Thursday, September 17, 2009


Laura Linney

Tamara Jenkins' THE SAVAGES (great title) is a movie about something that lots of people are going through but nobody wants to deal with. We never see this stage of life in entertainment - it's too depressing...sounds like a bad pitch. Two cynical adult children have to find the right old age home for their aging father - eeeccck! Pass. Nothing clears a room or a multiplex like death or old age. She's done it fearlessly, with the right mix of humor and horror and with not even a shred of sentimentality.
"The Savages" is about young middle-aged adults dealing with an elderly parent who is losing his mind and can no longer take care of himself.
The characters' situation reflects the fragmented nature of families today. A brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a sister (Laura Linney) live far away from each other on the East Coast, and their father (Philip Bosco) lives on the other side of the country, in Arizona. But when there's a crisis, the kids have to drop what they're doing (somewhat grudgingly w/ a balloon to boot!) and fly out there, where they learn the distinctions between assisted-living facilities and nursing homes. Suddenly, they have to figure out where the old man should live.
Movies about adult siblings are rare, and even when we see them; they're usually about same-sex siblings working out, in adulthood, the competitive stresses of their childhood. "The Savages" deals with a brother-and-sister relationship, and it gets the details right - the ease of that interaction, the unspoken bond and the complete willingness of both parties to be rude to the other because they know the sibling can't be fooled anyway. Hoffman and Linney suggest a complete history in their conversation and even in their body language. They don't look alike, but they seem like brother and sister.
There's only one false element, a tiny one, besides her terrible wig. We're told that Wendy Savage (Linney) is three years younger than Jon Savage (Hoffman). Everything about Linney screams "older sister” to me, and in "The Savages" she treats him like a younger brother, pushing him, cajoling him, abusing him, remembering painful details of his childhood and fretting about everything. And he responds like a younger brother - by ignoring her or mumbling vague replies, and by not being fazed. There’s only one moment, in the car that I felt he was the older brother. When he busts her about the fellowship and his looks in the review mirror. It’s only then I felt birth order as the little sister. But the rest of the movie – she’s in charge – it’s a small note. But being that my brother and I are three years apart like these characters – I noticed it throughout.
Both siblings are involved in theater, but from different angles. Wendy is an unproduced playwright who keeps applying for Guggenheim Fellowships, and Jon has a doctorate in theater studies, teaches in a university and is writing a book on Bertolt Brecht. These are not the arbitrary career designations sometimes found in movies, in which every nice guy is an architect. The protagonists in "The Savages" had unwelcome drama in their childhood, thanks to an angry and difficult father, and each has chosen a different way of dealing with it. Wendy has chosen to dive into the drama by writing about it, and Jon has chosen to analyze the phenomenon of drama itself and to study an artist whose whole career was founded on the deconstruction of dramatic techniques.
Hoffman and Linney are superb, but as the film mainly follows Wendy, Linney, who has the opportunity to give the standout performance, and she does. She's full throttle and energetic, knows exactly what she's doing at every moment, and she's funny - very funny. This is one film that becomes richer after multiple viewings. But also one film that I don’t necessarily what to watch the DVD extras or hear the actors talk about their craft – Even though I’m obsessed with craft and always want to know how they got there. With this film for some reason I prefer it remain a mystery. She is so beyond real and layered and troubled. In the beginning, when she’s lying about her Gyno exam to get some extra attention from her married beau, playing up the possible tragedy to lying about receiving the fellowship to her brother. To applying for FEMA - genius! She is sick, but you can't hold it against her because she wants that approval and support she never got from her father. I have to admit I barely noticed this performance first time out at the art house theater cause the hair bugged me so much. Yes, the hair. I couldn’t get past the bad wig, now I never think about it. I just see brilliant Laura Linney in full stride. Her earlier films: CONGO, PRIMAL FEAR, ABSOLUTE POWER and even in THE TRUMAN SHOW…I thought she was acting up a storm. 'Over acting up a storm'. I could see technique all over the place. God, I'm a snob. Big roles, and some big chances to make her mark but...I didn’t get it. I liked her in 'Tales of the City' but these big films she just seemed way out of step and generic choices. Maybe she’s a TV actor. No, no, no, she’s a real actress. YOU CAN COUNT ON ME proved she has the goods and then some. Laura Linney deserves to be an A-Lister. Now that she has more control I think she’s finding roles and work she’s passionate about and connected too. Makes a big difference. KINSEY to THE SQUID AND THE WHALE to THE SAVAGES. Good choices, great performances.
THE SAVAGES is a tribute to writer-director Jenkins' restraint that she never tries to milk the father's situation for an emotional tug. It's great writing and directing and the best casting in thirty or so years. Hollywood would try to match hair or noses or body type - something obvious and stupid. Not here. These two look nothing alike and it's perfect.
Perhaps best of all are the quiet, private moments, as when Wendy, lying awake at night, overhears her normally rational brother crying while on the phone to his Polish paramour. Or the care with which Jon carefully redistributes the mess in his home to accommodate Wendy when she comes to stay, in a way that suggests he really does know where everything is. I love when Phillip stops at the bottom of the stairs and tells his sister they are doing good –“more than the old man ever did for us”, “I know”. And she’s lying comfy in his warn couch. I love the intimacy established between the two actors even though being very far apart. They are connected. Great stuff.
Both actors are completely credible as the sorts of writers they are. Each performance is the flip side of the other: Hoffman's professor moves from seeming to be at the end of his rope to having more control and competence than expected, while Linney's still-aspiring writer must come to grips with her across-the-boards unrealized potential. It's a wonderful match-up of performances.
This film has a significant meaning for my brother and me. Like this film, we came together during my mother’s illness and have stayed connected ever since. Unlike this film – our mother was everything to us. She was the exact opposite of this character. She was our heart – she kept the families together. She was a lot like this film; dark humor with a catch in your throat. Smart behaviorist humor. Teaser in the inth degree. We see a lot of ourselves in this film. Especially me – Hello, unproduced writer – acting teacher. Spooky. By the end you don’t even see the delicate small changes each character has made. Both have had a positive effect on one another and slowly they begin to be more valuable to the outside world. They healed each other. She becomes selfless, rescuing the precious dog and he goes to Poland to get his girl. Great film. Watch it again. Only wish mom were around to enjoy it with her boys.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Lili Taylor as Valerie Solanas in I SHOT ANDY WARHOL



You can feel a signature role in a small indie films more readily than bigger budgeted projects. The heart and passion to tell a point of view with characters who aren’t the first on your Christmas card list. People like Valerie we avoid – everyone avoids. Lili Taylor, a maverick renegade artist as far as I’m concerned, has always looked in bizarre territory or sought after unfriendly characters, well, she wrapped her pint sized figure and teeth into this one. In the beginning, when she’s coming down the stairs, handcuffed after being arrested, we see how dead-on Lili is…Twitchy and blank. Dark and soft. You can tell she had done her research on what exactly Valerie's psychological disorder was…precisely – but maybe a dash of her own theories as well. She goes from her own world and then off again… drifts off into her own private universe of man hatred madness and then enters reality like a car crash - smack! Lili Taylor knows this girls tortured soul and gleefully inhabits this character. You don’t get the feeling Lili had lingering scars from this smart real life portrayal unlike Jessica Lange’s FRANCES, it’s a wonderful piece of acting. You get the feeling that Lili had a really good time with this one but still accomplished the same depth.

Based on the true story of Valerie Solanas who was a 60s radical preaching hatred toward men in her "Scum" manifesto. She wrote a screenplay for a film that she wanted Andy Warhol to produce, but he continued to ignore her. So she shot him. This is Valerie's story. Taylor gives her greatest performance yet. Wearing a newsboy's cap, funky, over sized clothes and a self-righteous smirk, Taylor is Valerie Solanas, the chain-smoking radical feminist who formed SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men), wrote an infamous manifesto proposing the elimination of men and on June 3, 1968, shot Andy Warhol with a .32- caliber automatic.

In following the life of Valerie Solanas from her wounded childhood to her moment of vindication, director Mary Harmon (American Psycho and Bette Page) and actress (Indy Queen for a long while) Lily Taylor go inside the mind of a woman who was deranged and possibly schizophrenic, and follow the logic of her situation as she sees it, until her act is revealed as the inevitable result of what went before. Harmon and Taylor never slip in complete Psychological drama or a paranoid woman or hero who is misunderstood. They do both. Not easy –but in this film dances on the brink of both sympathy and terror.

The centerpiece is Taylor all the way, she takes a larger than life complex woman and makes her simple, funny, furiously alive and spooky sexiness with ugly demons just under the surface. She makes her determined and passionate and bright and all her demons justified. Ms. Talyor who has often played strange outsiders looking in – in the past with HOUSEHOLD SAINTS, DOGFIGHT, GIRLS Town, and even in SAY ANYTHING – she was the girl who played guitar and obsessed over Joe – remember that? She wrote 52 songs about her High School love Joe - Love her. This time out she finds the dream mental sickness role of a lifetime – the uber combative Valarie Solanas and 'kills it'.

Tough a a teamster yet poignantly naive and shy, she takes no prisoners when it comes to espousing radical theories or cooking up ways to make a buck – even sports Golf shoes and walking over her tricks chest. Charging sometimes a sliding 6 dollar scale for her conversation skills. “Fifty cents a dirty word !?! Fifty Cents?...Men!” Slicing right into her manifesto – always ready to let the same or opposite sex have it with her many theories of disgust regarding ‘Men’.

Solanas, who was abused as a child and worked her way through college as a prostitute, comes across as a gifted woman who never quite loses a wry sense of humor. After a short career on her college paper (she writes columns arguing that females can reproduce without males and should do so), Valerie takes on Manhattan; she writes plays, does readings in luncheonettes, and is befriended by Candy Darling ( never better – Stephen Doriff, a transsexual who takes her for the first time to the Factory.

Lili Taylor plays Solanas as mad but not precisely irrational. She gives the character spunk, irony and a certain heroic courage (the sight of her typing on her rooftop, the wind rustling the pages of her manuscript, is touching) – understanding – completely. Variety calls Taylor ``the first lady of the indie cinema,'' and in one independent film after another (``Mystic Pizza,'' ``Dogfight,'' ``Household Saints,'' ``Arizona Dream,'' ``Bright Angel,'' ``Short Cuts'') she has proven herself the most intelligent and versatile of performers. If you had to look at all of the films of one actor who has emerged in the last 20 years, you would run less chance of being bored with Lili Taylor’s choices than anyone else.

It's a hell of a role, and Taylor, who won a well-deserved Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival for her performance, is brilliant.