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

Defiance


Daniel Craig decides to go looking for a few critics.

Daniel Craig decides to go looking for a few critics.

(Paramount Vantage) Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Allan Corduner, Mark Feuerstein, Tomas Arana, George MacKay, Iben Hjejle, Jodhi May, Sam Spruell, Mia Wasikowski. Directed by Edward Zwick.

More than 60 years after the events of World War II, the events of that conflict still resonate with all of us. It was a time when ordinary people were forced to confront true evil, rise up and make a stand for their very survival, as well as everything they hold most dear. Some of those stories, particularly those that took place in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, are only now coming to light in the West.

It is 1941 in Belarus, and the Germans are systematically capturing, murdering and imprisoning Jews in ghettos. In a small Belarusian town, smuggler Zus Bielski (Schreiber) and his young brother Asael (Bell) hide out in the woods as the Germans decimate their town. They return to the family farm to find their parents murdered and their younger brother Aron (MacKay) traumatized by what he has seen.

Knowing that the Germans are not yet done with their pogrom, and that the local police are co-operating with the Nazis, they flee to the nearby forest where they are joined by their older brother Tuvia (Craig). Experienced at hiding from the police in the woods, they are confident they can hide from the Germans indefinitely. However, Aron soon discovers several other refugees who have fled to the safety of the forest. They are joined by still others from surrounding towns and villages. The number soon swells beyond the ability of the brothers to feed and shelter. There are many elderly and sick, some children and most truly unable to fend for themselves. The brothers give them unity and protection. The brothers give them hope.

After Tuvia confronts the police captain responsible for the murder of his parents and executes him, he forswears from further violence and reprisals, which creates a rift with his brother Zus, who wants nothing more than to get justice, or more to the point, revenge against those oppressing his people. After a food raid leads to the death of some of their number, and leniency with a collaborator brings armed police to their camp, the rift is broadened to the point where Zus leaves to join a Russian partisan group made up of Red Army.

In the meantime, winter comes, food is scarce and they are hunted by a determined and better-armed German army. Tuvia’s determination to adhere to non-violent standards begins to erode in the face of starvation, disease and fear. With the overwhelming odds against them, it would take a miracle for this starving group of refugees to survive.

Zwick, whose resume includes such big-budget fare as Glory, The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond, crafts a movie that has a big-budget look but an intimate feel. Gorgeous vistas of forest, bog and meadow are accentuated within the context of the nuances of the relationships between the brothers. Craig and Schreiber bring a quiet power to their roles as sibling rivals. These are men, proud and wounded, frustrated and helpless in the face of events they cannot control.

The supporting cast, for the most part made up of character actors and Eastern Europeans, does a solid job of portraying starving refugees, terrified townies, arrogant communists and/or occasional Germans, who for the most part remain an enemy without a face, other than the opening sequence, and one later on in the movie in which a terrified soldier is captured and brought before the camp to face a mob of angry Jews.

As for historical accuracy, well, the movie is probably about as accurate as any Hollywood film is (for example, a battle with a Nazi tank near the film’s climax never occurred). There has been some grousing that the film portrays much of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe as being passive in the face of mounting evidence of their own extermination, but I disagree. Certainly, there are scenes like the one where Tuvia pleads with the council of a ghetto to flee to the forest while the elders point out that the Germans kill 20 for every one that flees. However, the fact is that there are instances in which Jews were passive about what was happening to them, whether out of a desire to appease the Germans, or out of an unwillingness to believe the rumors of death camps or that the Germans would annihilate their own slave labor workforce, something that had never happened in the history of the world to that point.

This movie hasn’t received a lot of critical love. Some have called it heavy-handed, which I admit it is in places. Some have called it emotionally manipulative, but then again it is a story which incites strong emotions. Some have compared it unfavorably to Schindler’s List but honestly, that’s like comparing Gods and Generals to Gone With the Wind. Schindler’s List is a classic and most films about the Holocaust are going to come off unfavorably next to it.

I’ll cop to being a bit of a history buff, and I especially enjoy movies that inspire me to find out more about the era or episode that inspired them, and I certainly was hitting the Internet after I got home from the multiplex. The war in Eastern Europe is certainly a bit of a mystery to us in the West; while we are aware that there was a particular ferocity and savagery that took place there, we are for the most part unacquainted with the particulars. I, for one, am always grateful for the opportunity to learn more.

However, at the heart of this movie is the relationship between Tuvia and Zus. It is their strength that sets them apart and their pride that splits them apart, but ultimately it is their love and fierce loyalty that unites them. At the end of the day, that’s what makes the movie worth seeing.

WHY RENT THIS: Lovely Lithuanian vistas. Oscar-nominated musical score. A compelling, believable fraternal relationship.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasional heavy-handed storytelling. Some unnecessary historical inaccuracies to make the movie more “salable.”

FAMILY VALUES: Some intense battle scenes and language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Much of the movie was filmed within 100 miles of where the actual Bielski camp was located.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A criminally brief interview segment with descendents of the Bielski brothers, and a photo gallery of camp survivors in 2008 give faces to the real participants in the drama.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Secret Life of Bees

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard


For Don Ready, life is a mile-high party.

For Don Ready, life is a mile-high party.

(Paramount Vantage) Jeremy Piven, Ving Rames, David Koechner, James Brolin, Jordana Spiro, Kathryn Hahn, Ed Helms, Tony Hale, Ken Jeong, Charles Napier, Jonathan Sadowski, Alan Thicke, Rob Riggle, Noureen DeWulf, Will Ferrell. Directed by Neal Brennan

 Used car salesmen are some of the most excoriated people on earth. It’s not a profession for the faint of heart. To be a successful used car salesman, you have to have the goods.

Don Ready (Piven) has the goods. He’s a gun-for-hire, a mercenary with the killer instinct of a born closer. He grew up thinking the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross were pussies. He’s assembled a team of tight-knit professionals who go from dealership to dealership, bailing them out when they need sales boosted quickly. Selleck Motors of Temecula, California are just such a dealership. The business has been in Ben Selleck’s (Brolin) family for 40 years, but the banks are getting ready to foreclose. The fourth of July weekend is approaching and Selleck’s team of psychotics and losers just aren’t getting the job done. Over the misgivings of his daughter Ivy (Spiro), Ben has to call in the cavalry.

That would include the legendary Don Ready, his numbers genius partner Brent Gage (Koechner) whom Ben has taken an unhealthy liking to, the oversexed Babs Merrick (Hahn) who has taken an unhealthy liking to Ben’s son Peter (Riggle), a ten-year-old in a 30-year-old body, and Jibby Newsome (Rames) who just wants to make love to a woman someday – but he’s not a virgin, mind you. He’s had plenty of sex. He just wants to make loooooove.

They have one weekend to sell 211 cars on the Selleck lot. If they don’t, smarmy import car lot owner Stu Harding (Thicke) and his egocentric son Paxton (Helms) – who is also, incomprehensibly Ivy’s fiancée (and a member of Temecula’s best boy band – excuse me, man band, who once opened for O-Town. You can Google it.

That’s pretty much it for the plot. The movie, essentially, is a vehicle – ‘scuse the pun – for Piven, best known as Ari Gold on HBO’s Entourage. The script moves ahead at a breakneck pace, much like the patter of a used car salesman. If you don’t like one gag, have no fear – another will be along in a moment. It’s like a well-served bus line of comedy.

Piven is one of my favorite underrated actors. He doesn’t seem capable of giving a bad performance, and some of my favorite movie moments in films like Very Bad Things and Smokin’ Aces were as a result of Piven’s talents. He gets some solid back-up, particularly from Napier as a mad dog salesman, Brolin, Rames and Helms. Hahn is also worth checking out; she’s slutty without being overly sleazy.

There is a vibe that is produced in Judd Apatow’s best movies here; Temecula, a small town in California’s Mojave Desert, becomes a place we can relate to. Everything is magnified there because there really isn’t all that much to do. Considering the state of the auto industry, this movie provides a comedic bail-out in a summer when laughs have been in short supply, both in the multiplex and out of it. There is definitely a cynical edge to the movie and you get the feeling that the actors are right there with you laughing at some of the antics of their characters. Ferrell, who has an uncredited cameo as Ready’s best friend who suffers a tragic fate, produced this and I would put it up there with Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy in terms of comedic punch. People who liked that and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story are going to find this to their liking.

REASONS TO GO: One of the funnier movies of the summer, although a bit on the cynical side. Some nice performances by a smart troupe of character actors.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the gags can be a bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some nudity, much sex and sexual innuendo and a good deal of foul language might give parents pause.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Brennan began his career as a writer and director on “The Chappelle Show” on television.
HOME OR THEATER: While the big screen doesn’t necessarily enhance this movie any, it’s always nice to support a smaller film at the box office.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Julie and Julia