profiles of one person and when they started dickering on the price, Johnson began to make major changes, adding more art, changing some of them to the point that you could no longer recognize the cameo at all.  And every time he made a change, he would begin the dickering process all over again, as they became more valuable with each change.

On January 13, 1995, he dove off a bridge into Sag Harbor off Long Island, an apparent suicide.  For many weeks beforehand, he had told friends that he was working on his greatest work of art yet.  Authorities found his house completely organized with all of his art facing against the wall except for one portrait of himself.

From Wikipedia:  “His body washed up on the beach the following day. Many aspects of his death involved the number “13”: the date; his age, 67 (6+7=13); the room number of a motel he’d checked into earlier that day, 247 (2+4+7=13), etc. Some continue to speculate about a ‘last performance’ aspect of Johnson’s drowning.”

Directed by John Walter and with music composed and performed by Max Roach, this is a compelling film, bound to keep anyone interested in the arts completely engaged.  The great views of Johnson’s art are worth the price of admission.  I highly recommend this movie!

Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks

Originally published in 1971 as a scare book for teenagers, Go Ask Alice was pushed on the public as a real diary of a troubled teenage girl sometime between 1968 and 1971, the author listed as “Anonymous.”  The book is the “Reefer Madness” of literature, not only because of the gross exaggerations concerning various drugs, but because the character of the teenage girl rings about as false as a character possibly can.go-ask-alice

The failures of this novel are so deep and profound, it’s hard to tell where to begin.  Many plot points are dropped in for no other purpose than to shock the audience and with total disregard for reality.  I know of only one person in my life who got stoned on pot and had visions and that person was a certifiable psychotic.  That this girl has one hit and goes off the deep end is truly outside the scope of reality.  She seems just completely ditzy, one minute all “Daddy, I love you” and the next minute all “Fuck everything I want to kill myself.”

This leads to situations where one minute she’s completely committed to being clean and then she has one speed tab and goes on a bender where she runs away from home and lives on the streets for months.  What?

There are a few pages in the book that ring true, but any parent who gave this book to their kid as a way to try to steer them clear of drugs has been misled by literature.  It will provoke laughter because it is so unbelievable.

Maybe the most disappointing thing about the book is that as the diary draws to a close, we see this girl finally getting her life together. She has a boyfriend, girlfriends, good grades, and great prospects for the future.  The diary ends on a very positive note.  Then, suddenly, the author comes on board with an Epilogue that tells us, “The subject of this book died three weeks after her decision not to keep another diary.” 

WHAT?

HOW?  “Her parents came home from a movie and found her dead.  They called the police and the hospital, but there was nothing anyone could do.”  This makes no sense at all.  It just comes out of the blue and there is no motivation, no build-up, nothing.

WHY?  “Was it an accidental overdose?  A premeditated overdose?  No one knows, and in some ways that question isn’t important.”  WHYEVER NOT???  “What must be of concern is that she died, and that she was only one of thousands of drug deaths that year.”  This makes no sense at all and it is a complete evasion of the most important question in any book.  Why?

What a letdown.  Can’t you at least tell me how a girl who was clean and straight and completely dedicated to the beautiful new life ahead of her does something like that?  It’s insane.

Kids—don’t  ever write like this!  Maybe the book—now considered a classic of Young Adult literature—should be brought up in English class as an example of how NOT to write Young Adult literature.

Stoner & Spaz by Ron Koertge

Stoner and Spaz Book CoverAlthough classified as a breakthrough novel in the Young Adult genre, Stoner & Spaz–like all good novels–can be read and enjoyed by anyone.

It’s a short book, very lean and very well-written.  Maybe my own experience with cutting a large novel down to size has colored my point of view, but I have grown to really appreciate storytelling that gets right to the heart of the subject.  The characters are bold, the Southern California landscape spare, and the theme explored relentlessly.

Told from the point of view of sixteen-year-old Ben Bancroft, a survivor of Cerebral Palsy, it relates his experiences with Colleen Minou, a stoner girl at his high school.  Ben is a true nerd, a cinephile who lives through his experiences with movies.  He has seen so many that he understands the form intimately.  He knows why tracking shots are used, how black and white enhances certain movies, why characters act the way they do, and he deeply wishes he could live his own life as if he was one of those powerful, charismatic characters.  But he doesn’t.  Instead, he feels the weight of that half of his body that is completely unresponsive.  He stays away from the other kids, lost in his own little world.

That changes one night at the Rialto Theater when Colleen asks to borrow a couple of dollars because they won’t change the hundred dollar bill in her hand.  To his surprise, she tracks him down in the theater and sits with him.  Although he’s mortified, he’s also a little turned on, especially when she falls asleep with her head on his shoulder.

Thus begins an unlikely relationship that turns Ben completely around–and opens him up to the possibilities of his own life.

There are several great things about the book.  One, obviously, is the interaction of two kids who are complete opposites, each discovering the other’s world and opening themselves to change.  But secondly, and most important, is Ben’s character arc.  For me, the best stories involve a character that must go through dramatic changes in order to realize his or her potential.  And the more barren the character at the beginning, the deeper and wider the potential for change.  By using an introverted character with Cerebral Palsy, Koertge begins in a pretty deep chasm.  To deflect potential darkness, he gives the character a quirky, smart, self-deprecating sense of humor.

The leanness of the book also works to advantage in that it could be a movie itself.  Think how some movies fail because a director is in love with long, tracking shots, mood shots, unnecessary character background, and long scenes.  Successful films are edited down to what matters–all of the unimportant stuff lays on the cutting room floor, rather than padding out a 90 minute film into a two hour bore.

Stoner & Spaz is a wonderful little novel, something that all writers should read and something that will entertain and enlighten every one who reads it.  Highly recommend!

The Collector by John Fowles

The CollectorIn his debut novel in 1963, John Fowles created a classic that will long endure as the best fiction kidnapping ever.  An entire genre has sprung up around the idea of men capturing young women, usually to torture or rape them, certainly keeping them prisoners over a long period of time.  Although the kidnapper usually brings in his own scars, the situation inevitably creates even deeper scars in the poor feminine victim.

Fowles, in the quintessential kidnapping story, disdains both torture and rape by creating a villain who goes far out of his way to ensure the comfort of his victim—and far from raping or torturing, he loves her so much that all he requires is her company.  In fact, the idea of physical intimacy is abhorrent to him.  What he doesn’t realize is that keeping her in a basement with no fresh air or sunshine, with no company, with no radio or television is itself a psychological torture.

The relationship between the abductor and the victim attains an amazing intimacy and poignancy in The Collector that is surprising and shocking, especially for 1963.  And when the victim decides to give the abductor what she thinks he wants—physical intimacy—it catapults the situation from something that was within her control (reasonably) into something far more dangerous that she ever anticipated.

The first part of the novel is told from the point of view of the abductor, Frederick Clegg.  By giving us the voice of this man who sounds oh-so-reasonable, Fowles puts us in the conductor’s chair and we see his loneliness, his inability to relate, his petty hatreds and distrust of society in tones so cool and controlled that we understand what he’s doing and why (not that we ever agree with it, but he does gain our sympathy somewhat, the poor fellow.)

The second part of the book is related in a diary that Miranda Grey, the victim, keeps under the mattress in her tiny cell in the basement of Clegg’s country home outside London.  This is the part of the book that digs deep into the soul.  We experience day after day Miranda’s fears and hopes, her delicate dance with Clegg to attempt escape, to keep her humanity in the face of what she must do to get out.  We see her gradually fall in love with the life that is now completely denied her and we understand her plans and schemes to save it.

Emotionally, the novel is a rollercoaster, a tour-de-force that is nearly impossible to put down.  After over 50 years, it still packs a gigantic punch that’s impossible to escape.  It’s a novel that should take its place as a classic.  A MUST-READ!