Based on an award winning book by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson Savage Grace is a true story of a societal poseur Barbara Daly (Julianne Moore) who climbs her way into a different class by marrying Brookes Baekeland (Stephen Dillane) heir to a plastics fortune. Soon the birth of their only child Tony turns their union upside down as the boy becomes uncommonly close with his mother and remains a failure in his father’s eyes. As the story spans years ranging from 1946 to 1972 dad disappears into his own world of work and affairs while Barbara becomes increasingly lonely desperate and clingy--entering into an incestuous tryst with her now grown son (Eddie Redmayne) a homosexual. The film details her pathetic attempts at presenting herself as something she’s not as she carries on the unnatural relationship-- which eventually leads to tragic consequences. There is no question Julianne Moore is perhaps the most courageous certainly most daring actress of her generation. Again in Savage Grace she proves herself willing to do anything and go further than most. Unfortunately the stilted dialogue and tone of the piece don’t do her any favors. We never get the feeling we’re watching real life unfold as most of these characters speak like they are in a stage production. Nevertheless Moore--with her flaming red hair and open sexuality--is still a treat to watch. Her Barbara is sensual dangerous and unpredictable. British thesp Dillane (HBO’s John Adams) proves again he can do just about anything and rises above the melodramatic script--mostly in the film’s first half. Redmayne’s Tony--a twisted mama’s boy trying to carve out his own identity--is rather hopeless and the actor struggles to make us empathize with him. Hugh Dancy turns up as Simon a gay friend of the family who winds up in a threesome with mother and son. Director Tom Kalin does no favors for his actors by creating a fake atmosphere around them. Even though Savage Grace is shot on a number of glamorous worldwide locations it feels small and claustrophobic. Kalin--like his talented cast--seems a little defeated by screenwriter Howard A. Rodman’s dreary and soapy script heavy with bloated dialogue and far-fetched situations. Writer and director seem to have taken a number of liberties with the real life story and the book the film is based on instead “interpreting” the characters actions from photographs taken at the time. Unfortunately their technique leaves the audience out of the loop. Rarely has a movie particularly one with the gifted Moore seemed so distant and uninvolving. Graphic sexual scenes in the unrated film seem only there to shock not enlighten and by the end we know little more about the Baekeland saga than we did going in.
Innocent Voices depicts the brutal reality of El Salvador’s 1980 civil war as seen through eyes of an 11 year-old boy who may soon get drafted by the army despite not understanding what the war is about. Though both sides were soldiered with young boys it was the government that actively recruited all 12-year-olds and forced them to fight. Eleven year-old Chava (Carlos Padilla) is about to turn but that doesn’t stop him from trying to enjoy life. Since he’s the man of the house--his father left to earn money in America and never returned--Chava wants a job so he can help his overworked mom (Leonor Varela) who quit her restaurant job to stay home and shield her three children from stray bullets. His first job comes when he stumbles upon an old bus owned by a jovial but careless bus driver (Jesus Ochoa). The two become instant friends as Chava rides the railing and calls out the stops. Meanwhile he discovers love after summoning the courage to ask the teacher’s daughter to fly paper fireflies with his friends. All the while the moment he has dreaded--his 12th birthday--looms large over his days. His Uncle Beto (José María Yazpik) a guerilla fighter on the run tries to convince his mother to let Chava live with him in the hills where it’s safe but she can’t let him go. Once he turns Chava must hide with the other boys when the soldiers come around to recruit. But he grows tired of hiding and takes matters into his own hands running off to join the guerillas where he discovers a fate worse than fighting--that of never seeing his family again. Perhaps the strongest element in the film is the surprisingly mature Padilla. Getting a child actor to perform on any level can sometimes be an exercise in futility but director Luis Mandoki manages to get Padilla able to run the gamut of emotions--joy fear the awkwardness of new love--in a very real and convincing way. While most directors would shy away from placing so young an actor into difficult situations particularly the climactic scene where Chava faces execution and watches his two best friends get shot in the back of the head Mandoki defies conventional wisdom and challenges Padilla who is most worthy of the call. As Kella Varela exudes strength despite her constant worry over her children particularly Chava whose arrival home after curfew causes her to feel rage worry forgiveness and joy in a matter of seconds. Legendary Mexican actress Ofelia Medina has a small but important supporting role as Kella’s mother--she provides her daughter’s family with their last peaceful refuge before their lives are destroyed by the army. Minor characters such as Uncle Beto the Bus Driver and Chava’s classmates all serve their purpose though Xuna Primus the classmate Chava falls in love with handles emotional scenes with Padilla with similar maturity. Innocent Voices marks the first Spanish-language film for Mandoki since the international success of Gaby-A True Story--and he’s back true to form. With Innocent Voices he has crafted a powerful and emotionally gripping film that never shies from the ugly realities of how war destroys families and makes men of boys well before their time. Sharing screenwriting credit with actor Oscar Torres on whom the story is based Mandoki benefits from his strong cast particularly Padilla; a wrong choice in casting Chava could have sunk the film. Mandoki masterfully lulls us into thinking that Chava might have some hope of living a normal life in El Salvador--he plays with friends just like any other kid. But every time it looks as though Chava is experiencing life as he should bombs explode machine guns erupt and soldiers come storming in to remind us that he’s living in the middle of a civil war. Ultimately Chava’s only escape is to America but he must leave behind his family much like his father in the beginning. It’s a nice bookend to Chava’s development: Despite the chaos around him his position as head of the family and the specter of being recruited into the army his real transformation into manhood comes when he finds the courage to strike out on his own.