Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Returning to the suburban battleground of his first feature but set about 40 years earlier, director Sam Mendes tackles bitter married life again in his newest picture, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (****), a nasty and sharply observed film based on the acclaimed novel by Richard Yates. The screenplay, adapted by novelist Justin Haythe, is terse, lean, and caustic. Mendes, who also works from time to time as a theater director, frames this story almost like a play. His leads, the always fantastic Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, pump up this sad story with enough emotional fireworks for two movies. It’s an even two-hander to be sure; they’re both completely on fire in the film. The matured stars from TITANIC are the Wheelers, Frank and April, who live in a cute Connecticut house on a tree-lined street where everything seems to be hunky-dory. But not quite. Frank, stuck in a dead-end job at the company where his father used to work, yearns for something else. And April, confined to their house in the role of homemaker, tends to her children while privately wishing that they were all somewhere else. Throughout the course of this crisp two-hour film, the audience is basically a spectator to a crumbling marriage. We are only allowed a few glimpses at the Wheeler’s happy times; we see flashbacks of when they first met and when they first saw the house of their supposed dreams. But right from the start, after April, who was an aspiring actress before she became a mother, bombs on stage in a local theater production, we see that the Wheeler’s aren’t the happy-go-lucky couple that everyone makes them out to be. DiCaprio and Winslet go at each other’s throats all throughout REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, and the film’s weakness, if it has one, is that the viewer has little to balance their loathing of one another against. But that’s the story that Yates and Mendes/Haythe have decided to tell, so it’s pointless for me to suggest what the film could have been or might have been had more time been spent showing their earlier years together. REVOLUTIONARY ROAD makes the claim that beneath the fa├žade of domestic perfection lies the buried desires (carnal and psychological) of these people, people who were rushed into what they believed to be the “American dream,” but were really suckered into a lifetime of pain and anguish as a result of not working at what they truly wanted to become. I was reminded of a line of dialogue from Robert De Niro’s masterful A BRONX TALE when De Niro tells his son: “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.” That’s basically the theme of this shattering movie. Wasted talent. Frank hates April because he feels trapped by his corporate job which he needs to excel at in order to provide for his family. And April hates Frank predominantly because she feels he’s given up as a man. Mendes, as usual, proves himself to be a visual artist of the highest order; it also helps when you’ve got the unrivaled Roger Deakins shooting your movie and Tariq Anwar cutting it. Coming off of his last film, the vastly misunderstood JARHEAD, Mendes continues to evolve as one of cinema’s best filmmakers. This is a more mature effort than AMERICAN BEAUTY, lacking that film’s air of pretension and preciousness. Winslet and DiCaprio are both searing to watch, and are matched, albeit in a very small role, by the phenomenally intense Michael Shannon, playing a semi nut-job who may just be the sanest person spinning around in the Wheeler’s orbit. This is a tough movie that doesn’t care about being “entertaining.” REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is scarring piece of work, and it requires a somewhat masochistic viewer to appreciate all that’s being presented. It’s tough but vital cinema.
DOUBT (****) is an impeccable piece of filmmaking. From the writing to the direction to the performances, it’s a precision-tooled work from a storyteller who has an amazing grasp of what he wants to say. Adapted from his Pullitzer winning play of the same name, writer-director John Patrick Shanley has crafted one of the most thought provoking films of 2008. Set in the 1960’s at a NYC Catholic school, DOUBT tells the story of a priest who is accused of improper behavior with one of his altar boys. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in yet another forceful performance, is Father Flynn, a seemingly good and decent man who takes a liking to the one black student/altar boy in the school. The scarily intense Merry Streep is Sister Beauvier, the main accuser, who teams up with another nun, Sister James, played by Amy Adams, in order to try and bring Flynn down. James is the one who thinks that something improper has occurred; she doesn’t have definitive proof but she merely thinks that something bad happened. Shanley asks his viewer to make a decision at the end of the film as to who was right, who was wrong, who was lying, and who was telling the truth. This is a hard film to review without spoiling because there’s little to no fat on this film’s bones. Every line of dialogue is important to the overall story and every moment in each of the three central performances are so integral to the film’s outcome that it becomes a tricky movie to discuss without giving everything away. What Shanley is trying to get his audience to ask themselves is how does one really know what goes on behind a closed door? Is it enough to simply think that someone has done something wrong? What is a person’s moral compass made up of? How do we decide who is right and who is wrong when all of the facts aren’t made clear? Every line of dialogue crackles with authority, especially when spoken by Hoffman and Streep. And Adams, in the film’s most layered role, does excellent work as well, painting a portrait of a woman caught between what she knows is right and what she thinks is right. Viola Davis steals a few heartbreaking scenes as the altar boy’s deeply concerned mother; there’s not a false note played by any of the actors in this stinging drama. Shanley knows just how to wrap up his story, and during the film’s final moments, you’ll be left with a lot of fodder for discussion during your drive home from the theater.

Predetermined endings can be a hinderance for movies that are “based on a true story.” In the case of Bryan Singer’s glossily entertaining WWII thriller VALKYRIE (***1/2), the film’s obvious outcome doesn’t detract from the overall level of enjoyment that one will have while watching this deftly plotted espionage flick. Tom Cruise, the media’s latest whipping boy, turns out yet another – surprise surprise! – rock-solid movie-star performance as German officer Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who was the central figure in a plot to kill Hitler. Stauffenberg, a Nazi with a conscience (if you will), was disgusted by Hitler’s behavior and felt that what Hitler was turning his country into was wrong. A military man of great national pride, Stauffenberg was a patriot to his country first and foremost, a man driven by the belief that Hitler was ruining what was otherwise a good nation of people. Singer, working with an air-tight screenplay from his USUAL SUSPECTS collaborator Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander, keeps the film moving from event to event with urgency and verve; it’s his most stripped down movie in years and easily his most satisfying since X-2. The script doesn’t allow for a lot of psychological shading so Singer cranks up the energy and keeps his stylish film moving at a fast but not hectic pace. Cruise is joined by an all-star supporting cast including Kenneth Branagh, Terrence Stamp, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Eddie Izzard, all of whom are German officers who sided with Stauffenberg and contributed to the plot to assassinate Hitler. That they failed isn’t really a surprise; anyone who has cracked a history book in their life knows this. So knowing from the outset that Cruise and Co. will fail – and then be executed – does nothing to undercut the palpable tension that Singer and his cracker-jack cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel bring to the action scenes. Credit must also be given to editor/composer John Ottman, who keeps the film moving at a breathless pace without ever sacrificing visual or narrative coherence. And his pounding, pulsating musical score is one of the best of the year. VALKYRIE isn’t brilliant, but it’s damn good, and sometimes, damn good is all that you need in a film.
(Personal note: I’ve had enough of the Tom Cruise bashing. For the last 30 years – give or take – the man has made some of the very best studio films and has never, ever given a half-assed performance. He has great taste in scripts and he consistently works with the best directors. I could care less who he’s married too, what his religion is, how many kids make up his family, or whose couch he’s jumping on. Until he fails me as a movie star, I’ll be a fan for life. People need to get off their high horse and leave the guy alone).

FROST/NIXON (***1/2) is another historical drama with a predetermined ending that never fails to be anything less than mightily entertaining. Reprising their stage roles, Michael Sheen is David Frost, the wild British talk show host who bought himself an interview with Richard Nixon, played by Frank Langella, after Nixon had left office. Dependably directed by Ron Howard from a witty and detail-oriented script by Peter Morgan (who also wrote the stage version), FROST/NIXON is an intimate time-capsule of a story, going back to a time when an ex-President could be gullible enough to agree to a series of interviews without really doing his due diligence. Nixon figured that Frost would be a push-over, as nothing that Frost had done professionally up to that point had suggested any real depth or societal importance. Nixon was blinded by cash. But boy did he get what he deserved. Essentially, and I’m not really spoiling anything that anyone with a nominal US history background wouldn’t know already, Frost got Nixon to admit guilt in his role as President during the taped interviews, which would then be broadcast on world-wide television (and which have just been released on DVD). The film has a terrific supporting cast of some of the best character actors currently working: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Toby Jones, Matthey MacFadyen, Rebecca Hall, and Clint Howard all turn in vivid performances. Howard directs in an unfussy fashion with a simple elegance coming from his director of photography, Salvatore Totino, who has been working with Howard on his last few films. Shooting the film in a burnished, gold-brown glow gives off a feeling of yesteryear which is integral to the production. Again, you know where the story is going and how it’s going to end; it’s just a question of how good the film is in getting you there. This is one of Howard’s best films to date, a notch under APOLLO 13, but standing taller than his Oscar winning schmaltz-fest A BEAUTIFUL MIND. Who knew politics could be so much fun?

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