December 28, 2008

MOVIES: Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, 2008)

This one will be a bit longer and more spoilery than usual.

Not that there’s a lot to spoil, for while there are a lot of events in Revolutionary Road, very little actually happens; it’s a movie about stasis and people who are unwilling to change their lives.

It’s the mid-1950s, and Frank and April Wheeler (Leonard DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) are Connecticut suburbanites. He works in Manhattan, for the same company where his father worked; she tends the house and cares for their two children. It is, by the standards of the time, a nice life that they have built for themselves, but it is not enough for them; Frank and April are miserably unhappy and desperate to find a way out of the suburban doldrums.

The problem is that their unhappiness never feels genuine; I always felt that Frank and April were, as today’s academic jargon would have it, “performing” unhappiness because they believe that it will mark them as more sophisticated than their dull little neighbors who are content with their dull little lives. Of course, when we’re allowed brief glimpses into the lives of those neighbors, we realize that they, too, are vaguely dissatisfied with their lives, as most people are.

What Frank and April never understand is this: Thinking that your life has been a disappointment, that it should have amounted to more, that you should have amounted to more – this doesn’t mark you as sophisticated or superior, it only marks you as human.

But since the Wheelers don’t actually want to be happy, there’s no sense of hope that they might ever be. And there’s certainly no reason for us to get caught up in their apparent excitement about the one plan they make for happiness – moving the family to Paris – because we know it will never actually happen. After all, if they move to Paris, they might actually be forced to justify their misery instead of simply relying on the crutch of suburban boredom.

Indeed, both of the Wheelers begin almost immediately to sabotage April’s plans for the trip. Frank starts actually making an effort at the office, putting himself in line for a promotion and a pay raise that would be hard to turn down. When April finds herself pregnant, she buys a black-market home abortion kit, and we know that can’t end well. (When she tells Frank, “It’s perfectly safe during the first twelve weeks,” we know three things: 1) it’s never perfectly safe; 2) she’s going to wait until after the first twelve weeks to use it; 3) it’s going to kill her.)

Revolutionary Road is an unrelentingly bleak movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; Frozen River, from this summer, wasn’t exactly sunshine and lollipops, and I liked it very much, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf certainly showed that an unhappy, bickering couple can be the basis for a rewarding movie experience.

What makes Virginia Woolf work, though, is the high stakes; we know that the games George and Martha play matter immensely to them, even if we don’t always understand how or why. But here, Frank and April don’t really want to be happy, so there are no stakes; there’s no reason for us to care that they aren’t.

How’s the movie as a movie? Well, it’s a beautiful looking production. Kate Winslet is by far the standout, managing at moments to make April seem like a real person, but the rest of the cast isn’t at her level, which throws the storytelling off balance, tipping our sympathies far more toward April than I think they should be tipped. Worst among the cast is Michael Shannon (actually being touted as an Oscar nominee by some) who plays the archetypal fool, a mental patient whose insanity gives him license to utter the cruel truths that everyone else can only think. Shannon’s grating, braying performance grinds the movie to a halt every time he appears.

Thomas Newman’s score is effective, though it’s instantly recognizable as a Thomas Newman score; his bag of tricks is beginning to wear thin. Director Sam Mendes and his makeup crew have done a fine job of populating the movie with 50s grotesques; only Winslet and DiCaprio are allowed to be attractive, with Kathy Bates and Dylan Baker being treated particularly unkindly in this regard.

Fans of the book may wish to see what’s been made of it, and Winslet’s admirers will probably want to see her work, but everyone else can certainly wait for cable or DVD.

December 14, 2008

TV: Leverage (TNT, Tuesday 10)

A promising caper drama in the mold of the Ocean's movies and the recently concluded AMC series Hustle.

Timothy Hutton stars as Nathan Ford, former insurance investigator who leads a team of con men. Nathan left his former job when his own insurance company refused to pay for the treatment that might have saved his young son's life; now his team devotes its energy to helping little guys who've been done wrong by big companies. (And if a case provides a chance to take some money away from an insurance company, so much the better.)

The team consists of Alex Hardison (Aldis Hodge), the computer guy; Parker (Beth Riesgraf), the thief; Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane), the muscle; and Sophie Deveraux (Gina Bellman), the grifter who handles much of the interaction with the marks. The actors are all fine in their roles, though the characters don't have a lot of depth as yet. Hodge gets much of the comic relief and handles it very nicely; Riesgraf does a nice job of mixing eccentricity and efficiency as Parker, who everyone else thinks just might be nuts.

The members of Nathan's team are used to working alone, and much of the entertainment comes from their struggle to trust one another and work as a team. The show hasn't quite yet hit the light, frothy tone it's going for; it's just a bit heavier than it should be. But the stories are fun, the cast has a nice, easy chemistry, and I think the writers will make the necessary adjustments as they get to know the characters better.

December 13, 2008

MOVIES: Doubt (John Patrick Shanley, 2008)

There is a moment about halfway into Doubt when Meryl Streep, playing the imperious Sister Aloysius, is on the receiving end of an uncharacteristic tirade from her younger, normally more timid colleague, Sister James (Amy Adams). "In ancient Sparta," Sister Aloysius says, "disputes were settled based on who shouted the loudest. Fortunately, we do not live in ancient Sparta." I couldn't help but laugh at that moment, because Streep is in the middle of stomping and bellowing her way through the movie as if she's Sparta's only hope for salvation. Streep is astonishingly bad here, giving a performance that can only be appreciated (if at all) as camp, and she takes the movie down with her.

She's not helped much by Shanley's direction, which is filled with odd camera angles -- everyone's always shot from far below or far above -- and ominous symbols (birds appearing in places where birds shouldn't be; the cold wind that blows continuously through the neighborhood).

It's a shame, because there's an interesting story to be told here. Sister Aloysius is the principal of a Brooklyn Catholic school in 1964, and she comes to suspect that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) may have "developed an improper relationship" with one of the students. (That's as explicit as the movie ever gets, by the way; it's probably appropriate for the time period, but to contemporary ears, it's a bit odd to see a movie on this topic that never uses the words "molestation," "abuse," or "homosexuality.") The issue of Father Flynn's behavior is even more sensitive than usual, because the student involved is St. Nicholas' first black student.

Aloysius has absolutely no hard evidence, and Flynn denies any impropriety; Sister James, who wants to believe the best about everyone but is (like everyone at St. Nicholas') terrified to cross Aloysius, is caught in the middle.

The one really fine performance in the movie comes from Viola Davis, as the mother of the student, whose reaction to Aloysius' suspicions is not at all what the sister expects. It's a short performance -- one scene, not more than 7 or 8 minutes long -- but it is grounded in reality, honest emotion, and genuine conflict in a way that the rest of the movie never is. Had the rest of the movie risen to her level, Doubt could have been a marvelous movie; but with Streep clomping about like Godzilla preparing to attack Tokyo, I could only wish that the Mystery Science Theater gang was still around to offer commentary.

December 09, 2008

MOVIES: Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008)

I had been worried about this one. Sean Penn didn't strike me as an obvious choice to play Harvey Milk. I mean, great actor, sure, but when I think Penn, I think of characters who are tightly wound, who keep everything bottled tightly inside until the "give me an Oscar, please" eruption happens in the last act. And Harvey Milk was anything but tightly wound and bottled up; he was an exuberant, outgoing, effusive force.

I needn't have worried. Penn is marvelous here, in a performance unlike anything I can remember seeing him do before. Some of my friends have complained, in fact, that it's too big a performance, but I don't agree. There are, to be sure, some histrionic moments, but when they occur, it is always clear that it's Milk's histrionics and not Penn's.

By now, you surely know the story of the film -- the political rise of Harvey Milk, whose election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 made him the first openly gay public official at that level in the US, and his assassination by fellow Supervisor Dan White. For those few in the audience who don't know how the story ends, Van Sant tells us in the first few minutes, with archival footage of then-Supervisor Dianne Feinstein announcing to the press that Milk and Mayor George Moscone have been murdered.

One of the marvels of Van Sant's movie, therefore, is that it manages to be entertaining and suspenseful even though we all know how it's going to end. Writer Dustin Lance Black gets a great deal of the credit on this front; his screenplay is crisp, funny, and deeply moving, especially in the final moments.

Milk is Penn's show, to be sure -- he's in almost every scene -- but the rest of the cast is first-rate, too. Emile Hirsch as the young activist Cleve Jones; James Franco as Milk's partner, Scott Smith; Denis O'Hare as John Briggs, Victor Garber as George Moscone -- all memorable performances. Best of the bunch is Josh Brolin's Dan White, a man who didn't have the interpersonal skills to be a successful politician, and couldn't handle failure. (I could have done without the movie's suggestion that White was a repressed homosexual himself. Not all anti-gay politicians are closet cases; some of them are just bigots.)

The only disappointing performance in the movie is that of Diego Luna, who plays Milk's second partner, Jack Lira, and it's not entirely his fault. The movie is oddly unsympathetic to Jack, presenting him as a pathetic, clingy, desperately needy man with no redeeming qualities at all; it's impossible to understand what Harvey ever sees in him.

It's startling how strongly the movie resonates with today's politics. When Harvey argues that the campaign to defeat the Briggs Initiative (a proposition that would have allowed California schools to fire not only gay teachers, but anyone who even supported gay rights) needed to actually include images and voices of gay people, it's impossible not to look back at the cowardly ad campaign that was run against Proposition 8 this fall, a campaign that also avoided the G-word as much as possible.

Milk is a very fine movie, and shouldn't be missed.