Monday, December 10, 2007

Three films: Starting Out, Grace, Savages

The last three movies I've seen have all been serious, emotional dramas, with strong performances that transformed what could have been melodramatic mush in lesser hands. "Starting Out in the Evening" accomplishes this with Frank Langella's powerfully quiet performance as Leonard Schiller, a writer methodically completing a novel while disapproving of his daughter's (Lili Taylor) life choices. In comes Lauren Ambrose, a cocky grad student writing her thesis on Leonard, and she turns things upside down in exactly the way you'd expect but at the same time, in ways you would never expect. Frank Langella is sublime, but I also had a soft spot for Lili Taylor's complicated romance with "that guy" (you know, the one who is perfect for you and completely wrong for you, all at the same time.)

"Grace is Gone" is John Cusack's turn to put away the smug boyish grin and make himself into a worn-down father of two pre-teen daughters, and a husband of a woman serving in Iraq. From the first moment he lumbers on the screen, it's obvious that he has absorbed the character physically; his Stanley walks with a near limp, shoulders rolled, shuffling along. Early in the film he gets the news that his wife has been killed, and the remainder of the film is his struggle to give this news to his daughters. Strong performances by the two young actresses, both of whom, according to imdb, are in their first film roles. The movie is, naturally, heart-wrenching, although never preachy. (Mary Kay Place oddly shows up at the end, sitting at the funeral with the family. It made me wonder if she had been slated to play Cusack's character's mother, a woman who is referred to but never seen in the film.)

"The Savages" is a movie that should have resonated with me right now because my family recently placed my grandmother in a nursing home, after her dementia became too much for her to be alone. In the film, Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are siblings who have to do the same for their estranged father. But sitting in the theater I was more overwhelmed with the thought that someday it could be me and my siblings struggling to find the right care for our own father, a man who has been single since his divorce from our mother nearly thirty years ago. How do you start caring for someone who you never really cared for before? That's a crass way of looking at it, and the film avoids falling into the "he never loved us, let's let him rot" hole, instead delivering a sad and funny story of family obligation, neediness, and loss. Linney is especially wonderful - but isn't she always?

(A strange movie moment: in one scene, Hoffman's character's girlfriend says he always cries when he eats her eggs. Cut to eggs frying in a pan and her serving them to him. Hoffman chews and tears begin to fall, and of course, the audience begins to laugh, because we were set up to find it funny. Suddenly an indignant voice rings out in the theater: "Do you think that's funny? Why are you laughing?" I don't know when I've heard an audience member admonish the crowd's reaction before, although I wish I'd had her balls when I sat through catcalls during "A History of Violence.")


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