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Review: Assisted Living

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Few of us have not experienced the Beckett-like atmosphere of the modern nursing home; crotchety codgers bundled in heavy sweaters despite broiling heat, withered women sobbing uncontrollably, locked in some long-ago anguish, persons of both sexes absentmindedly fondling stuffed animals as though they had never reached pubescence. In Assisted Living, the debut film from director Elliot Greenebaum, this disheartening milieu is seen through the eyes of Todd, a pot-smoking orderly who relates to his addled charges with the hazy resentfulness of a guy who never got over his first Phish show.

    Striving for a new sort of cinema verité, Greenebaum has attempted to graft fiction onto documentary. Todd (the personable Michael Bonsignore) is not a real person, nor is Mrs. Perleman (finely played by ex-circus performer Maggie Riley), a resident succumbing to Alzheimer’s whom Todd befriends. But the fictional storyline is always at a disadvantage in this film. It’s a valiant, inventive effort, with flashes of real wit and poignancy, but against the rich backdrop of actual residents and staff in a real-life, functioning nursing home, the actors can’t help but seem like, well, actors.

    When the film forgets this conceit entirely and functions simply as a reportage of mortality, it seems fresh and moving. Greenebaum is a remarkably non-judgmental, unsentimental director, and through his camera, lingering on wrinkled faces and arthritic hands, we see how the elderly are infantilized (a scene where they are encouraged to speak assertively through a furry monkey puppet is particularly depressing), and ignored for one main reason: they remind us that we, too, will one day see life through their eyes. — Rachel Shukert

Date DVD #18: Ray
 
This year, the Oscar race isn’t much fun. (At least while the Lord of the Rings trilogy was unspooling, you were guaranteed at least one terrific popcorn movie a year.) Out of 2004’s messy, ponderous crop (The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Million Dollar Baby, Ray, and Sideways), not one has CGI orcs, and only Sideways actually works all the way through. The rest all seem to have been engineered for the Oscar race in some secret Siberian laboratory, like steroid-happy athletes bred for the Olympics. They’re all beefed up with starpower, but collapse before the finish.

    Still, it’s no surprise that bookies are betting
Jamie Foxx will bring home Best Actor gold (especially since
Paul Giamatti was robbed of a nomination). Ray, out on
DVD this week, plays like a Kennedy Center tribute. It’s as if
someone walked into a VH-1 special and said, “Hey, someone oughta
class up the joint.” And director Taylor Hackford did, with earthy
Americana cinematography and Southern sunlight twinkling through
stained glass. Ain’t it sad — and beautifully shot?

    But Foxx deserves all the Hollywood hype surrounding him. The perfect lip-synching and piano-fingering? Yes. All that praise that he doesn’t revert to head-swaying mimickry? That too. But as someone who didn’t grow up shaking my thing to the young Charles’s R&B, I most admire Foxx’s ability to show how vital the man was in his prime — how seductive and magnetic, even at his worst. In one scene, a young Charles is sitting on the toilet in a T-shirt, begging for someone to tie him off so he can shoot up. Even at this pathetic nadir, his backup singer gets so misty eyed that she mounts him. Hackford can’t resist romanticizing the legend, even in the can. And Foxx can’t help but make you believe in it, even when you ought to know better. — Logan Hill



 
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