January 28, 2009

Revolutionary Road

**** out of ****

In 1997, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet joined the ranks of cinema’s most memorable onscreen lovers with the film “Titanic.” When news began to circulate a couple of years ago that the duo would reunite for the film adaptation of Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road,” diehard fans of “Titanic” became quickly interested in the film. Although just over ten years have passed since the release of “Titanic,” thankfully little has changed in terms of DiCaprio and Winslet’s chemistry on film—at their most passionate, you can still feel the flames. Unfortunately for viewers who expect the complete return of Kate and Leo’s undying love to “Revolutionary Road,” their “passion” has much less to do with love than with suffering. “Revolutionary Road” is a depressing, shocking account of the slow destruction of a 1950s “nuclear family”—a far cry away from star-crossed lovers in the North Atlantic in 1912.

DiCaprio and Winslet, as marrieds Frank and April Wheeler, used to be happy. In a flashback, the film recounts how they fell in love at a college party then juxtaposes that scene with a particularly nasty war of words between the two some years later. In the years following, they have slowly grown apart as they have fallen into married life in the conservative 1950s. While Frank commutes with the masses to work in the city (in a scene recalling Lang’s “Metropolis”), April stays at home as the perfect housewife. However, their lives are hardly perfect until they realize it. When they do, the Wheelers decide to escape the monotony of the social ideal and go away to Paris. This, in turn, rekindles the love of their slowly dying marriage, and the Wheelers become a happy couple again. However, when obstacles arise, including the offer of a promotion for Frank at work, tensions resurface, and the Wheelers find their marriage beginning to spiral out of control until the shocking, disturbing conclusion.

Although Leo is no longer the baby-faced heartthrob at whom girls used to throw themselves, it might be just as well because it allows his acting, which continues to mature, to stand out. DiCaprio’s status as a “great” actor goes back and forth among critics, but the sheer strength and natural style of his performance is undeniable, and he is among the greatest of our time in my book. Meanwhile, Kate Winslet continues to be remarkable as April Wheeler, realized as a character through her ability to vivify every emotion that besets her, even through body and facial acting alone. Kate Winslet, as a true method actress, becomes pained April Wheeler. Finally, Michael Shannon makes his mark as John Givings, in a performance as impressive as those of the two leads. Givings is given the ironic designation of being mentally ill, although he has the best insight into oppressive suburban unhappiness of any other character. His performance involves him ritually yelling at his mother, Helen (Kathy Bates), and offering gratuitously critical opinions of everyone around him, including the Wheelers, but only after they turn their back on escaping suburban life. Anyway, his performance certainly stands out for the attention he draws, not only for his surprising (yet amusing) lines, but for the intensity of his acting.

With maturity seemingly being the greatest topic of note concerning the film, this becomes just as important to director Sam Mendes’ work, which I would declare even stronger than his debut, one of my personal favorites, 1999’s “American Beauty.”
While I enjoy and respect that film, “Revolutionary Road” just seems to fall into place so much more effortlessly. For example, “Revolutionary Road” has a tighter screenplay with fewer (at least in part) contrived character constructions than “American Beauty.”

I could go on about comparisons to “American Beauty” or even to “Titanic,” but I think “Revolutionary Road” is powerful enough on its own that viewers will quickly forget Mendes’ direction of another suburban nightmare in the former and DiCaprio and Winslet as lovers in the latter. “Revolutionary Road” is something new and different because it analyzes the 1950s “nuclear family” from a perspective that shows its weakness and failure rather than emphasizing its popular valorization as a “standard.” Such an ideal—akin to “Leave It to Beaver,” if you will—is impossible to achieve, and the film’s honesty in its narrative and its characters’ heartfelt portrayal determinedly shows the flaws of life. After all, as April Wheeler says, contrary to the neighborhood’s popular belief of her perfection: “We are no better than anyone else.” Thus, director Mendes drags viewers through the darkest and ugliest that suburban life has to offer with a film that will remain implanted in American consciousness for years to come. Free of any bias, “Revolutionary Road” is the best picture of the year.

Originally published in the January 28 issue of Versus Magazine: Entertainment & Culture


January 26, 2009

In the News/Random Musing: SAG Awards '09

Oh my. Boy, was I surprised to see these winners! While the supporting winners are no shock, the actors in leading roles are quite surprising! (Although I guessed most of them correctly!) And remember: most of the same voters at the SAGs vote for the Academy, too!

I always assumed that Meryl Streep would be right behind Kate Winslet for Best Actress this year, and here, the Guild awards her instead! However, since the Academy has nominated Kate Winslet's role in "The Reader" as a "leading" role, this could throw a monkey wrench into things for Miss Streep on Oscar night. Also consider that Winslet has been nominated five times at the Oscars and is still emptyhanded. The Academy might be setting this up as her year.

Meanwhile, Sean Penn surprisingly nabs the prize from the heavily-favored Mickey Rourke. This may or may not be foreshadowing for the Oscars, though... The Academy is a tricky business.

And as an example of this - finally, unless the Academy pulls a surprise like in '06 with Alan Arkin for "Little Miss Sunshine" over the already Globe- and SAG-awarded Eddie Murphy ("Dreamgirls"), then Heath Ledger will take home the Oscar.


January 24, 2009

Random Musing/In the News: The Academy Award Nominees '09

On Thursday morning, Sid Ganis stepped onto a stage in Beverly Hills, California to say some of the most important words some people will hear all year. Who is Sid Ganis? He is the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and along with actor Forest Whitaker, he announced the nominees for this year's prestigious Academy Awards. The nominees are...

Performance by an actor in a leading role
Richard Jenkins in "The Visitor" (Overture Films)
Frank Langella in "Frost/Nixon" (Universal)
Sean Penn in "Milk" (Focus Features)
Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler" (Fox Searchlight)

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Josh Brolin in "Milk" (Focus Features)
Robert Downey Jr. in "Tropic Thunder" (DreamWorks, Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount)
Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Doubt" (Miramax)
Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.)
Michael Shannon in "Revolutionary Road" (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount Vantage)

Performance by an actress in a leading role
Anne Hathaway in "Rachel Getting Married" (Sony Pictures Classics)
Angelina Jolie in "Changeling" (Universal)
Melissa Leo in "Frozen River" (Sony Pictures Classics)
Meryl Streep in "Doubt" (Miramax)
Kate Winslet in "The Reader" (The Weinstein Company)

Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Amy Adams in "Doubt" (Miramax)
Penélope Cruz in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (The Weinstein Company)
Viola Davis in "Doubt" (Miramax)
Taraji P. Henson in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
Marisa Tomei in "The Wrestler" (Fox Searchlight)

Achievement in directing
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) David Fincher
"Frost/Nixon" (Universal) Ron Howard
"Milk" (Focus Features) Gus Van Sant
"The Reader" (The Weinstein Company) Stephen Daldry
"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Danny Boyle

Best motion picture of the year
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
A Kennedy/Marshall Production Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Ceán Chaffin, Producers

"Frost/Nixon" (Universal)
A Universal Pictures, Imagine Entertainment and Working Title Production Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Eric Fellner, Producers

"Milk" (Focus Features)
A Groundswell and Jinks/Cohen Company Production Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, Producers

"The Reader" (The Weinstein Company)
A Mirage Enterprises and Neunte Babelsberg Film GmbH Production Nominees to be determined

"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight)
A Celador Films Production Christian Colson, Producer

Adapted screenplay
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) Screenplay by Eric Roth; Screen story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord

"Doubt" (Miramax) Written by John Patrick Shanley

"Frost/Nixon" (Universal) Screenplay by Peter Morgan

"The Reader" (The Weinstein Company) Screenplay by David Hare

"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy

Original screenplay
"Frozen River" (Sony Pictures Classics) Written by Courtney Hunt

"Happy-Go-Lucky" (Miramax) Written by Mike Leigh

"In Bruges" (Focus Features) Written by Martin McDonagh

"Milk" (Focus Features) Written by Dustin Lance Black

"WALL-E" (Walt Disney) Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon; Original story by Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter
So we see that, as I expected a few weeks ago, most of the actor nominations remain the same, except that the Academy has done the curious thing of foregrounding Kate Winslet's nomination for "The Reader" from other awards ceremonies' Best Supporting Actress status, making her a Best Actress nominee instead. Thus, her work in "Revolutionary Road" is forgotten, although co-star Michael Shannon now (deservedly) joins the nominees in the Best Supporting Actor category. Otherwise, most of the expected nominees remain the same.

...So who will win? We will find out Sunday, February 22nd.


January 21, 2009


*** out of ****

The most sordid lives tend to generate the least hope for escape, and this notion is no different for the film “Ballast.” Crushingly bleak, viewers discover that the plot’s stoicism is not bad writing—it is because the most miserable lives rarely find their way out of vicious cycles. In fact, an engaging story and clever stylized film techniques bring about this realism and make “Ballast” into a commendable film.

However, as a warning, because of the film's visual preferences, its narrative is hard to identify until about twenty to thirty minutes in, so patience is necessary. On one hand, this could be bad since that constitutes nearly a quarter of the film’s runtime, but the paced revelations of details are rather appreciated. After all, why slam active viewers with information when they can be pleased by simply revealing pieces of the puzzle little by little? Once a certain detail is revealed, viewers realize a man has died and his miserable twin, Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith, Sr.), has lost the will to live. Meanwhile, young James (JimMyron Ross), who lives next door, gets in over his head with a group of local drug dealers and steals money to feed his habits while his suffering mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs), in an admirable performance, struggles to make ends meet. In sum, the man’s death eventually unites these characters as they attempt to overcome great hindrances and help each other simply to survive.

The film reminds me of “Monster’s Ball” for some relatively generic reasons. The main character undergoes a personal crisis when his loved one commits suicide and an unhappy woman starves for help while devoting herself to protecting her child. At least the emotional sensibilities seem similar between the two films—the main male and female characters eventually reach out to each other and connect through mutual needs. While it would be lacking to consider “Ballast” only in this light, it is also important to mention director Lance Hammer’s clear artistic influence from the French New Wave, especially Godard’s “Breathless.” “Ballast” is full of borrowed techniques, especially because it makes technique perhaps more important than the narrative itself. Jump cuts condense time but furthermore jolt viewers with new sounds and settings, never quite letting them relax into the story. While this could become tiring for some, the effect will be artistic for other viewers.

The only real complaint to lodge against “Ballast” is that it is anticlimactic. Viewers will feel robbed of a satisfactory ending, but the intended lack of climax is understandable. With an emphasis on the main characters’ misery and a handheld camera style, the realistic mood generated from beginning to end indicates the film’s dismal cycle of unhappiness. It will certainly not end at “the end,” so why fool viewers with a happy ending? However, the ending is going to inspire strong positive or negative feelings about the film as a whole, so viewers should prepare for one or the other.

“Ballast” is currently playing at the Belcourt Theatre.

Originally published in the January 21 issue of Versus Magazine: Entertainment & Culture


January 14, 2009


***½ out of ****

The public usually holds the morals of religious officials to higher standards than themselves, and for the characters of “Doubt,” this standard is just as high. Thus, the main characters are frowned upon by viewers for what the Bible would deem generally unbecoming acts. For example, the central conflict of “Doubt” concerns what happens when a nun breaks God's rules to expose a priest of questionable integrity for possible indiscretions. But is it her place as a lady of God?

In the 1960s, things are well in one Catholic church until Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) delivers a sermon about doubt, which leads stuffy Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) to question its foundation. As she hunts for some—any—reason for misconduct, naïve Sister James (Amy Adams) provides her with the basis she requires to make her assumptions. Sister James is concerned when a black student is called to Father Flynn’s rectory alone and returns troubled, and with the special attention Sister Aloysius notices him receiving, she calls Father Flynn’s motives into question as she accuses him of sexual misconduct. The rest of the film then focuses on this question: Did he do it?

The acting in “Doubt” is its greatest strength. Even when the plot feels like it has lost some thrust, the titanic talents of the four main actors yields astonishing, even explosive results. Streep stands out, as usual, as dry Sister Aloysius, and her rigid approach to the character tells tales of its significance. Sister Aloysius acts on suspicion, perhaps without reason, but by way of “certainty” free of doubt. She lives against the words of the Bible by gossiping and proclaiming herself better than others, but she justifies her “holier-than-thou” work as the “greater good.” Viewers learn little about her past or why she thinks the way she does, but what is clear is her sizable wariness of Father Flynn. Meanwhile, Amy Adams plays Sister James well, with a splendid character development in accord with her own talent. Though I have noticed Adams’ tendency to be cast in “nice” roles, such as recent roles in Disney’s “Enchanted” and her Oscar-nominated role in “Junebug,” she acts with honesty that legitimizes her own character’s moral and religious challenges. Meanwhile, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Father Flynn holds his own, and his impressive facial acting reveals the presence of his secrets without actually revealing what they are. Particularly fascinating is the juxtaposition of the scenes featuring the presentation of his fingernails (“I like them a little long”) and the dinner with the other priests (featuring red meat). The feminine partiality, in particular involving his emphasis on enjoying his nails long, nudges viewers to consider him as a possible homosexual, and this supposition leads them to consider his possible indiscretions. Last but not least, Viola Davis is the surprise of the film, leaving a mark so emotionally resonant that she is perhaps the film’s greatest cannon. Consider: What kind of actress picks a fight with Meryl Streep’s character and wins? Davis does it, tears and all, and her affect moves all viewers as all she wants to do is protect her son.

One of my favorite aspects of the film is its tendency to incorporate style to engender metaphors. For example, with lighting, Sister Aloysius uses the sun through blinds to “shine a light” on Father Flynn during his interrogation, and with props, she carries a trident-looking lightbulb changer across a room in her quest to bring down the priest. In addition, the weather is a notable motif—the winds grow more violent around Sister Aloysius as she works to uncover the truth.

The best thing about the film is that it does not remove the doubt that surrounds it. While some films would elect to reveal everything in the end, “Doubt” refuses to do so, keeping viewers guessing (and doubting) until the last seconds and even beyond. Did Father Flynn touch Donald? What is his real story? What does he have to hide? Clearly, “Doubt” will spark controversy with its concentration on the touchy subject of priestly indiscretions in the Catholic Church, but since the play on which the film is based is titled “Doubt: A Parable,” perhaps here is the moral conflict: Is it Sister Aloysius’ place to talk about her neighbor and degrade his character? Or is she justifiable if he is what she thinks he is? Do the ends justify the means? Certainly, this is a complex film of many layers.

“Doubt” is currently playing in theaters.

*Originally published in the January 14 issue of Versus Magazine: Entertainment & Culture*


January 12, 2009

Random Musing/In the News: The Golden Globes '09

And now, my official thoughts on the star-studded night... (Kate has TWO Globes!!!)

Best Picture (Drama)
• “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
• “Frost/Nixon”
• “The Reader”
• “Revolutionary Road”
“Slumdog Millionaire”

This is a huge win. While I have been biased toward “Revolutionary Road” for some time now, it is hard to deny the power “Slumdog” has had over critics of late. It is the second British-made film in a row (after “Atonement”) to win Best Picture (Drama) at the Globes.

Best Picture (Comedy or Musical)
• “Burn After Reading”
• “Happy-Go-Lucky”
• “In Bruges”
• “Mamma Mia!”
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”

Unfortunately, the follow-up to the Coen Brothers’ “No Country For Old Men,” “Burn After Reading,” disappoints in this category, leading iconic director Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” to snatch the prize. However, do not expect to see any of these films on the Academy’s list in a few weeks…

Best Actor (Drama)
• Leonardo DiCaprio – “Revolutionary Road”
• Frank Langella – “Frost/Nixon”
• Sean Penn – “Milk”
• Brad Pitt – “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Mickey Rourke – “The Wrestler”

Having seen only the trailer, I expected Mickey Rourke to pick up the award in this category. While I have long been a fan of DiCaprio, Rourke’s performance in “The Wrestler” is undeniable. Expect a repeat at the Oscars.

Best Actor (Comedy or Musical)
• Javier Bardem – “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Colin Farrell – “In Bruges”
• James Franco – “Pineapple Express”
• Brendan Gleeson – “In Bruges”
• Dustin Hoffman – “Last Chance Harvey”

In a weak category, Colin Farrell gets the Globe. Expect him to fade back into oblivion.

Best Actress (Drama)
• Anne Hathaway – “Rachel Getting Married”
• Angelina Jolie – “Changeling”
• Meryl Streep – “Doubt”
• Kristin Scott Thomas – “I've Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime)”
Kate Winslet – “Revolutionary Road”

Kate Winslet is undeniably the greatest actress of our generation (on the heels of fellow nominee, Meryl Streep), and I have long expected her to finally win Best Actress. With her (admitted) lack of trophies at both the Globes and the Oscars, I knew a role such as hers in “Revolutionary Road” would finally get her the prize.

Best Actress (Comedy or Musical)
• Rebecca Hall – “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Sally Hawkins – “Happy-Go-Lucky”
• Frances McDormand – “Burn After Reading”
• Meryl Streep – “Mamma Mia!”
• Emma Thompson – “Last Chance Harvey”

Hawkins deservedly nabs the award here for her effervescent role in “Happy-Go-Lucky.” Her overwhelming emotions during her acceptance are understandable, considering she was nominated against three Oscar winners. Despite her success here, it would be unlikely to see her at next month’s Oscars.

Best Supporting Actor
• Tom Cruise – “Tropic Thunder”
• Robert Downey, Jr. – “Tropic Thunder”
• Ralph Fiennes – “The Duchess”
• Philip Seymour Hoffman – “Doubt”
Heath Ledger – “The Dark Knight”

Heath Ledger was set to become one of the greatest actors of our generation. While I, like many others, praised his role as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” I must unfortunately be the bad guy and call his win “the sympathy vote.” Naturally, Foreign Press voters recognized his star on the rise, and with his final performance on film being so universally lauded, why not award him for what could have been? Think about it—who was the last actor from a superhero film that you saw take home an award? That’s right—keep thinking… Anyway, his posthumous win is commendable.

Best Supporting Actress
• Amy Adams – “Doubt”
• Penelope Cruz – “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
• Viola Davis – “Doubt”
• Marisa Tomei – “The Wrestler”
Kate Winslet – “The Reader”

Not only does Kate Winslet finally win an award, she wins two! She achieves this history-making feat by evading double nominations from “Doubt,” including Viola Davis, whom I favored. If Winslet wins both categories at the Oscars, she will make history there, too.

Best Director
Danny Boyle – “Slumdog Millionaire”
• Stephen Daldry – “The Reader”
• David Fincher – “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
• Ron Howard – “Frost/Nixon”
• Sam Mendes – “Revolutionary Road”

Usually, the director of the year’s “Best Picture” picks up this award. With the winner being Danny Boyle, all is well in the world.