The Savages, The Great Debaters, The Water Horse
dir. Tamara Jenkins
As Jon Savage in Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages (her first film since Slums of Beverly Hills), Philip Seymour Hoffman is in his full-on frump mode. Every line of dialogue is accompanied by a wheeze, every shirt crumpled and rumpled and untucked. Jon lives in bleak Buffalo, where he claims to be finishing work on a long-gestating tome on Bertolt Brecht. But the book is little more than a front; his research is a shield from life’s complications, and he’s more than happy to disappear into a life of intellectual doddering. In contrast, Jon’s sister, Wendy (Laura Linney), lives off chaos. A would-be playwright, she spends her days temping, her evenings stealing office supplies and hopelessly applying for grants. Perpetually single, Wendy gets what meager romance she needs from a married neighbor—though it’s really the neighbor’s dog that she’s attached to.
What brings these two self-absorbed souls together—and what eventually forces them to get over themselves—is a dose of painful reality. Jon and Wendy’s father, Lenny (Philip Bosco), who for years has been safely tucked away in Sun City, Arizona, is one morning found painting a bathroom with his own shit. Dementia is the diagnosis; monitored care—be it from an institution or one of Lenny’s children—is the prescribed treatment.
Wading into the depressing muck of ailing parents is risky business; attempting to derive comedy from the situation borders on lunacy. The Savages stays afloat because Jenkins and her exceptional cast keep both crushing sentimentality and cheap ugliness at bay. Jon and Wendy may be self-absorbed, but they’re not soulless, and after each character has been twisted and kinked, an undeniable humanity shines through. The humanity of the children is only amplified by Bosco’s pitch-perfect turn as the Savage patriarch. By turns bewildered, exhausted, and furious, Bosco takes what could’ve been a simple awards grab and cooks up one of the best performances of the year. It’s by no means a flashy role, but with the simplest of actions—such as secretly turning down his hearing aide during one of Jon and Wendy’s many fights—he cracks your heart without warning.
While it’s the performances that give The Savages its emotional heft, it’s the absurd, slow-burning panic after Lenny’s diagnosis that provides the comedy. Squabbling over who should bear the brunt of responsibility, shuffling to and from prospective homes, Jon and Wendy’s walled-off lives gradually crumble, exposing them as the narcissistic twits they are. The film’s trick, however, is that even as the two are being mocked, you’re encouraged to feel sympathy for them at the same time. Whether dealing with a disruptive Lenny on a cross-country flight, or swallowing their embarrassment upon the very public discovery that their father’s favorite movie is racist, Jon and Wendy are sent pinballing comically about their newly complicated lives. Jenkins has made a film that deftly walks a tightrope between comedy and mush, and even as the ending feels a little too pat and safe, it’s not enough to undermine everything you’ve seen before it. Flipping parental roles is an ugly business. The Savages shows you the ugly and tells you to laugh. BRADLEY STEINBACHER
The Great Debaters
dir. Denzel Washington
The Great Debaters has the ingredients for a great motion picture: starched collars, a sweaty speakeasy, a teacher who will become a serious poet, rousing rhetoric, dog-eared Bibles, ferocious battles of wits. But there are two influences at work on this story, weighing it down like damp laundry on a line: its completely competent director, Denzel Washington, and its totally unimaginative screenwriter, Bob Eisele. Together, they take most of the bounce out of the story.
Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington), the future poet, is a professor at a small black college in east Texas. He’s smart, handsome, possibly communist (it’s 1935, okay?), and he advises the debate team. After a harrowing audition, the team is assembled: the slouchy Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), who slinks off-campus to dance at a shack in the swamp whenever he gets the chance; the baby-cheeked James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker, no relation either way), who’s the precocious offspring of another professor at the college; Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), who’s plump and has glasses; and Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), who’s a fantastic dresser, even though there was no woman on the champion 1935 Wiley College debate team—and by the way, even if there were a woman on an earlier iteration of the team (there was, her name was Henrietta Bell), she didn’t become a lawyer, like it says in the end crawl, she became a social worker. Pardon the digression. I don’t have a problem with fictional movies messing with the facts, but The Great Debaters deliberately misleads its viewers using nonfiction conventions. What’s wrong with becoming a social worker, anyway?
The debaters are pretty good, and then they’re very good, and then they compete against Harvard (another pointless lie—it was USC). Along the way, they boldly wrestle with political intolerance, magically avoid ever having to defend a distasteful resolution, and witness a lynching. The rhythms of The Great Debaters are so smooth and the beats so momentous that the story never seems remotely real. Which is too bad, because Wiley College had some impressive debate teams. ANNIE WAGNER
The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep
dir. Jay Russell
The Water Horse is Free Willy, starring the Loch Ness Monster and the boy who loves him. It’s cute (but not nauseatingly so) and pretty, set in rural Scotland with its big peaks, cobblestoned streets, and a costume closet from the golden age of natty togs. The Decemberists would kill for some of those wool caps, suit vests, and peasant dresses.
Come to think of it, the film’s mood isn’t far off from the Decemberists’, either. Caught between the adult menace of WWII and the fantasy world of friendly sea monsters, it’s a glamorous kind of arrested development. Growing up is a series of tragic demystifications, of learning how things (faucets, bodies, banking) work. The engine at the heart of The Water Horse reverses the process, and the fantasies of children overwhelm the skeptical adults.
Little Angus MacMorrow is a melancholy kid: His dad was killed in combat, his mom is tense and depressed, and his older sister is remote. He finds an oblong, weirdly light stone at the shore. When he takes it home, it hatches. The monster, a mythical beast called a sea horse, starts tiny but grows exponentially by the day. Angus tries to hide it in a dustbin full of water, then a bathtub, and then—in an obligatory destructive chase through the house in which many things are broken and a formal dinner is ruined—the monster makes for the fountain in the front lawn. So Angus and the new handyman haul the monster to Loch Ness in a pickup truck.
Meanwhile, a military battalion has shown up, demanding quarter at the family’s mansion. They believe the Germans will try to invade Britain via Loch Ness, so they raise submarine nets and toss bombs into the water, which drives the monster nuts. A few of the soldiers hear rumors in the village about the monster and decide to hunt it in the middle of the night. It’s dark, it’s raining, boats are chasing the monster and each other, bombs are being lobbed, willy-nilly, into the Loch—and then, in a triumphant climax, the monster jumps over the submarine net, Angus and the handyman cheer, and the rest of the adults are stunned into childlike wonder. BRENDAN KILEY
dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix
Opening December 28 at SIFF Cinema.
I am told people retain nostalgic feelings for Diva, an insanely pretentious 1981 French film about smitten postmen, roller-skating shoplifters, freight elevators, spooky recording technology, and an electric blue everlasting wave machine. I hate to break it to you, but the only thing that’s still awesome about this movie is a five-second cameo by a cat named Ayatollah. Ayatollah is très chouette.
Jules (Frédéric Andréi) is a postal worker in his early 20s—ah, the fresh-faced French working class—with a raging crush on the African-American opera singer Cynthia Hawkins (played by one Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez—can I get a holy shit?). He bootlegs one of her concerts, chats her up backstage, and then, in a fit of straight-as-a-board covetousness, snatches her silken robes from a rack and hightails it home. Jules also meets a Vietnamese shoplifter who enjoys roller skating and posing naked for artsy photographs. And her boyfriend, who sits soulfully on the floor of his massive Paris loft and works jigsaw puzzles. But then sometimes the boyfriend gets up and lectures on how to butter a baguette.
Meanwhile, there’s some other nonsense about a prostitution ring the chief of police is implicated in. And something about switching secret cassette tapes. None of this part of the plot makes any sense. All you have to know is the bad guys wear aviator sunglasses. Their favorite weapon is the awl. The awl.
Diva is, unfortunately, two hours long, so pretty soon the crushing weight of its ridiculousness begins to suffocate the modern viewer. Do we really have to listen to Wilhelmenia bleat about how anyone with the audacity to record her precious voice might as well go ahead and rape her? It’s 1981, darling. This behavior has no place. The Vietnamese Frenchie is absolutely intolerable. And there are one too many shots of that goofy wave machine. But if you want to kneel at the altar of the coolest cat name ever recorded, Diva is your flick. C’mere, Ayatollah, you fuzzy thing. ANNIE WAGNER