Love: INCEPTION

July 17, 2010

First a non spoiler review:

INCEPTION may be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Now, this is just a first reaction mind you, but I saw the midnight show last night and I felt this way the second I walked out of the theater.  I was on an emotional and intellectual high… It has continued all day long.

Important things to know:  I am not a “Nolan Guy.” I very much like THE DARK KNIGHT and found it to be entertaining and interesting. I only like a few parts of BATMAN BEGINS. I thought MEMENTO was rather clever, but not too much else. I thought INSOMNIA was a step backward from there. My favorite Nolan film is actually THE PRESTIGE because it’s a straightforward puzzle that relied on laying actually clues in the groundwork rather than being an nonsensical stupid “twist movie.” I hate the nonsensical twist (unlike the logical twist, which is a wonderful thing when done right) and thankfully Nolan seems to hate the nonsensical twist as well. For this alone I will always appreciate Nolan in some way. But while I embrace the intellectual puzzle-building nature of his work I think he too often slides into unemotional arcs and formalism over content.

So please understand, this is the opinion of someone who is not predisposed to gush.

INCEPTION satisfies on all levels.

First off, it is an enthralling heist film. I honestly cannot remember a movie where I was on the edge of my seat so long let alone the entire last hour and 45 minutes. The tension is immense and every time you think it has to let up, it manages to go deeper down the rabbit hole.  One of the things I loved about the film is that it’s actually pretty straight forward. Everything is perfectly explained so you’re rarely wondering “what’s going on.” (The key is just not to miss anything. If you don’t know what’s going on, you missed something and it’s your fault. I realize this sounds really esoteric, but the entire film takes its time to set up it’s layers and be deliberate… so really there’s no excuse). In this regard, from pure entertainment standpoint, it is one of the best popcorn movies I’ve ever seen.

But it’s not just a popcorn movie is it? Secondly, INCEPTION is incredibly satisfying on an intellectual level and not just in the typical Nolan puzzle sense. There’s honest to god thematics going on here. Ones that aren’t hammered over and over again like THE PRESTIGE and its issues of control, but ones that run the gamut: love, marriage, death, father issues, propagation, and the nature of reality. The film is about the rich textures psychoanalysis. These themes are not window dressing either but somehow the driving force of the film.

You see, INCEPTION manages to use psychoanalysis as actual plot points. How a character feels, their catharsis, their arcs, their emotional states… these are god damn macguffins folks. It’s sounds like it would be obtuse, but it’s so seemless and not clunky. It’s dramatic, emotional, real, and damn suspenseful. I honestly cannot believe that a movie managed to achieve all this.

In a way, Nolan has finally managed to “go emotional.” He has turned the soft-hearted and tender emotions of repression into the engine for one of his brilliant narratives. I said that he always has problems with formalism over content, but what if the formalism is the content? The action of  INCEPTION not only reinforces the arc, it is an arc.

The performances are stellar across the board. Dicaprio delivers his best work to date. I very much like his performance in THE DEPARTED, but that role is mostly a sort of one-dimensional projection of paranoia, angst, and affectation. His role in INCEPTION, meanwhile, is the most rounded and interesting one we’ve gotten from Nolan yet. His character motives are so emotional and what at first seems slightly one note, is revealed to be so textured and beautiful. I couldn’t believe it. Much of this is due to the enchanting and haunting work of Marion Cotiallard who provides such weight and organic tone. She is the absolute crux of his arc. But against her, Dicaprio toes the line between focused and unhinged so beautifully. He really the perfect carrion for the film’s lead character.

The rest of the cast isn’t given the same showcase, but Nolan does a wonderful job of giving them little moments, glimpses even to reveal their characters and motivations.  Joseph Gordon Levitt is fantastic; one of the smoothest badasses we’ve seen on screen in a while. Have we forgotten about making characters like this? Badasses that aren’t “bad” in any sense, but smooth operators who astound us. I’m hoping this film elevates his profile out of the indie scene because he has the potential to be amazing. Especially, because he easily delivers in one of the most thrilling scenes I have ever seen. Ellen Page provides a real emotional anchor for the film by grounding Dicaprio’s character and operating as the audience surrogate in the film’s first half.  Tom Hardy, fresh of his tour de force in BRONSON, gets to shine as the most vivacious and theatrical character of the group (but of course, this is Nolan so never, ever does it even approach anything camp or unrealistic feeling). At this point it seems like I’m just trying to name everyone in the film, but I have to mention Cillian Murphy who does a somewhat thankless job so beautifully. Really, his emotional work and inner turmoil is the engine of the entire film; meaning without his performance, the film doesn’t work. And of course Michael Caine lends his perfect skills of being fatherly Michael Caine.

There have been three times where I have sat down and watched something and realized “In my entire life, I will never ever be able to do something anywhere near as good as this.” It’s depressing in a small way, but largely you’re awed by the work you’ve witnessed.

The first time for me was ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. In someways it feels like the off-beat comedic version of this same film and that Gondry-Kauffman cinematic marriage was the best film of that decade.  The second time for me was THE WIRE, whose depth and novelistic tapestry was the perfect amalgamation of profoundity, characterization, and plotting.

The third time was INCEPTION. The film is a big budget brilliant idea, perfectly executed. I am literally in awe of it.

INCEPTION is a flat out masterpiece.

And now….

Point by Point Spoiler Review:

-The hotel hallway fight scene…. Unreal. My biggest bone to pick with Nolan is he often films his action poorly (his best being the joker’s chase of the armored car). But this was absolutely hands down one of the best filmed action scenes I have ever seen. Nevermind the fact that he has merely pulled back the camera, but the movement is fluid and well-defined, not to mention that the action itself completely totally jaw dropping.

-How badass was Joseph Gordon Levitt in that hotel scene? Just unreal. So freaking good. I can’t stop gushing about it.

-Cillian Murphy’s arc and the moment of “inception” was so spectacularly well done. They way they built the layers falls exactly in line with what we know about psychoanalysis. And it managed to be emotional in a way that I never thought Nolan could be (he certainly had to dress it up though didn’t he?) Brilliant. Goddamn brilliant.

-The entire Marion Cotillard relationship was haunting and the end reveal was so surprisingly cathartic. It’s the kind of reveal that doesn’t make you go “huh!? What!?” but instead makes you go “YES! THAT MAKES PERFECT SENSE!” and helps explain the motivations of the movie. Just brilliant.

-Some people see the ending moment as a mind-fuck and tease. I strongly do not agree. On one hand the fact that the fact that the spinning wheel even falters a bit is indication that it is very much real so we can give up on feeling like “none of it mattered it was all fake!” And more importantly it doesn’t matter, Nolan’s deliberate choice to cut is not a tease or a forced withholding, but a brilliant way of telling us to embrace the ambiguity (and not in that shitty didactic LOST way either). And what’s more it’s a brilliant little wink. Want to know why that last layer is “not” real?

Nolan’s acknowledging that INCEPTION isn’t really because it’s a damn movie.

A little meta, but how is that not perfect?


Like: Veronica Lake (1941)

March 11, 2010

“It’s Not Just Who But When…”

This statement was made by an acquaintance of mine some years ago when the question was prompted, “Who would you like to meet more than anyone else?” And from that very moment I fully and completely realized how important timing is when it comes to the reality of a person. Often the ideal timing is that ideal cusp where the fame is new and surprising to the person themselves. Where they are overcome with both the humility of that responsibility and possibly even embarrassed by it. It is certainly when they are most thankful. And certainly ever since that initial conversation I’ve always reiterated when it comes to any such list, “It’s not just who but when…”

Now as a wrinkle, this ongoing series of portraits will only specifically deal with the women of the last 75 years of so who I consider to be the Most Beautiful and Alluring in the world. I’m well aware that the internet can quickly descend into  a game OMG SHE’S HOT, LET’S OGLE HER! (though ogle is probably not used that often) and we find ourselves skirting into objectifying and ultimately even exploitative territory. Please know that that is anything but the goal here. The goal is reflect on moments in time, go over some film and television history, talk about the nature of image, and engage the subject of sexuality in media forms. And yes, most of it will be in adoring circumstances so don’t expect much of sterile criticism, but that is definitely the world of thought it will be coming from.

This ongoing series will attempt to go chronologically.

Hoo boy. Veronica Lake sure had a look.

… But let’s be honest. It’s mostly that hair. A wavy golden lock cresting over from a part so straight that scientists probably use it to correct their instruments. That hair hangs over the side of her face in that specific, alluring manner whose mystery begs for attention and awe. And that obscuring facet simply highlights the exposed side of her face with that devastatingly expressive arched eyebrow of hers; mere shifts in latitude and that baby signifies all the things a dame of the silver screen needs: amusement, bewilderment, an possible invitation… or trouble.

A lot of folks don’t realize she was also impossibly short (didn’t crack 5 feet). Then again a lot of classic movie stars were really short so any surprise should be lumped in with the collective bunch, but Veronica’s frame just seemed so svelte that the mental computation of here real-life proportions seems to melt ones brain. Getting past her petite physiology one realizes there are more important considerations. Like how a lot of folks like to debate whether or not she was actually any good.  This seems like a silly thing to question to me. Her early rolls often found her as a high voiced bubbly school girl and her femme fatale roles mostly used the aforementioned hair/eyebrow affectation as she put on a sultry deep voice that always came a little off kilter. So yes. There was something a bit off about those when compared to some of the best actresses in the business, but that seems more like a matter of being slightly misused (instead of wholly misused).

Luckily, there was a director out there who knew exactly what to do with Veronica Lake. This is not a unique phenomenon. An actor may have a certain unfocused or commercial nature that suddenly gets honed into something far more interesting and substantial. Think Adam Sandler in PUNCH DRUNK LOVE. Dicaprio teaming with Scorsese. Lake had the same fortune as them and was able to have her real potential shown on screen. So who was this mystery enabler?

First, a question: what director has perhaps had more influence on the Coen Brothers, over any other? So often the Coen’s brilliant voice is credited as being an amalgamation of many things, delicately blended into their own sensibility. This is true to a certain point, but the better answer is Preston Sturges.

I will not mince words. Preston Sturges is my favorite director of the classic film era. I’m amazed how many film lovers my age have not seen his movies, let alone heard of him. He was a real auteur in an age where Directors and Writers were part of the golden age compartmentalized machine, churning out films for the masses. Sturges and Welles were pretty much the only substantial guys writing their own stuff. Sturges was wildly influential towards developing a darker, more interesting voice as he became pioneer for Billy Wilder to follow just a few short years later. Wilder gets so much credit, but it’s all there in Sturges before him:  the sense of irony, the crushed blacks and wonderful grey tones of the cinematography;  Sturges was simply ahead of everyone. The aforementioned love of Sturges by the Coens is evident in the many ways they’ve been remaking themes and tones from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS througout their filmography. Heck, BARTON FINK has an achingly similar plot (a naive filmmaker wants to connect with his roots and be a voice of lower class struggle). And guess what the name of the movie is that Sullivan is making? Yup. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”… yeah… you do the math. But more universally, both Sturges and the Coens are primarly concerned with breaking down the hollywood “truths”: the black and white morality and clear-cut lessons; things like good behavior being rewarded, the guy gets the girl, the noble crusade, really all the standard tropes of movie-dom. But always examined with a particular sardonic, hilarious bent of course. Do not mistake either for being obtuse or preachy.

Back to Veronica Lake. So she finally gets a role of substantial value with Sturges in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1941). She’s simply “The Girl” (actual credited name for the character), a wannabe actress who gets to show of a full range of humility, quiet desperation, and honesty, yet still let her show off the dexterity of her acting chops come the various “audition and acting” modes. It’s all top-notch stuff. The kind of thing where you get to convey your talent and yet strike resonance. And I love her in it.

Here’s there meeting scene in Sullivan’s Travel’s. (remember Sullivan is director going undercover as a poor man to get to know the real plight of the people). The scene is a slow burn. What makes her so good does really start coming in until about 2 minutes into the scene. Enjoy!

Not bad eh? Hel,l she’s better than Ladd in these scenes (Though Ladd is great in his naive pitch-man scenes to the studio too). So Again, to reiterate… I really love this movie. Check out the whole thing if you get a chance and other Sturges movies too. I have his book of screenplays and they were practically a masterclass in writing (while understanding the antiquated nature of course. Think of it as a classic foundation. You gotta learn how to play catch before you can actually pitch).

After the film’s (and her’s) success, Veronica Lake kept on trucking, establishing herself as a major star in the early 40’s. But like most of these stories, everything didn’t stay that way. She had a gradual (and somewhat public) descent into alcohol and mental troubles that have sort of come to define a huge part of her legacy. But so often their referenced independent of circumstance. Her slide all stemmed back to a on-set accident where she tripped on some film equipment while pregnant and began hemorrhaging. The problems created by incident from it eventually led to the loss of this second child just after he was born. It completely devastated her and ingrained in her a kind of loathing of filmmaking, yet it’s amazing how little this event is talked about in her decent. Doesn’t it seem like this kind of devastation cannot be calculated?

It seems like these tragic conclusions keep having to be brought up in this ongoing series. I don’t really like talking about them or even really thinking about them. There’s just so much more that’s important to talk about when it comes to these wonderful actress. I realize that this kind of mental polishing is very un-Sturgian/un-Coenian, but it’s also very human to me. There’s a better legacy beyond tragedy. For Veronica Lake, there’s so much more.

Like Sullivan’s Travels.

Like that singular fantastic performance.

Like her unrealized potential (she never worked with Sturges again, though often did with Ladd).

And yeah… that hair.


Like: Martin Scorsese’s Direction of SHUTTER ISLAND / Don’t Like: SHUTTER ISLAND

February 19, 2010

My feelings on this film have absolutely nothing to do with a lack of perceived film-making skill. Martin Scorsese guides us through the film rather deftly, with the assured hand of a master.  Aside from the A+ sense of cinematography, the entire proceeding is laced with tension, atmosphere, and guile. Going in I thought this was going to be Scorsese’s horror movie, but after just the freaking the credits you KNOW this his out and out Hitchcock homage. The stamps are everywhere, including but certainly not limited to the central conceit of well… I guess what you could call a deep, dark conspiracy of sorts. So why didn’t I like the film so much? Especially with a litany of great performances and what might be perhaps the most steady editing and control of The Old Italian‘s brilliant career? Well I could tell you, but I’d have to spoil the entire freaking thing.

So.

I think I’m going to do that.

If you haven’t seen it yet, turn away.

This is your last chance.

BEWARE OF UNCONSCIONABLY HUGE SPOILERS WHICH RUIN THE MOVIE. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT YET  TURN AWAY. IF YOU HAVE OR ARE ABSOLUTELY SURE YOU ARE NOT GOING TO SEE IT THEN YOU CAN CONTINUE.

READY??????

Okay.

The problem of SHUTTER ISLAND is that it ends up using a movie device that happens to be one of the lamest of the bunch. No matter how well this device can be done there is something so limp, ineffectual, and often unintellectual about its very nature. What I’m speaking of is what I guess you could call the “negating” device. It encompasses a wide range of things really, like: “multiple personality disorder” and “it’s all a dream!” or in the case of S.I., “it’s all constructed in main character’s mind!” I understand the impetus of the idea; you want to have the viewer/reader question their belief in “reality,” or for them to have access into the mind of a crazy person, or to make some meta statement about cinema and traditional narrative. But let’s be honest. So often the idea behind these devices is to simply provide a twist. The problem is this big WOW moment is so difficult to do within the context of your pre-constructed film’s “reality” that writer’s will just go outside of that “reality” to get that “wow” reaction from you.

Sure, you can pawn the device off and say its making some statment on personal responsiblity and the human mind’s ability to regress within itself. But isn’t that subject just as slick and meaningless as the storytelling itself? Really, what’s so interesting about that? If we’re going to get real, I’m pretty sure it’s not something that happens a lot with psychology patients. You hear about it all the time in movies, but there seems to be no airtight basis in reality. It’s a storytelling reality. And one that is all too familiar. All you’re doing with a reality-altering twist is taking someone on a ride and then undoing everything for the singular momentary thrill. The success of it is highly dependent on your saying something truly important with twist. Which rarely happens.

And believe when I say I am not a movie goer that cares about getting “gypped” out of traditional narratives. I’ve seen and liked more a-traditional narratives than most folks knew existed (like the entire Tarkovsky oeuvre). And popular film wise if you need an example, I love the ending for NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. The stark difference is the ending of NO COUNTRY is wonderfully poetic and full associative thematics and emotional moments. Sure, we don’t see the technical climax we wanted, but that’s incidental. We get something much more interesting. Meanwhile. the ending of S.I. is of one note interest: “he’s crazy and it’s all in his mind.” There really isn’t that much more to it. And if that’s the case then that’s a one trick pony if I’ve ever seen one. It’s a combination of psychology, pathos, and storytelling in hallmark card form. When you gyp someone you really have to earn their trust back with who, what, when, where, how, and why. And while S.I. at least takes the time with its last act to flesh it out (teetering on the point of boredom), it never delivers a satisfying logical or thematic explanation beyond the one note pop psychology.

Now you could suppose that S.I. is absolved of these criticisms, because Scorsese really was making a Hitchcock movie (which practically invented these devices as far as the movie going public is concerned) and does it damn well. And that earns S.I. a lot of leeway… A lot. I can’t convey enough how much I loved his 50’s esque stamp on the proceedings in terms of look, tone, and music. There’s a whole bunch of reviewers I love who don’t mind the last act because, well, what else would this kind of movie be? And there’s some merit to that. I know I shouldn’t be angry with what could just be obvious. But I really do expect something more substantial.

Because an audience;s sensibility to this kind of story was something that was effective almost 60 damn years ago. The film language has accelerated. We can take these sorts of stylings and update them into something more modern and interesting (think of films that took their genre and accelerated them into something more transcendent and exposing: L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS or even THE GOOD GERMAN). Scorsese’s interested in making great film out of what he has, but doesn’t care if what he has is nothing more than old trope. But doesn’t that it ring in the hollowness of the proceedings even more? It’s all going through the motions. A Hitchcock exercise. To me, it’s nothing more substantial than his beautiful hitchcock commercial.

So you could suppose that it all goes to the source material/script. I never read the book (you know, also called “Shutter Island”) but I have read a lot of Dennis Lehane and I typically like him a great deal. “Gone Baby Gone” is a really great book for example. I’m not sure what’s different about his version of S.I.  so I can only go off the movie. But I think it’s somewhat safe to assume the same central device was used in the book. So if that’s the case I suppose you’re able to deflect more of it away from Scorsese and the writer of the film (who I’m too lazy to look up).

But really this sort of brings up the issue of “twist” film-making and storytelling in general.

I can remember that after opening weekend, my friend told me that THE SIXTH SENSE was awesome and we had to go see it together. I had seen one single advertisement that said “I See Dead People” and that it had a “whopper of an ending!” or something like that. So I go to see it with my friend he’s super excited that I’m seeing it and he thinks it’s going to knock my socks off. We watch the opening of the film and based on that I turn to my friend and say “so Bruce Willis is dead?” He was shocked. Actually no, he was more just pissed off. That’s part of the problem with many twists is that by inherently knowing a twist is coming you can usually figure it out based on a few key things. What you usually can’t figure out is the “how”. And that’s because so often Twist endings are dependent upon information that is only revealed to you after the fact. This is what I like to call “jerk-off bullshit.” Harsh phrasing and sometimes it is really okay and still allows for entertaining stuff… but the second you really think about it, that’s what it is. And Shutter Island has enough of that to make you crazy.

This is also exactly why I loved about Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE. It doesn’t pull a single punch. It’s wonderfully complex, but every single clue is laid out and if you follow them and listen, you can figure it out. Yes, I figured it out, but that’s more than okay. The thrill of the mystery isn’t being in the dark, but trailing it’s mystery with an intent eye. And with THE PRESTIGE it does that job so well that there actually aren’t any plot holes that can be filled with an epilogue. It’s a singularity.

Meanwhile I “figured out” SHUTTER ISLAND halfway through but not because the clues were laid out, but because it was entering that weird tone where they were allowing themselves the ability to go in stupid, nonsensical direction. Not in the delirious off the hinges way either. And looking back it doesn’t make sense or anything that any of what happened actually happened that way except to make the movie more entertaining. Hence, the “jerk off bullshit” designation.

Now there are also movies that do those kind of negating devices well. I’m not just talking about the Noir and Hitchcock movies, but modern movies. The most obvious comparison is FIGHT CLUB, which doesn’t execute the device all that well, but once it moves past the clunky logic it steeps itself into a meaningful analysis of maturity and what it takes not to be a self-serving nihilistic dingus (which sadly a lot of folks missed). I find it to be a thoroughly interesting subtext about our dual nature that is far less interested in its own twist (and its functionality), but much more interested in what its  twist is saying. And that’s why it works like gangbusters.  Another great “negating” device was used in MULLHOLLAND DRIVE, where it takes the “it was all a dream!” concept and not only buries it an finely, complexly constructed narrative, but steeps every single scene with thematic commentary about our id, desires, and dreams. I cannot think of another film that has taken us into the fractured mind of a “killer” in any better way. DRIVE is highly elusive at first, but it’s abstracts are nothing but concrete themes and story clues to the patient eye. It’s everything the story of SHUTTER ISLAND is not.  Which is funny because in the end, both are really trying to say the same exact thing. Only DRIVE knows the reality and sobering quality of its endgame even better.

So honestly here’s the thing. The buildup of SHUTTER ISLAND is great in most every regard… and then it does a stupid movie trick. And it does it a lazy fashion that hardly justifies any of what we’ve seen, and what it happens to be saying with the stupid movie trick isn’t interesting enough to justify using it. The twist itself isn’t even good enough to qualify as a useless “mindfuck.” It’s just an old hitchcockian trope that has none of original impact it’s 50’s predecessors did. As far as personal taste goes, frankly I would rather have had the movie with the grand conspiracy and the the obvious downer ending… At least it would have been entertaining.


Don’t Like: Revolutionary Road

December 18, 2008

This is one of those Oscar time movies that comes out and you’ll think about seeing because, well, you like movies and it is supposed to be good. It totally fits into all that hoopla of end-of-the-year releases and hey, more often than not, many of those films are reasonably good. They feature the most talented directors and actors. Their premises are often a bit more interesting than the rest of the year and it’s a nice change of pace. For this one specifically, chances are you came around on Leo after The Departed or The Aviator. You like Sam Mendes and know he makes beautiful movies. We can all agree Kate Winslet is awesome. So you might decide to take up REVOLUTIONARY ROAD.

Don’t.

Why? There’s a litany of reasons not to see this movie and I’m going to be a little ambitious and try to illustrate as many as I can. I feel like I have to spread the word about this, because I’m already seeing so many passive takes on the film (one early AICN review described this film as “a ride” I don’t think I could come up with a worse description). The goal is really to breakdown this movie to its essence. When there, you will hopefully see this film is nothing but an utter piece of steaming dog shit.

No, it has nothing to do with Mendes, Winslet, or Dicaprio. For all intents and purposes, they’re all fine and are certainly trying their damndest. I think all the problems with RR can be traced back to what is on the page. The script screams in pain (and by extension maybe the novel. I never read it, and every fault described could entirely be in that book, but I can only blame the screenwriter… which is what I will do).

I’ll spare you any plot synopsis. The first thing to know about REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (RR) is that it’s really just a riff on two other things. First, it’s “Madmen: the Movie!” Only everything that makes Madmen wonderful is utterly missing from this film. It’s about all the same subjects, has the same kind of characters, and is situated in the exact same location, but exhibits absolutely none of the tact, ambiguity, or subtlety of that series; Starting exactly with the issue of subtext. What supposedly makes RR so “interesting” is that it’s about the underbelly and dark secrets of suburbia and marriage (apparently the book might have created the genre), which would truly be a stark wake-up-call to the brainless, subdued nature of the 50s and early 60s conformity. How does RR establish this theme? It tells us so… Really… the characters sit there and lecture each other for the entire running time about how stupid suburban living is and just how much they hate living in the suburbs with those people. They tell us that they hate the fact that they are acting like other people too. They hate that they’re having problems in their marriage and tell each other. The characters tell you this constantly and discuss it in the same broad, generic concepts as I do here… It’s agonizing. So screenwriting rule #1 “show don’t tell” is broken so violently and garishly that it’s fucking impossible for you to absorb ANY of the possible organic acting or direction that may be on display.

Never is the “tell don’t show” dynamic more on display than with shoehorned son-of-their-landlord character. See he’s a crazy person who’s had to go to insane asylum for various social problems. He’s had electro-shock therapy and for socialization’s sake, he attends a few dinners at Kate and Leo’s house. Yet within mere moments, he’s completely perceptive to everything happening in that house and is more than willing to bring every character’s pain and neurosis right to the surface. He’s the classic Jester figure of Shakespearean literature: The fool on the hill who can get away with saying anything, especially the truth. The actor who plays him (I can’t remember from anything else) is really quite good in the role too. Mendes plays the whole ordeal for laughs and it is successful on that level, but in the larger scheme of things it is such a screeching, lobotomizing narrative device that simply hammers every big damn thematic over your head as if it hasn’t been hammered enough. In some ways it’s the deathblow of the picture. I liken it to a putting a roofie in your delicious ice cream sundae. The scene plays, it’s funny. But within the context of the entire film, the intent and lasting effect of the scene is shockingly negative. The very inclusion of which is completely false to any kind of lofty or realistic aspirations in the film. It’s almost as if at times, Mendes is trying to stretch it and harkens back to the black comedy of American Beauty. But it’s impossible. We’re in “tell don’t show” land and there’s no having it both ways. It’s a damn mess.

Like I touched on before, what makes Madmen so wonderful is that all of these very real problems are bubbling under the surface. That was what so interesting about the setting and the time, really. We weren’t that much different from now, but social etiquette, propriety, and the mere cadence of the times kept things from coming to the forefront. RR likes to point this out to us by literally saying it when characters yell at each other (and by extension, us) like they’re (we’re) idiots. Madmen, and by extension, art, doesn’t really do that. That’s what essays do. It’s all the more obvious in that unlike Madmen, RR only uses its 50s/60s setting when advantageous. You’ll see a well timed “swell” to get a laugh, and yet the whole world of the characters is a fantasy reality where people can become props for the theoretical, or utilize the 70’s “me generation” mediation with a strictly 90s outward-ness. The modernization of the film’s tone is was unquestionably jarring.

Interrupting logical sequence of criticism, I have a bit of a related tangent. In most pop-psychology terms the reason we even had the 1950s suburban mentality in the first place is that ordinary men who went off to WW2 and Korea returned home and simply wanted the basic fruits of life: a home, a family, a future. It was the thrill of a dignified, basic life as an alternative to the horrors of war. Heck, let’s just call it an inherent understanding of simple things in life. Yet to Frank Wheeler (Leo’s character, if I haven’t mentioned before, not like it matters) displays none of that. I was shocked when we learned he was a veteran. More so, being at war and rushing the front line was apparently the only exhilarating moment of his life; the one where he “really lived.” Double heck, apparently wartime Paris is the only place he wants to ever go again. That may not seem an unusual sentiment today in the age of “generation kill” and modern marine culture, but it’s pretty much a stark contrast to every single thing I’ve heard from the ordinary WW2 and Korea veterans I’ve known personally, or seen/read in other depictions. Normally, we’re subject to the notions of integrity and brotherhood among people just trying making it out alive and serve their country. For Frank… it was a different experience.

Apparently the novel’s author Robert Yates was a Veteran of WW2. Maybe in the book he had a lot more bits of insight into the war than the brief moment in the film. Maybe Yates was someone who was simply wired differently, and had a completely different reaction to both warfare and the ensuing peace in the suburban sprawl. And that would be great… if that’s the real subject of exploration. But instead of Frank being a fish out of water, he acts as if his truth is the universal truth; everyone else is damn sucker. The institutions of suburbia and marriage seem to be the blame for crushing the individual spirit. It should be said, I’ve never been to war. Who the hell am I to say what a soldier should of felt? Or what he should be writing about? It’s actually a pretty shitty thing to do… but I can only say what felt disingenuous to me… and it did.

Maybe it just gets back to my problem with Frank and April (Winslet’s character’s name, not that it matters) not being real people and just vehicles for broad sentiment; mouthpieces of author. Sure, their fights are often dead on. Then again how hard is it to have an ear for the same fights every couple has? Does that make them genuine? It feels like a trap to me. It’s the same exact thing that bothered me about Tell Me You Love Me. Is there really something poignant about the minutiae of basic relationship dynamics? To me, they’re simply a given. What’s often far more interesting are the details of the things that keep us together (in various different forms) and often that’s how we progress.

RR seems to have so many other specific writing problems too. One that sticks out is this weird as hell part where Frank seems to actually care about taking a promotion as a testament to his father, when we already to through lengths to establish that he doesn’t give a shit about his dad. It almost reeks of (gulp) plot convenience… in a personal drama. Awesome! (That’s not even mentioning the seeming absurdity of how the promotion even comes to be). Frank and April’s children aren’t even relevant for most of the film and when there, the film has much more validity and dynamic ideas. Most of the time, it feels like they’re just shuffled out of the way for convenience. Maybe the most egregious thing to my interest in the characters is how the opening of the film begins with their meeting and immediately flashes forward to their later marriage. We find ourselves witnessing a massive fight after her failed local theater performance and it’s vicious… then roll title! I fully expected us to go back in time and witness their fall from grace at this point… but nope, we continue in the present. The real problem is that the viciousness of that first fight is not too far off from the severity of the fights at the end of the film. In other words, they start and end the movie in the same goddamn place. FACEPALM. Nothing feels like more of a waste of time in a personal drama than doing that. It’s the only fucking reason we’re there. And if there’s an art aesthetic or modernist comment in doing that, I sure as hell couldn’t find it in RR.

Then there’s the matter of the other film that RR riffs on (yes we’re finally at #2): Little Children. Maybe it’s the Winslet connection, but everything that was detailed and interesting about the underbelly of suburbia in that magnificent film is broad and boring in RR. That’s mostly because it’s all about the specifics of the story in Little Children, and RR is so freakin’ eager to attach the specifics of their story to the generalness of everybody’s situation, it misses its own opportunity to be a goddamn example. The whole affair feels like the projection of a screenwriter/author who feels like they failed in life and sets fire to the institutions that trapped them in their intellectual purgatory. Sometimes it even feels like someone is trying to justify a lifestyle choice apart to their parents, or apart from the norm and they eviscerate the things they identify as obstacles. It’s almost strange really.

Maybe I’m being such a prick about this because the matter of happiness in suburbia is never really something I found all that troubling. More often then not, it’s basic displacement for whatever is bothering them, and overt intellectuals often have trouble walking out of their own mind. RR walks this fine little line by almost keying into that and establishing that Frank and April are actually idiots for not realizing it has nothing to do with where they live and how they work, but it never quite gets there. It’s just too happy digging into suburban dynamics. It’s insanely frustrating to me (especially because that was American Beauty’s biggest success). When it finally gets to the end [spoiler] and we get a little line about Frank in the wake of tragedy spending every moment with his kids, our final revelation is nothing more than a mere aside; fuck, the entire point of two hour wank-a-thon is muddled when we’re treated to a nice little misogynistic final note.

After I saw RR and wrote most of this I simply had to read up a bit on Richard Yates. I mentioned he was a veteran. He also basically worked in the exact same job as Frank did before he wrote the novel and went onto better things. His quotes about his creative work often exhibit the same pontificating persona of Frank and April. He says he sees them as “revolutionary” figures for wanting out of the suburban trap. His words are a scathing indictment of a culture. A culture in which, he sometimes feels like the victim, rather than the perpetrator (a key difference from Weiner’s Madmen). He was twice divorced and seems to be blaming the institutions (suburbia, marriage) instead of his own personal failures (such an unfair statement of me to make). His free thinking attitude and ability seem to show nothing of overcoming/transcending it, but only raging against it. But once again, I have not read the book so I speak a dreadful combination of passion and being out of turn. I can’t help it, I’m fascinated by all these complexes.

Yates wrote the book in 1962 apparently, and this would mean his thoughtful world of Frank and April was well ahead of its time. That is worth noting and explains his influence on future authors (A admirable journalist is quick to point this out, and alludes to a lot more Madmen-esque qualities in Yates writing, which would be a contrast from what I saw in the film). And yes, maybe I’m totally wrong in my statements of the film’s sincerity, but if Yates is merely a progenitor of Updike, consider me pissed. I can’t stand Updike. I find him misogynistic and invariably lame (but most of that can be covered in David Foster Wallace’s fantastic essay of destruction on Updike. Try and find it! I can’t online). Updike, like RR, so often fails to see the fact that the solutions to these “problems” in life are often right there in front of you if you could get over yourself and your penis (specific to Updike. That dude likes writing about his dick). But they can’t get over it. This also might help explain my love of Madmen. The aforementioned journalist mentions Wiener’s lack of appropriation to Yates and Updike for their influence, but that’s because I think Madmen works as a giant “fuck you,” or at very least a revision, to the mentalities of Updike and Yates.

Okay. I’m done now. A lot of this feels like nitpicking over semantics. I know and I apologize. I’m not normally like this. I think I like 95% of the movies I see I’m excited about and tend to like in some way. Face it, there’s usually nothing good that can come from not liking a movie because what it has to say. Double face it, certainly nothing can be gained from taking a shot at REVOLUTIONARY ROAD and the varying intellects and talents of the people involved. They’re very smart and very good at what they do. They have big aspirations. It’s not like I’m eviscerating Bratz or Little Man and there’s an entertaining reason for all this. I just felt like this script was a special kind of awful that doesn’t get much attention.

Who knows? The script might even get an academy award nomination.

Worse for me to admit, in the end it is an okay film to like. There are scenes of funniness. There’s some neat little things at play in the acting. I can’t imagine anyone could have done better with this awful script. And this is all just some guy’s opinion.

But I really don’t think there has ever been a film that has driven me as nuts as this one.