The 3rd Annual Davies Awards in Film

A Look Back at 2008:

Looking back on the year in film that was 2008, I’m left with but one question for Hollywood: “Why So Serious?”

I wish I could say it was the best of times, but mostly it was the worst of times.  Still even in the worst of times, there are plenty of alcoves to hide treasures.  As the world financial markets crumbled, a great depression engulfed the multiplexes from the darkest of comedies (all those alcoves In Bruges) to the darkest of popcorn flicks (The Dark Knight) to the saddest, coldest of Decembers.  2008 produced not only some of the worst films I have ever seen (Be Kind Rewind, The Day the Earth Stood Still), but also some of the most depressing (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Revolutionary Road).

Overall 2008 was a stifling and mediocre year for films. Continue reading

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A Review of Sam Mendes’ Adaptation of Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road”

Leo tells Kate, No, Honey, you cant see Europe from the shores of Long Island.

Leo tells Kate, "No, Honey, you can't see Europe from the shores of Connecticut."

They’ll Never Have Paris, 3 January 2009
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

In one of the classiest pieces of stunt casting in recent years, Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes reunites his wife, Kate Winslet, with her Titanic shipmate Leonardo DiCaprio to play the Wheelers in his screen adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road.  It adds an appealing accessibility to an otherwise depressing tale.

The film opens boldly enough, spending just a few fleeting moments showing us how the Wheelers met before throwing us head first into their disaster of a marriage. April (Winslet) always had dreams of being an actress and Frank (DiCaprio), well, Frank always had some vague idea of living in Paris. The film chronicles their sad story. The Wheelers are meant to represent the post WWII generation who during the prosperous 1950’s created suffocating lives due to dreams deferred in exchange for chasing the so-called “American Dream” that they never really believed in. Everyone else in the film is in some sort of love with the Wheelers and their picture perfect lives, but the Wheelers hate themselves, each other, their neighbors, and what they have become. It’s a damning little portrait that has been painted before in literature and film, but never quite so acutely.

I haven’t read Richard Yates’ novel, but I am currently reading his collection of short stories which address many of the same themes and bear his hallmarks present here: cutting dialog, keen insights into the psyche of his sometimes despicable or just plain sad characters, and obsessive attention to details of time and place. In terms of the tone of Yates’ writing, Mendes is successful in his translation. However, that tone that worked so well on the page doesn’t always work on screen. We’re never sure if we’re meant to sympathize with the Wheelers or if Mendes wants us to view it as a dark comedy where we watch in sick delight as the popular kids who always thought they were more interesting than everyone else grow up to be horribly dysfunctional and cripplingly normal. Much of the audience I saw the film with laughed to break the tension during some of Mendes’ trademarked “uncomfortable dinner table scenes”, but we all watched in horror as the film spun out of control into its downer of a climax.

Ultimately one sits through a film like this for the acting, and it doesn’t disappoint on that level. Taking a line from the film, DiCaprio is a “cracker jack” playing for the first time a husband, a father, and a hopelessly average Joe. Winslet is on more familiar ground, but never has she been given so much range to roam, and her director husband lets her run wild and free. It’s a neurotic, brave, and sometimes questionable performance that is a rare sight to behold. At times it seems as if Mendes is directing a stage-play rather than a film, and he lets the whole cast scream and holler against his finely detailed period backdrops, but it’s still entertaining for those who enjoy watching polished professionals (including Michael Shannon portraying a man on leave from an insane asylum in a perfect pitch) stretch their acting muscles.

One watches the grim dissolution of this marriage wondering if there isn’t some subtext to explore with regards to Winslet and Mendes’ own seemingly perfect Hollywood marriage. And as unlikable as they are at times, and no matter how much we would rather laugh at then relate to another human being, one can’t escape the sickening feeling that there might be a little bit of Frank and April Wheeler in all of us.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.

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Check out my reviews of Sam Mendes’ previous films:

American Beauty (1999)

Road to Perdition (2002)

Jarhead (2005)

Doubt and Revolution Plague The Duchess

SPOILER ALERT:  Her hair does catch on fire!

With the debates and baseball playoffs still holding most of my attention, films have had to take a backseat.  So I’m eschewing my traditional review format here for the moderately successful The Duchess.  Saul Dibb’s “inspired by a true story” costume drama about the Duchess of Devonshire is a fairly entertaining run-of-the-mill feminist bodice-ripper.  It’s one of those movies impeccably shot, full of costumes and pageantry, and featuring A-class acting that is hard to dislike, but just doesn’t have that special “it” due to our familiarity with this stereotypical story of a woman of immense wealth and power who is forced to chose between her true feelings and what society demands of her.  In the titular role, Keira Knightley acts the hell out of her part, and for the first time, seems to fully inhabit that old-school “Movie Star” mold.  Ralph Fiennes, as the Duke, delivers a master-class in the portrayal of an elitist creep.  It’s another classic turn from the chameleon-like British thespian who really should have had an Oscar on the mantle a long time ago.  Featuring hearty doses of smarmy satire and stuffy 18th-century social mores, The Duchess is no Barry Lyndon, but it fits the bill as an HBO-style production of Masterpiece Theater.

However, I couldn’t help but think the best things about this recent trip to the cinema were the trailers, and thoughts of the film teasers oddly plagued my devouring of the main course.  Yes, there was the preview for Oliver Stone’s inexplicable W (opening next week) which looks funnier and funnier with each new TV spot.  But there were also two subtly thrilling trailers for some prime-time Oscar bait:  In one corner, we have what looks to be a stunning film adaptation of a controversial stage-play that touches on the Catholic abuse scandals among other heady topics starring a habited Meryl Streep, a frocked Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a perfectly cast Amy Adams as a naive nun.  I have faith no art-house film buff will want to miss Doubt.  In the other corner is Sam Mendes seemingly stirring and evocative adaptation of Richard Yate’s novel, Revolutionary Road, staring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as a young couple on the brink of emotional ruin in a 1950’s suburban purgatory.  The cinematography and the acting in this, as in Doubt, looks to be amazing.  While a perfectly adequate The Duchess will quickly fade from memory, these two films, based on their trailers and pedigree, look to be the type that viewers and critics will write home about at the end of the year.  I can’t wait.

To watch the trailers, visit:

W:  http://www.wthefilm.com/

Doubt:  http://www.apple.com/trailers/miramax/doubt/

Revolutionary Road:  http://www.revolutionaryroadmovie.com/

CAPTION:  Thank god we’re off that sinking ship!

Mongolian Trailer Park

CAPTION:  Ghengis Khan is all up in this yurt.

So last week I saw that flick Mongol, you know, the new epic about Ghengis Khan made by a Russian director (Sergei Bodrov), starring a Japanese dude (Tadonubo Asano), nominated for an Oscar, and inexplicably released stateside in the middle of the summer movie season.  It was a pretty good movie that held my interest for two hours by exposing me to a culture I know little about and featuring a well played out historical epic story arc complete with requisite kick-ass battle scenes.  Sitting there getting frosty in the air-conditioned theater while the heat and humidity raged outside, I couldn’t help thinking this was a movie better suited for the prestigious autumnal season.  With the most gluttonous of film seasons in full swing (is The Dark Knight out yet?), I decided to take a look ahead at my favorite season in film and weather. 

Here I present my list of most anticipated movies for Fall 2008:

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1.  The Miracle at St. Anna  (scheduled release date:  9/26)

The Director:  Spike Lee

The Stars:  Derek Luke, John Leguizamo, James Gandolfini, Joseph Gordon Levitt, some cute Italian kid, Alexandra Maria Lara, and a boatload of other people and familiar faces

The Scoop:  Okay, so I will admit it right here, right now.  I love Spike Lee.  I even liked She Hate Me.  He’s a cunning provocateur who’s had numerous peaks and valleys in his career but just won’t stop no matter what and always seems to get his name in the papers–witness Clint Eastwood telling him recently to “shut his face”.  Spike is coming off the most commercially successful film of his long career with Inside Man.  With this adaptation of the novel by James McBride about a group of African-American soldiers trapped in Tuscany during WWII, he’s giving us his first epic since Malcom X.    The trailer for this film is a smashing success that manages to sell the film as both a murder mystery and a searing Saving Private Ryan style WWII drama.  This latest Spike Lee Joint has so many great things going for it:  an auteur on the precipice of a personal artistic and commercial Renaissance (much like the one Scorsese recently went through with The Aviator and The Departed); a great storyline that has the potential to provoke discussions of history, race, religion and politics in a historic Presidential election year; and a multi-ethnic cast that includes a cute Italian kid, and as a special bonus for me, the devastatingly seductive Alexandra Maria Lara, whose beauty alone made Francis Ford Coppola’s recent debacle Youth Without Youth worth watching.

Watch the trailer:  http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi3941007641/

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2.  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button  (scheduled release date:  12/19)

The Director:  David Fincher

The Stars:  Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond

The Scoop:  This is the fantastic case of a gimmick film (it tells the not so simple story of a man who ages backwards, folks) with a literary pedigree (adapted from a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald).  I first saw the trailer for this in front of the latest Indiana Jones flick, and the packed house was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.  Its epic scope appears to be a complete departure for director Fincher, and its unique story and images sweep over you in the masterfully crafted trailer-much kudos thus far to the marketing team.  This film has the potential to be monumentally huge or just another curiosity grabbing for Oscar gold at Christmastime.  Will Fincher (robbed of an Oscar nod for Zodiac last year) and uber-star Pitt (robbed last year for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) finally get their due?

CAPTION:  Two Oscars please, my good man!  Oscars for me and the Finch!

Watch the trailer:  http://www.apple.com/trailers/paramount/thecuriouscaseofbenjaminbutton/

Official Site:  http://www.benjaminbutton.com/

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3.  Australia  (scheduled release date:  11/14)

The Director:  Baz Luhrmann

The Stars:  Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Australia!

The Scoop:  Baz the Spazz changes gears completely with this big historical epic depicting heroism and romance against the backdrop of a Japanese attack on Australia during WWII.  The trailer sells the imagery and scope of the film very well, making it look Gone with the Wind Down Under, though the frame story of Kidman telling a fairy tale to the Aborigine girl seems a bit strained (and remarkably similar to Tarsem’s The Fall.)  Luhrmann appears to have abandoned his hyper kinetic style for the dreadful sumptuousness that always seems to sell tickets during the big holidays at the end of the year.  Kidman and Jackman certainly look the parts, and lord knows they could both use a big hit.   Will critics be eager to embrace the new Luhrmann after a seven year hiatus?  More than any other film, I think critics have the chance to make or break this one.

Watch the trailer:  http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi2917663001/

Official Site:  http://www.australiamovie.com/

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4.  The Soloist  (scheduled release date:  11/21)

The Director:  Joe Wright

The Stars:  Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener, Jamie Foxx

The Scoop:  Brit Joe Wright atones for his period pieces by making this American set musical biopic.  Downey Jr. is back on the A-list, the director is taking on a genre held in high favor in recent years, and playing a schizophrenic musical genius seems right up Foxx’s alley.  There are no trailers or official sites yet, but I can’t wait to see what kind of tracking long shots Wright cooks up for this one–I’m picturing a shot the begins with an overhead dolly and travels down and through the crowd and orchestra at a grand concert hall.

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5.  Revolutionary Road  (scheduled release date:  12/26)

The Director:  Sam Mendes

The Stars:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet

The Scoop:  I have to admit, the plot of this one (from a novel by Richard Yates) sounds like a snore-fest:  a young couple in 1950’s Connecticut deal with problems and such.  However, Mendes has yet to make a bad film, suburban dystopia is his bread and butter (American Beauty, anyone?), and the reunion of Titanic stars Leo and Kate in a Christmastime release give this film some palpable buzz.  No trailers or official site have appeared yet. 

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Other Films of Interest:

Changeling:  10/31.  The latest from Clint Eastwood has some mixed buzz coming from its Cannes’ premier.  This 1920’s set psychological thriller about a mother who begins to doubt the identity of her young son who has been returned to her after going missing will have a hard line to tow while it tries to convince people it’s not a remake of a horror film with the same name and is instead a prestigious Oscar bid for its uber-star Angelina Jolie.

Defiance:  12/2.  Yet another WWII epic, this one is based on a true story and staring Daniel Craig.  Directed by Edward Zwick, the film of course reeks of quality, and the trailer has been getting some good buzz (at least amongst my friends and family), but it looks nobly cliched to me.  If that new Spike Lee Joint strikes a cord, this runs the risk of being overshadowed as the later release.

Watch the trailer for Defiancehttp://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2008154393/

Oh, yeah, there’s also a new James Bond flick (Craig again) idiotically entitled Quantum of Solace (11/7), and a wacky crime caper from Oscar darlings the Coen Brothers zanily called Burn After Reading (9/12) and staring, you guessed it, Brad Pitt.

Watch the Quantum of Solace trailer:  http://www.moviefone.com/movie/quantum-of-solace/26922/trailer?trailerId=2150289

Written by David H. Schleicher