Revolutionary Road


Revolutionary Road

In their latest movie, the only ship that's sinking for di Caprio and Winslet is their marriage.

(Paramount Vantage) Leonardo di Caprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, Kathryn Hahn, David Harbour, Richard Easton. Directed by Sam Mendes

We are all of us to a certain extent trapped by the circumstances of our lives. Our dreams are often casualties of the pressing immediate needs to make a living and a home. When those dreams die, often so does a part of ourselves.

When Frank Wheeler (di Caprio) sees April (Winslet) across a crowded room at a party, the attraction is immediate and undeniable. These are two young people who embrace life and are filled with it the way endemic to young people. Their futures are limitless, the world their oyster.

Several years later, the two of them are married, living in a Connecticut suburb. April, an aspiring actress, continues to perform on community theater stages, but we’re led to understand her performances are growing less and less outstanding. After such a performance, Frank tries to offer encouragement but in a way that hints at the cruelty that lurks within. We will later learn that the cruelty is the byproduct of his own desperation.

He is trapped in a soul-sucking job that he cannot stand. To make matters worse, he is working for the same firm his father did years before. He has become his father without realizing it. Their lives have become an endless parade of cigarettes and martinis, banal conversation at banal parties in a series of increasingly mind-numbing suburban get-togethers.

In desperation, April suggests they move to Paris. She could get a job as a secretary, or a translator at the U.S. Embassy while Frank took some time off to find out what he really wanted to do. At first, Frank is enthusiastic about the prospect, which elicits quiet scorn from their neighbors. Then he gets the offer of a promotion at work. He’d still be stuck in a soul-sucking job, but he would be getting paid better and isn’t that what the American dream is all about?

Into this mix comes John Givings (Shannon), son of Helen (Bates) their realtor and her husband Howard (Easton), a Norman Rockwell painting sprung to life. John has spent some time in a mental institution and Helen thinks he would benefit from being around “normal” people like the Wheelers. It turns out that Givings’ mental illness had to do with speaking his mind, and as he does we discover that he has quite the keen intellect and a very detailed observational sense. He speaks his mind and the truth isn’t always pleasant. This provokes terrible fights between April and Frank and we see the façade slowly crumbling. As it does, the pretenses are stripped away and we see what the American Dream has made of this once-promising couple.

Director Sam Mendes also did American Beauty, a more modern look at the American suburban existence and this makes an excellent bookend to that work. This was based on a novel by Richard Yates, considered one of the leading voices of his generation, one of the few not bound by the conformity of the times. Mendes touches on that a great deal here; everyone is expected to adhere to a certain standard of behavior and any deviation from the norm is met with mistrust and unspoken derision.

Much was made of this being Winslet and di Caprio’s first film together since Titanic and its clear to see that the chemistry they built in that film (which Bates also appeared with them in) has only strengthened in the intervening years. Their performances are scintillating and multi-layered with all sorts of nuances that it will certainly take repeated viewings to uncover completely. There is love between this couple, most certainly; there is also as it turns out much hatred as well. This is the kind of relationship that is prevalent in a lot of marriages (fortunately not mine) in which the passions are so extreme that both emotions are there in nearly equal quantities.

The screenplay by Justin Haythe is so good, I’ve noticed that nearly every review I’ve read on the film (including this one), the reviewer is moved to write in the kind of prose that is meant to show off our abilities as writers. That says a great deal about how well-written this script is, and quite frankly, how good the source novel is.

One of the best features I’ve saved til the end and that’s Michael Shannon. He’s in only three scenes but they are riveting. You watch this man in the rumpled suit that he clearly feels ill-at-ease in steal each scene and with his performance help fuel the engine of the story. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and would have certainly taken it home were it not for Heath Ledger’s Joker. Hopefully we’ll see Shannon get more work because of his performance here.

The novel was a child of its times and in some ways that is a criticism; the push for conformity still exists but not nearly at the same level it did in the 1950s and those points seem a bit dated. Still in all, that’s a minor quibble, especially given the overall strength and power of the story.

It is sometimes said that we turn up the music in our heads so that we can’t hear our own screaming, and that is certainly true in this movie. Mendes has come up with one of his best works, a movie that shows the pernicious dream-killing dark side of the suburban experience. As armies of men in grey suits march from Grand Central to their eight hours of meaningless work, we wonder how sane we really are to buy into an American Dream which has, in this case, become the ultimate American nightmare.

WHY RENT THIS: Outstanding performances by Winslet, Shannon and di Caprio. A gripping look at the darkness beneath the suburban façade.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the elements (such as the push for conformity) are from another era and not really relevant now.

FAMILY VALUES: Rough language abounds. There is also some nudity and some seriously sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors who play Frank and April’s children are siblings in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A 25 minute feature on Richard Yates, author of the novel on which this is based, gives some insight into the themes of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Lovely Bones

Doubt


Doubt

Sister Aloysius shows you where her heart would have been if she had one.

(Miramax) Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Alice Drummond, Audrie J. Neenan, Susan Blommaert, Joseph Foster II. Directed by John Patrick Shanley

If one has faith, one must first understand doubt. Doubt is the antithesis of faith, its polar opposite. You cannot have faith if you have doubt…can you?

It is December of 1963 and America is reeling of the Kennedy assassination. Even in the insular world of the parish of St. Nicholas, in the most American of Catholic enclaves (the Bronx), the outside world has crept in. The ramrod straight-spined principal of St. Nicholas is Sister Aloysius (Streep). For her, the world is unchanging, the same as it has ever been. Children are to be watched at all time for they are surely up to no good. Progress is a word to be spoken with the pursed expression of one sucking a lemon. There is only the sureness of faith, the knowledge that what she knows is right and true and that the discipline of her faith will carry her through.

Into this world comes Father Flynn (Hoffman), a boisterous new priest who not only accepts change, he embraces it. With the reforms of the Vatican II conference sweeping through the Church, he is eager to embrace the new progressive Church which seems to be on the verge of making itself more accessible to its flock.

Where Aloysius is stern and disciplined, Flynn is easygoing and charming. The nuns eat in rigid silence, speaking only when spoken to and fearful of the vitriolic wrath of Aloysius. The priests’ meals are boisterous, raucous with laughter and a spot of the hair of the dog. It seems inevitable that Aloysius would take a dim view of Flynn and vice versa. A collision between the two is unavoidable.

When Flynn takes an interest in Donald Miller (Foster), the only African-American child in the school, at first it seems innocent. Aloysius however seizes the opportunity to declare war on her enemy. She commands her nuns to keep an eye on Flynn for untoward behavior and Sister James (Adams), Miller’s teacher and a sweet innocent young thing who is constantly upbraided by Sister Aloysius for being inexperienced and soft on her students, becomes her unexpected accomplice. She notes that Father Flynn calls Miller to the rectory alone one day, and that when the boy returned he seemed upset; further, she detected the smell of alcohol on the boy’s breath.

That is all the ammunition that Sister Aloysius needs. Although even Sister James comes to believe in Father Flynn’s innocence, Aloysius plows on like a bulldozer, sweeping every unwanted explanation from her wake. Father Flynn’s protestations fall on deaf ears. Aloysius contacts the boy’s mother (Davis) to tell her of her suspicions but receives a surprising reaction in one of the film’s best scenes. Sister James has doubt; Sister Aloysius has faith. Which is the stronger?

This is the kind of movie that invites discussion and provokes thought. Non-Catholics will relate to this in a different way than Catholics (like me) will. Faith is a different thing for the Catholics of the early ‘60s. It is, as portrayed by Streep here, an Absolute, a capital letter that brooks no argument.

Shanley wrote this as a play and it won four Tony awards for it’s year-long Broadway run. The problem with converting plays into movies is that they can seem stage-y at times but that isn’t the case here. Shanley, who wrote Moonstruck and directed Joe vs. the Volcano a couple of decades back, creates an environment that is three-dimensional (and I’m not talking about the 3D film process) that is full and real. You can feel the chill of winter and the warmth that comes from the pulpit.

A script this strong deserves a strong cast and it gets it. The four main actors would all get Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for their performances here, and quite frankly they all deserved the statuettes that they didn’t win. Streep delivers one of the most unforgettable performances of her distinguished career as the rigid, inflexible Sister Aloysius; she literally wills her way into being and one can see the iron in her soul throughout. Hoffman is also at his best, creating a priest who is flawed as a man and completely unprepared for the onslaught of Sister Aloysius. Davis, a relative unknown, has but one scene with dialogue in the movie but she holds her own against one of the greatest actors of her generation and delivers a career-making performance. Adams has the kind of role that you would think simply would be overwhelmed by the others in the film, but she delivers the kind of performance that is at the top of her game, making a mousy role stand out in a crowd of lions.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch but keep in mind that this isn’t about whether Father Flynn behaved improperly with young Donald Miller. It is, when all is said and done, about the title – doubt and its lack thereof. Doubt is a necessity; without it we cannot question. If we cannot question, we cannot grow and if we cannot grow, we die. It’s that simple. This is one of the most powerful films of 2008 and is a must-see for everyone who loves films that make you think.

WHY RENT THIS: The contest of wills between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn at the heart of the movie is brilliantly acted by Streep and Hoffman; their confrontations are worth seeing by themselves.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The subject matter can be very wrenching and the resolution of the movie might leave some with a bad taste in their mouths.

FAMILY VALUES: The situations are very adult and will likely go over the heads of the more innocent sorts. Proceed with caution; the movie raises questions that you may not be prepared to answer right away.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film, which is Shanley’s first directorial effort in 18 years, is dedicated to Shanley’s first grade teacher who was the inspiration for Sister James.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a roundtable discussion with the cast on the differences in performing styles and preparation between theater and film, as well as a feature on the Sisters of Charity, the order depicted here and a discussion with several nuns of that order on the changes that swept through it at about the time the movie is set.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Hollywoodland

Frozen River


Frozen River

Melissa Leo discovers how cold the world can be.

(Sony Classics) Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Michael O’Keefe, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Jr., James Reilly, Jay Klaitz. Directed by Courtney Hunt

When times are hard, our moral compass is tested. How much of our integrity and our ethics will we compromise in order to survive? Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures.

Ray Eddy (Leo) lives in a trailer with her two kids, 15-year-old T.J. (McDermott) and 5-year-old Ricky (Reilly). They live in Northern New York near the Canadian border and also near the Mohawk reservation. It is the middle of winter and with Christmas approaching, things are pretty bleak.

We’re not just talking about the landscape. Ray’s husband has deserted them, leaving his car one night at the bingo parlor and getting on a bus, presumably to Atlantic City. He has a gambling problem – that would be an understatement – and has taken all of their savings with him. Ray is trying to keep her fingers and toes in the dike but the leaks are beginning to chip away at the dam. They dine nightly on microwave popcorn and Tang.

T.J. is fully aware that his dad has left them in the lurch and isn’t coming back. He wants to drop out of school and find a job, something Ray is adamantly opposed to. She works at the Dollar store part time and scrambles for more hours and maybe a promotion but the paycheck doesn’t quite stretch far enough. Their television set is about to be repossessed, something that Ray wants to avoid because she wants to keep Ricky feeling somewhat secure.

Lila Littlewolf (Upham) works at the bingo parlor and is terribly nearsighted, but can’t afford to buy glasses. She has a baby who is being raised by her mother-in-law, who refuses to allow her contact with her own child; Lila resorts to perching in a tree outside her mother-in-law’s home in freezing weather just to catch a glimpse of her baby.

Lila notices the abandoned car in the parking lot with keys conveniently in the ignition and drives off with it. Ray, who had gone to the bingo parlor to see if she could find some clue to her husband’s whereabouts, sees this and follows Lila home. She confronts the girl and takes the car back. Lila needs the transportation desperately and lets Ray in on a potential payday; if they drive across a frozen river at the Canadian border, they can make $2000 for bringing something back to the U.S. no questions asked. Furthermore Ray is less likely to be stopped than Lila, being white.

Ray is desperate so she agrees. When they arrive at Lila’s contact, Ray is shocked to discover that what they are bringing across the border are illegal aliens – mostly Pakistanis and Chinese. Ray is initially reluctant but it’s too late to back out. Once they successfully make it to the other side, Ray is ready to call their relationship quits.

Money talks however and Lila needs a lot more of it and so does Ray. They decide to make a few more runs, enough for Ray to replace the money that her husband stole for her and for Lila to get her baby back. However, as much as you try to keep your business in the dark, inevitably your actions will emerge into the light. In making things right for her kids, Ray could risk making things even worse for them.

Writer-director Hunt was nominated for an Oscar for her screenplay, as was Leo. While Hunt’s nomination really didn’t get a lot of buzz, Leo attracted a lot of notice from the critics and deservedly so. This is a career-making performance. Leo makes Ray a real, breathing woman, someone who the audience can identify with and root for. As good as Leo’s performance is, I think that despite the nomination Hunt’s script got lost in the shuffle because Leo was given a great character to play with, a woman pushed into a corner by a cold, unfeeling world and doing whatever it takes to keep her family together.

While Upham didn’t get the acclaim Melissa Leo did, nonetheless she delivers a terrific performance that nicely compliments Leo; not to take anything away from Melissa Leo but without Upham’s performance it’s entirely possible her own performance might have been overlooked. Part of what makes the role work as well as it does is the relationship between the women, one born of desperation and pragmatism.

As a director, Hunt captures the environment nicely. Mostly working class and the working poor, she nails what it’s like to live close to the edge where even one paycheck can mean the difference between survival and catastrophe. What the women do is dangerous but Hunt wisely doesn’t focus on that. Instead, she places the emphasis on the characters and the movie is much better as a result. In lesser hands, this would have been a run-of-the-mill drama with elements of suspense. A movie of the week, in other words.

This is a solid indie film that has authenticity oozing out of every frame. You never get the sense that the filmmakers are manufacturing anything; the events and characters seem organic to their environment and the story flows nicely without being formulaic. It can be hard to watch because of the unrelenting grim tone, but then again that’s just the way some people live. Worth checking out for Leo’s performance alone, this is one of those rare movies that come out of left field and attract the right kind of attention. It should also have your attention as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A standout performance by Melissa Leo elevates what could have been a mundane drama into something better. Director Hunt captures the despair and desperation of the characters and their situation nicely.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An unrelenting grim tone may turn some viewers off.

FAMILY VALUES: A lot of rough language and adult situations may make this a little too much for younger sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McDermott and Reilly, who play brothers in the film, are cousins in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Men Who Stare at Goats

The Wrestler


Marisa Tomei and Mickey Rourke share a tender moment.

Marisa Tomei and Mickey Rourke share a tender moment.

(Fox Searchlight) Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Mark Margolis, Todd Barry, Wass Stevens, Judah Friedlander, Ernest Miller. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The world of professional wrestling is deceptive. While there are “superstars” who command huge salaries and fan adulation, there are hundreds of others toiling in smaller promotions trying to get their big break. Those superstars, however, don’t always stay at the top and once you fall, there’s only one direction to go.

Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke) has gone there. One of wrestling’s top draws in the ‘80s, he is struggling to make ends meet – and not always succeeding – twenty years after the fact. He still wrestles, but out of the limelight for smaller promotions. After a grueling match with an eager young up-and-comer, he comes home to find he’s been locked out of his trailer, so he’s forced to sleep in his van.

During the week he stocks groceries at a local grocery store for a boss who is less than sympathetic (Barry) which pays for most of his bills. At night, he patronizes a strip club where he has taken a shine to a particular girl, Cassidy (Tomei). She is older than most of the girls and takes a fair amount of grief for it from young punks who come to the club, which may be why the Ram likes her so much – in many ways, they’re in the same situation.

She has a young son as the Ram has a daughter (Wood), although he is estranged from his; the constant traveling of his profession kept him away from most of her important moments and all of her birthdays. She wants nothing more to do with the broken down piece of meat that her father has become.

However, the invincibility of the Ram has come into question. After a particularly brutal match in which a staple gun is used on the Ram’s leathery skin (hey, these kinds of matches actually happen) and having the staples painfully removed, he collapses in the locker room. He wakes up in the hospital, where the doctor explains that he’s had a cardiac bypass operation and his wrestling career is over.

Alone, without even the solace of the ring, Randy begins to reach out – to his daughter, to Cassidy, to anyone. He is making some small progress, but his own failings get in the way. His world crumbling around him, Randy agrees to a match – a 20th anniversary match against his greatest opponent, the Ayatollah (Miller) – that could lead to a big payday. It could also lead to the Ram’s demise.

Much has been made of Rourke’s performance, and I absolutely agree – this will be the performance he will be remembered for. While Sean Penn would win the Oscar for his role in Milk (and to be honest, Penn nailed the part), it should have gone to Rourke. Rourke’s Randy “the Ram” is much like a bull in a bullring; magnificent, strong and fierce, roaring at those who seek to skewer him, bellowing to let the world know he is there and should not be taken lightly. His performance is central to the movie’s appeal and shouldn’t be missed.

Kudos should go to Aronofsky for capturing the backstage world of professional wrestling. Accurate by all accounts (pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper purportedly was moved to tears by the movie), one gets a sense of the camaraderie of the boys in the back, of the quiet dignity and the unspoken desperation.

Tomei’s contribution shouldn’t be overlooked either. The stripper with a heart of gold is a bit of a cliché in the movies, but Cassidy’s heart is tarnished. A good person, she looks at her chosen line of work as a means to an end. Interacting with customers should be limited to her stage show and the occasional lap dance. She is friendly, but keeps people at arms length. She likes the Ram, but can’t allow herself to become involved with him. Therein lies the road to heartbreak and trouble, and she wants neither. Like the Ram, she wears her loneliness as a protective shield.

This is one of those movies that gets under your skin and stays there. You don’t have to be a wrestling fan to love Randy “the Ram” Robinson or root for him. This is a human story at its very core, more about a man who has made mistakes and has been wounded by them than about leg drops and arm bars. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. When the credits roll, I guarantee that you won’t forget Randy Robinson for a long, long time.

WHY RENT THIS: Mickey Rourke gives the performance of a lifetime in what is sure to be his career-defining role. Even if you’re not a wrestling fan, you’ll be drawn into the world of Randy “The Ram” Robinson. This is one of the best movies of 2008.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The wrestling violence is pretty graphic, and the depiction of Randy’s heart attack may be a bit much for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Graphic wrestling violence (there is a great deal of blood) as well as a high dose of sexuality and nudity make this more of a film for mature sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The final match of the movie was filmed during an actual Ring of Honor card. Several Ring of Honor wrestlers make cameos in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray version of the release includes a round-table discussion of real wrestling legends Diamond Dallas Page, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Lex Luger (who was used as a body double for Rourke in the opening montage of Randy “The Ram” Robinson at his height), Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake about the accuracy and merit of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: This Is England