Saturday, August 28, 2021

Revolutionary Road


Director Sam Mendes and his wife Kate Winslet

 Actress Kate Winslet

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set

Director Sam Mendes with DiCaprio and Winslet

DiCaprio and Winslet

Director Sam Mendes with his wife Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio











REVOLUTIONARY ROAD            A-                                                                                          Great Britain  USA  (119 mi)  2008  ‘Scope  d: Sam Mendes               

Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.                 —John Givings (Michael Shannon), “It takes real guts to see the hopelessness” YouTube (2:11)

Another one of those incendiary emotional dramas about doomed lovers, fractured American Dreams, and a marriage on the rocks with plenty of unleashed fireworks, where the real drama is what’s left unsaid in the empty spaces between people that over time all but consumes them, perhaps sealing their fates.  Adapted by Justin Haythe from the infuriatingly personal 1961 Richard Yates novel, this examines the flight to the suburbs in the 1950’s supposedly to lead idyllic lives that never materialize, and how some people are simply disappointed to lead sad, meaningless lives, while others are crushed by it.  What’s truly unique about this film is not only the amount of screen time between the two extraordinary leads, Leonardo DiCaprio (perfectly cast for his naiveté, but no match for Winslet) and Kate Winslet as Frank and April Wheeler, but how the perfect couple (“You’re the Wheelers!”) in their perfect little suburban home come to resemble Ibsen’s Doll House, where Winslet, with the internal force of a hurricane, is truly trapped living a life with a man she comes to loath and despise with so few options available to her.  In hindsight, one might project possibilities that simply didn’t exist yet, instead she was forced to suffer and endure her stiflingly empty existence, made all the more uncomfortable by a husband who was clueless that his own demeaning behavior was the source of her unhappiness, leaving her feeling trapped with no way out.  What’s also interesting here is how few shots include the children, and how their home barely even acknowledges their existence.  This accentuates the self-centered ambitions of the adults, particularly the man, who’s overly defensive and quick to point out things are never his fault, while she believes the only hope is getting the hell out, moving elsewhere, anywhere, suggesting Paris, as that’s the last place her husband felt really happy.  As fate would have it, her husband was given a good sales pitch that he couldn’t refuse, where money induces him into believing he is getting what he wants, while she’s left to fall on the tip of her own sword and expunge any last vestiges of hope.  The last act of the film feels like a horror movie, especially the transition from their worst blow up to an eerily haunting breakfast scene that looks like something out of THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975), as we’re simply waiting in the end to see what tragedy will bring down the final curtain. 

What’s interesting is from the outset, no one tells the truth, as they all seem to be fooling themselves living under a cloud of self delusion.  Early on, we see potholes along the way, as Frank crudely responds to the poor reception an off Broadway play receives in Greenwich Village with his wife as the lead, deciding inappropriately that this is a moment to have a heart to heart talk, which seems more like bullying and taking advantage of her when she’s vulnerable and feeling low.  But she stands up to him in a way only Winslet can, leaving her husband feeling more than a little inadequate.  Next thing you know his inadequacy is replaced by a dream house in Connecticut.  This typifies the problems in their relationship, as he has a built in system of rewards just for himself, which includes an after hours affair, the ability to climb up a career ladder, and the aggravating habit of having the final word on any given subject, including their lives.  He’s also seen as a typically immature male who’s so caught up in himself that he can’t even conceive what she’s going through, a guy who always demands that they see things his way and when she refuses, it leads to acrimony, where he even threatens to call in the shrink, believing she must be crazy not to adhere to his views.  Such is the male-centric world of America in the 1950’s.  There are flashback sequences to their earlier, happier days, where there’s an interesting use of 50’s doo wop songs that shine a light on Winslet’s sensuality, but in no time, their intimacy has been replaced by a mundane life, a dreary job that Frank can’t stand, and an over-indulgence in cigarettes and martini’s and dreams of a better day.  And when Frank pulls the rug out from under her on that score, never really taking the idea of moving to Paris seriously, she feels betrayed, knowing he’s incapable of ever taking her seriously again.  In terms of dramatic fireworks, it’s the film that sets the table for Noah Baumbach’s more recent 2019 Top Ten List #3 Marriage Story.

Kate Winslet is brilliant, as she never resorts to largesse or the Sean Penn style of overdramatized histrionics, but always reels her emotions in, providing a much more naturalistic fit to whatever story she’s in.  She never becomes a character through mimicry, by imitating or duplicating the behavior of others, instead she invents an original person in every single role.  She has an exquisite dance sequence that’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen in her career, Revolutionary Road (2008) | dance scene YouTube (1:15), much of it due to the stylish manner in which it is filmed (by her husband), but her commitment to that character who is simply fed up with the world around her is overwhelming.  And that look on her face as she’s being verbally assaulted by her husband is a thing of beauty, as without a word she couldn’t possibly portray greater strength than that look when she’s staring him right between the eyes.  Frank, as usual, gets the final word, but it’s a lie cruelly designed to demoralize and humiliate her in pure domineering fashion.  But it’s not all gloom and doom.  The unmistakable presence of Michael Shannon as the realtor’s son recently released from a psychiatric ward adds both a humorous change of pace but also a devastating tone of unvarnished, no holds barred truth, the kind that feels like surgically precise, heat seeking missiles shot from a gatling gun as this guy lets them have it and what he has to say is at the very core of the film.  The question is can they handle the truth?  By the end, we may be asking ourselves the same question.  Though it’s an overly somber affair, seen through modern eyes this is an extremely well written film that resembles the acerbic dialogue and cruel power games of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), which itself was a daring display of acting on the highest order.  Hopefully this may motivate many viewers to rediscover the writing of Richard Yates, as this is a towering work that doesn’t fully come alive onscreen, but its lacerating portrait of middle class despair is completely on target. 

After having read the book:

The book very much resembles the movie, almost exactly, though they each offer their own unique emphasis, as the book emphasizes the constant attention and affirmation demanded by the husband while the movie broadens and intensifies the interior world of the wife.  In the movie, the ending is inevitable, while in the book, the ending is a shock, even in its concise description, as most of the book meticulously details Frank’s perspective, as the world continually revolves around him.  Though short, the book is extremely dense, offering considerable psychological background for every character mentioned, even the minor roles.  Painting a contradictory yet lacerating portrait of the idealized marriage, seemingly the perfect couple to all outsiders, living in their wonderful house in the suburbs, the marriage of Frank and April Wheeler is really deteriorating inside right from the outset when they fly off into one of their many George and Martha Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) tirades, which in every single instance features a more insecure man browbeating his more emotionally mature wife.  Frank is perfectly played by Leonard DiCaprio, a guy who’s always a little full of himself, but utterly naïve about the consequences of his own decisions, always blaming his own catastrophes on others.  Outside of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), and perhaps an underrated Spielberg sleeper, Catch Me If You Can (2002), it’s hard to see him in a role that matters, as he’s always too full of his own self-importance.  But that’s exactly the character of Frank Wheeler, a hard drinking computer salesman who thinks he’s smarter than the rest and proves it by doing as little as possible while pulling a paycheck, all the while convincing others, including his wife, that he’s hard at work.  She, on the other hand, has sacrificed whatever artistic possibilities exist in her life to raise their two children, both of whom are barely mentioned in either the movie or book, almost as if they are an afterthought.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Lake Tahoe


Actor Diego Cataño

Director Fernando Eimbcke

                                          Eimbcke with his actors

LAKE TAHOE          B+                                                                                                            Mexico  (81 mi)  2008  d Fernando Eimbcke

A gorgeously understated, quietly affecting film where each shot is masterfully composed by Alexis Zabé, who worked with Eimbcke on his earlier film Duck Season (Temporada de patos) (2004) and with Carlos Reygadas as well on SILENT LIGHT (2007), providing long, uninterrupted shots that are mesmerizing in their mix of urban detail and perfect composition, reminiscent of Chantal Ackerman with her poetic observation.  This amounts to a day in the life format, as we follow a single teenage character Juan (Diego Cataño) over the course of one day, and while the near wordless film has a storyline, most of it takes place offscreen, yet nothing is lost to the audience, as small yet meticulous details prevail, where we soon discover everything we need to know through brief verbal exchanges.  The characters are beautifully rendered, all with few words spoken, yet they are among the most original and masterfully drawn people we’ve seen in films recently, largely because of the their unique qualities which are shown with a striking attention to detail.  Opening in dead silence as the acting credits are listed, Juan soon drives his car into a pole on the outskirts of town, which is never shown, but only heard when the film fades to black (after every shot, Kaurismäki style) and we see the outcome afterwards in the next shot, which leads into the opening title sequence.  In the silence and near total emptiness of the morning, Juan walks through the small harbor town of Puerto Progreso in the Yucatán in Mexico looking for an auto repair shop.   After 3 or 4 are closed, he finally finds a lone young girl working the counter, Lucia (Daniela Valentine) who suggests they wait about ten minutes until the guy who knows where things are returns, David (Juan Carlos Lara), as she hasn’t a clue.  Fading to black about a half dozen times, both are reconfigured in the frame slightly differently each time as they sit on the front steps and wait what amounts to ten minutes Mexican time, which could be half the morning. 

The beauty of this film is the way Juan’s life interweaves between different characters, almost like a rite of passage, as no sooner does he meet these people, but he’s constantly leaving them as well.  He spends time with an old man (Hector Herrera) with an obvious affection for his big Marmaduke dog, who initially wants to call the cops thinking Juan is a thief, but after many failed attempts, he can’t seem to get his phone to work.  After hearing Juan describe his accident, he can guess what parts he needs to fix his car, and pours Juan a bowl of cereal along with one for himself.  When Juan indicates he’s already eaten, this giant hulk of a dog jumps up onto the chair and slurps the milk and cereal bowl clean that’s still sitting on the table without ever moving the bowl whatsoever, a charming and simply hilarious scene.  When the old man takes a nap afterwards, Juan leaves without a word in search of his missing part, which leads him to Lucia’s front steps waiting for David, who eventually shows up and asks Juan to hop onto his bicycle, as he’ll ride to the scene of the accident promising to have it running in about 5 minutes.  But when they get there, the missing part doesn’t fit, as they need an earlier version of the part, so they wander over to David’s house who insists he has the part but spends the entire time watching martial arts videos.  Juan escapes back to the old man for the missing part, but in return he asks Juan to walk his dog, as he’s getting too old to do it himself.  But once outside, that dog is a force and actually tugs Juan behind him for awhile before breaking free, disappearing into the emptiness of the barren neighborhoods. 

This time Juan wanders back to his own home which is in a state of emotional turmoil, as his kid brother is left alone playing in a tent in the front yard while his mother is inconsolable and wants to be left alone, so Juan wanders back to Lucia, who this time asks Juan to hold her baby while she smokes a cigarette and plays some loud rap music, even singing a rap song herself, asking Juan if he wouldn’t consider babysitting this evening so she could go to a concert.  David bikes him back over to his car, and while the new part fits, that’s not what’s wrong, it’s instead a part that’s connected to it.  Not to despair, David is soon working under a car parked on the street, which turns out to belong to Juan’s uncle, who, after asking about his mother and brother, offers him a baseball jersey and a bat.  Once they secure the part, they’re back to the scene of the crime and whoah, it works—Juan has wheels.  David is ecstatic and performs a few martial arts tricks, inviting Juan to a public screening later that night of Bruce Lee’s classic ENTER THE DRAGON (1973).  Meanwhile Juan is back with his little brother, still playing alone, and gives him what turns out to be their dad’s baseball jersey.  When his little brother asks what the word condolences means, as people have been calling all day, we begin to put together a picture of why Juan is so downbeat and home is in a state of upheaval.  In this manner, Juan works through the unseen emotional baggage that he’s been carrying around with him, which isn’t really about the car at all, but larger internal issues of greater significance.  It’s curious that the film all but ignores the central drama, but finds superb secondary characters that seem to stick with Juan all day long, befriending him, giving him at least a brief reprieve from his grief.  Friendship is a wonderful thing, with total strangers or even within your own family, and by building a series of interconnected sequences of what appear to be random events, by the end they become magnified, evolving into something irresistably endearing, especially coming at a time when they’re needed the most—a wise and refreshingly mature work that without an ounce of sentimentality downplays the emotional payoff until it matters