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by Bill Gibron

29 Dec 2008


Talk about tough. After carefully scanning the over 200 movies SE&L experienced this Cineplex season (and that’s not counting the numerous DVDs), choosing a mere ten titles to represent the year’s worst cinematic stool samples was hard…and not for a lack of candidates. Without a doubt, this was one junk filled 12 months. Everyone’s favorite Teutonic whipping boy - Dr. Uwe Boll - offered not one but two terrible trifles in 2008, with only one being ‘so bad it was kinda good’ (Postal). In the Name of the King: A Dragon Siege Tale was pure garbage. Similarly, Meg Ryan and a bunch of menopausal actresses gave Women everywhere an incredibly lame name, while that classic combo of Jason Freidberg and Aaron Seltzer provided their own double dose of drek - Meet the Spartans and the appropriately named Disaster Movie.  And let’s not forget Larry the Cable Guy and his should be career swansong Witless Protection. On second thought, let’s.

So in the end, with numerous examples of awfulness to choose from, how did we pick between losing friends and alienating people? The answer, oddly enough, takes a page out of the Best Picture paradigm: quality. No, not the inherent value in a project, but the innate noxiousness and nausea a terrible movie creates. A really bad film fumes like an overripe puppy pile and stays with you like the stink of a dead deer carcass. It rots your brain and boils your aesthetic, doing more damage internally than drugs, alcohol, and George Bush’s social policies combined. Still, scanning over nearly 30 entries that could be included here (like What Happens in Vegas…, Baby Mama, Doomsday, and the horrendous 88 Minutes), the final selection seems incomplete. Like any kind of crapshoot, the collateral damage is often more compelling than the target taken out.

So without further ado, here are Short Ends and Leader‘s choices for the worst films of 2008. Argue with them all you want, but here’s betting there’s more common ground than complaints. We begin with:

#10 - Nights in Rodanthe
Sometimes, source material says it all. A luminous cast and a worthy director will still have a hard time making a cinematic silk purse out of a literary sow’s ear. This Windstorms of North Carolina Counties is so overwrought and Harlequin-ed that only the most susceptible of spinsters or inexperienced poetry majors will fall for its faux passions. While Diane Lane and Richard Gere are a great onscreen couple, the set up stunts their appeal. There is so much hand wringing and heart sickness here, so many unexplained subplots and unclear character motives that by the time the death/denouement arrives, we’re too confused to care.



#9 - Babylon A.D.
Mathieu Kassovitz is livid. Not just angry, mind you, but completely pissed off. After five long years of planning and praying, after months of harsh production elements and massive studio interference, his dream project, Babylon A.D. closed the Summer 2008 season with the kind of wounded whimper and no preview punishment that comes with abject studio hatred. Knowing they had a bomb on their hands, Fox wrenched the film away from the La Haine director and monkeyed with it a bit. The result is perhaps the biggest load of speculative shite ever to be argued over by supposedly smart people. Now Kassovitz is just embarrassed.



#8 - Four Christmases
Flailing like a dying fish out of water and smelling just as fetid, Four Christmases is stiflingly unfunny. It’s rotten mistletoe over a condemned homestead’s archway. In fact, it’s such an unbridled waste, such a horrifying amalgamation of inept attempted laughs that you wonder what the capable cast was thinking during the filming of certain scenes. And this is a group who collectively own five Oscars, mind you. Between the painful pantomime of the various slapstick sequences, to the complete lack of emotional truth or temperament, this is holiday cheer for the stupid and stunted. And yet it has made over $100 million. Sigh.



#7 - The Eye
Beyond disheartening, this was just plain abysmal. Anyone lucky enough to see David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s brilliant Ils (released in the US as Them) knows that this French filmmaking duo can really deliver the shivers. Their simple set-up, involving a secluded Romanian estate and a couple victimized by some unseen invaders was a stark, suspenseful romp. It literally rekindled one’s faith in the subtler forms of the horror genre. This rancid remake re-killed it. Our directors obviously suffered from some kind of cinematic amnesia after hitting LaLa Land. With this Jessica Alba atrocity, they definitely forgot everything that made Ils so wonderful.



#6 - The Love Guru
Former funnymen have had a tough time this year. Jim Carrey barely survived Yes Man with his disintegrating dignity intact, and Eddie Murphy proved that science fiction and floundering talent just don’t mix. But no one undermined their own box office legacy better than Mike Myers. Clearly needing some cash to pay for his pending divorce, the one time Wayne Campbell took the worst parts of his Austin Powers franchise, fluffed them up with some Hindi hate crimes, and delivered a deathblow to everything he ever had a hand in. Being dumb and disgusting is one thing. Being hateful doing it is par for this pariah’s new course.



#5 - The Happening
If it wasn’t so pathetic, it would be laughable. Former wunderkind M. Night Shyamalan finally spent the last bit of his Sixth Sense/Next Spielberg credentials making a movie in which plants went on a rampage against mankind. No, not in a Day of the Triffids kind of carnage. No, our friendly neighborhood vegetation decided to release a neurotoxin which caused humans to kill themselves. Huh? Anyway, with questionable scripting and even more specious acting, this was a truly terrible attempt at terror. Leave it to the freefalling filmmaker to make things even more unintentionally hilarious by touting this as the scariest movie ever. Huh?



#4 - What Just Happened?
A really bad movie, that’s what. Proving that whatever creative cache he accumulated during the ‘80s and ‘90s is just about used up, Barry Levinson takes Art Linson’s self-absorbed and referential mess of a memoir and tries to turn it into a mid-naught version of The Player. What Just Happened? commits so many cardinal motion picture sins that it should be excommunicated from the entertainment arena on principle alone. It wastes the talents of several sensational performers, leaving actors like Robert DeNiro, Bruce Willis, John Tuturro, and Stanley Tucci looking absolutely lost. Now that’s tough to do.



#3 - Towelhead
Oh boy - a 14 year old girl gets molested and finger-raped on camera and we’re supposed to see it as some manner of post-modern sideways sexual awakening…with War on Terror/9-11 overtones. Right. As we stare at a young girl sitting on the toilet, her period soaked panties filling the screen for all to see, we wonder, did writer/director Alan Ball really believe that such shock value adds to the effectiveness of his film? Is it merely menses for menses sake, a Larry Clark like truth taken to Tinsel Town fantasy extremes? Instead, it feels like sickening exploitation without any redeeming value whatsoever.



#2 - Blindness
There is a lot of critical support for this lamentably awful faux-fable, with many pointing to the powerful message buried within Fernando Meirelles’ reading of José Saramago’s novel. The only problem with such an excuse is that you have to get through the dark, dim muck to even begin to appreciate what is, in the end, a pretty simple “society sucks” statement. As a look at what happens when civilization breaks down, we do indeed learn a very valuable lesson. The world will not end with a whimper or a bang. It will just fester in a pool of its own filth. Yuck!





#1 - Funny Games
Okay, okay, we get it. American’s love violence. We crave the brutality and support all cinema that substitutes death blows for discussions. But just like rubbing a bad dog’s nose in his own self-styled entertainment excrement, smirk-filled preaching isn’t going to get us to change. Someone needs to tell German jester Michael Haneke that like arguing that abuse is unhealthy by beating someone over the head, wallowing in the very genre excesses that you want to foil is hypocritical at best. Even worse, the director then purposefully insults the audience, asking them to accept his treatise as truth even when he doesn’t have the balls or backbone to support his stance. There have been few films as irredeemable as Funny Games. It’s not only one of this year’s worst - it’s a worthy competitor for the “all time” title.

by Bill Gibron

28 Dec 2008


DVD has been a godsend for filmmakers desperate for distribution. Thanks to the advances in technology, the accessibility of an available audience (otherwise known as the Internet) and a definitive DIY stance, more movies are available than ever before. Finding them is another issue all together. Most of your noted B&M retail and rental outlets don’t touch ‘unknown’ quantities helmed by unproven talent with a tendency to believe their own hype. Instead, they fill their shelves with standard operating hackwork, the latest (and usually lamest) efforts from Tinsel Town’s crap factory - and its varying direct to digital run-offs. In order to find the truly obscure titles, one must do a lot of research and think outside the Netflix envelope, so to speak. As part of our blog prerogative, that’s exactly what Short Ends and Leader tries to do.

Of course, as with any year end list, a few consideration parameters have to be laid down. First and foremost, it’s important to note that the films themselves do not have to be made in, or originally released during 2008. After all, some outsider cinema takes years in legal or logistical limbo before making it out via some manner of viewable state. In addition, there is no need for an Oscar like NY to LA preview schedule. As long as the film made it out on DVD during this year (originally or in an update) SE&L considered it. Finally, we don’t discriminate against those who self distribute. As long as it passed over our critical transom, we considered it, no matter how it first got there. About the only consistent element is worth - if the movie wasn’t something really special, we just didn’t consider it in our final overview.

With that being said, 2008 was a sparse year in undiscovered gems. Messageboard nation loves to champion the underdog, and a lot of films that would normally make the list - Let the Right One In, Hunger - are seeing major studio support. Still, the ten titles here mark the cream of the independent crop, movies that find there way onto screens around the world thanks to one significant reason - they’re damn good. So without further ado, let’s begin our discussion with: 

#10 - Cordoba Nights
Ohio filmmakers Andy and Luke Campbell have a reputation for being the purveyors of the homemade horror hybrid. With films like The Red Skulls (gang vs. zombies), Demon Summer (coming of age vs. otherworldly terror), and Midnight Skater (splatter comedy), it seemed like they would never branch out beyond the standard scary formulas. This amazing movie proves otherwise. Following the adventures of a pizza man who gets mixed up with a crime boss’s gal pal, the duo deliver a neo-noir slice of slacker life that’s filled with clever direction, insightful characterization, and bravura creativity. As a stepping stone to other interests, it’s outstanding.



#9 - Giuseppe Andrews’ Orzo
Giuseppe Andrews always has humor in his films. In between the pathos and the grotesqueries, his trailer park paradigm is laced with a laidback wit. But with this tale of Toggle Switch, a little person locked in her own insular world of weirdness, he’s made his first true consistently laugh out loud burlesque. Working within the same surreal strategies that make David Lynch’s dream logic experiments so satisfying, actor turned auteur Andrews has an inherent way with oddities. Here, he makes a sex toy bandit, a hyper-skinny exercise guru, and the endless travails of a ditzy dwarf into something staggering - and very funny.



#8 - Mil Mascaras: Resurrection
He’s a sensation South of the Border, one of many famed Luchadores who translated his square circle fame into motion picture popularity. But after his 1990 effort La Llave Mortal, wrestler Mil Mascaras stepped out of the celluloid limelight - until now. Created by scholar and fan Jeffrey Ulhmann as a tribute/reboot for the legendary actor/athlete, Resurrection brings back the villainous Aztec Mummy, a collection of Lucha libre cameos, and enough classic camp kitsch value to make even the sourest puss smile with guileless guilty pleasure. Anyone who wonders why these “characters” remain popular in the new millennium needs look no further than this fabulous throwback. 



#7 - Hell’s Ground
Pakistan is in the news a lot lately - and most of the time, the reporting is rife with religious and political turmoil. With its constant struggles between fundamentalist ideology and sovereign state concerns, any unusual artistic expression (especially via an ‘80s slasher film style) would seem like social insanity. So imagine the chutzpah of Internet café owner Omar Khan when he decided to make a blood and guts slice and dice. The Islamic backdrop is incredibly compelling, giving the teens something extra sinister to be afraid of. Sure, the gore is incredibly tame by Western standards, but the overall experience is unnerving. 



#6 - Cyxork 7
With a wonderful cast perfectly in tune with his tirade, and a subtext that suggests the chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out aspects of celebrity, Cyxork 7 is quite unexpected. While Troma can treat us to movies that are entertaining and unusual, ‘thoughtful’ isn’t a word often used in connection with Lloyd Kaufman and company. This tale of a failing film franchise and the radical manner in which the cast and crew decide to breathe new life into it stands as something wicked and exceedingly inventive. A fabulous F-you to everything that makes Hollywood fraudulent - and phony - and fabulous.



#5 - Ils
While it may sound like gushing, one thing is crystal clear - Ils (Them) is one of the finest, more ferocious suspense films of the last ten years. It argues for the aptitude of the twosome behind the lens (David Moreau and Xavier Palud), as well as proving that their bitter Hollywood take on J-Horror’s The Eye was merely a fluke of paycheck cashing proportions. As a motion picture, it’s almost flawless. There is atmosphere to spare, and an attention to cinematic standards that’s hard to escape. We except buckets of blood and gratuity abounding in the post-modern genre. This is, instead, an effort worthy of Hitchcock himself.



#4 - Poison Sweethearts
With its exploitation derived framework and silly chauvinistic sheen, Poison Sweethearts truly marks the moment when Andy and Luke Campbell completely shed their homemade horror mantle and become real directors. This is not to say that their previous efforts represent lesser behind the lens mannerisms. But with Sweethearts, the boys branch out into good old fashioned grindhouse territory, and inside such a conceit they find a wonderfully wicked, homage heavy masterpiece. Indeed, the boys deliver enough recognizable references to the forgotten genre that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino should be ashamed for the supposed take on the material. This is the real revisionist deal.



#3 - Inside
Wow! The French have really figured this out. From Haute Tension to Ils, France has forged a new wave of nastiness that has redefined the genres and styles of their continental countrymen. Inside is no different. Like watching the ultimate collaboration between Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento (with some nauseating originality thrown in for good measure) this sluice-filled sensation is one of the sickest, most gratifying gross out efforts in quite a while. Directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury have combined the visceral nature of childbirth with the mandates of the slasher film to forge a brilliant, ballsy bloodbath.



#2 - Storm
At its core, Storm is a time traveling take on personal pain and the memories we stridently store away told in a manner that is a great deal more spiritual, complicated, and open ended than its obvious Matrix inspiration. It may not have the Wachowski’s level of visual sophistication, but in its own unique way, this film by the Swedish directorial team of Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein is just as powerful and approachable. Storm is not just about a battle between good and evil - it’s a war fought on a landscape both cosmic and highly insular. Together, they make even the most mundane situations resonate with meaning.





#1 - [REC]
[REC] is ridiculously good. It’s a show-stopping terror trip through something that really shouldn’t work all that well. But thanks to the talent of directors Jaume Balagueró (the main man in charge) and Paco Plaza (our witness with the handycam), the visceral nature of the first person POV approach avoids any such issues. Like Cloverfield, this unique take of the genre (we aren’t quite sure what has infected the residents of this apartment complex) suggests a zombie stomp ala George Romero’s Diary of the Dead. But thanks to the single setting, the impressive acting, and a finale that will literally scare your socks off, this is a fine film that stands as a soon to be classic. Too bad Hollywood already hobbled its legacy by making the interesting if inconsequential Quarantine.

by Bill Gibron

25 Dec 2008


David Fincher is a god. Not a lesser deity, mind you, or some manner of false filmmaking prophet. No, this inside outsider may have gotten his start in music videos, and suffered at the hands of a disgruntled studio while making his directorial debut (the oft debated Alien3), but since those uneasy early days, he’s been nothing short of sensational. With a creative output claiming one masterwork (Se7en, The Game) after another (Fight Club, Zodiac), only mainstream commercial acceptance has truly alluded him (unless you count Panic Room). All that might change with his Brad Pitt vehicle The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Loosely based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this may look like a blatant attempt to grab awards season consideration. Instead, it’s another notable notch in the man’s amazing auteur oeuvre. 

Born into a turn of the century New Orleans, orphaned Benjamin Button is blessed/cursed with an unusual malady. As an infant, he looks nearly 90 years old. As a toddler, he’s in his ‘80s. As he gets older, his body ages in reverse, decades dropping off as the experiences pile up. While living in a nursing home with his caregiver mother Queenie, he meets the granddaughter of another resident. Her name is Daisy, and Benjamin is instantly smitten. As time moves along, he holds onto his flame, even as he joins the merchant marines, aids in World War II, has an affair with a British woman (who wants to swim the English Channel), and returns home to Louisiana where he reconnects with his dying father. Yet all along, all Benjamin can think about is Daisy. Her career as a ballerina cut short and her options limited, she soon finds herself drawn into her new partner’s curious case. It will be a relationship that inspires many wonderful memories, a lot of adventure, a few heartaches, and some significant deathbed secrets.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not a movie made for a single viewing. At nearly three hours in length, its detail and depth become distant and unclear. There are times when it looks like director Fincher is operating under a delusion of self-indulgence, basic camera tricks and CG deception taking over where narrative drive and clear characterization would suffice. But then the premise kicks in, an idea so novel and yet so simple that it often threatens to spin out of control. But this is where Fincher shines - bringing the outrageous and the outsized back into scale with the rest of his vision. As a result, Benjamin Button stands as the kind of filmmaking achievement that formidable French auteur theory was meant to celebrate. Without Fincher behind the scenes, this would be an occasionally interesting, often irritating trifle. With him, it’s some manner of masterpiece.

It also helps to have amazing actors inhabit this world, and you can’t get much better than Pitt (as the title entity), Cate Blanchett (as lifetime love Daisy), Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin’s adopted momma, and Julia Ormond as bookend offspring Caroline. Interspersed amongst the main threads are remarkable moments from Jared Harris, Tilda Swinton, and Elias Koteas. Each one accents Fincher’s amazing images with their own unique take on humanity and honesty. At its center, Benjamin Button is about the truth - the truth about living, the truth about dying, the truth about who you are, and the truth about who others find us to be. All throughout the film, secrets and stories are revealed, each one clarifying the people who populate them. At the end, the denouements build to a shattering emotional epiphany that ties everything together magnificently.

Certainly, the screenplay by Eric Roth mirrors his Oscar winning adaptation of Forrest Gump, even down to a central symbol for birth/resurrection. But unlike that Robert Zemeckis fable, spun out of Southern comforting and a great deal of Tom Hanks definitive drawl, Fincher finds the darker side to this material. After all, when was the last time you saw a mainstream movie deal with the impending death of an infant. Remember, Benjamin ages backwards, so the very youthful biology the industry tends to senseless celebrate actually becomes the harbinger for the arriving Grim Reaper. This is juxtaposed against Blanchett’s aged façade, holed up in a New Orleans hospital as Katrina is about to hit. The concept of placing the plot within the horrific events of 2005 may be locational happenstance, but it does work to underline the overall theme of life’s fascinating fragility.

In fact, the physical elements of Benjamin Button stand out as the film’s creative finest achievement. The early stages of Pitt’s “elderly” youth have an eerie provocation, while his last act teen façade is achingly Adonis-like in look. Blanchett gets an equally effective make-over, her turn as an adolescent ballerina and ‘50s fashion plate remarkable in their picture perfect, almost porcelain purity. Fincher forces the audience to rethink their previous notions of age and vitality all throughout the film. When Benjamin visits a brothel for the first time, it’s not as some dirty old man. Instead, Pitt plays the moment just right, using raging teen hormones to accent his character’s withered looks. With the movie set inside a nursing home, there’s a lot of jokes made at the expense of the infirmed and enfeebled (one man gets seven silent movie slapstick sequences, illustrating the number of times he’s been hit by lightning). But there is plenty of dignity here as well, times when what we become throughout the decades is discussed and redefined.

Yet in the end, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is really about celebrating your existence. It’s a statement on how life lived - in any order - can be taken for granted and gone in an instant. As they move through the years, trying to connect and complete their unending love, Benjamin and Daisy discover something even more shocking about their interpersonal emotions: they can survive anything. Only time treats the couple like an interchangeable pair of enigmas, each owning their own unusual approach to being and being together. The wistful qualities of the narrative, matched with Fincher’s frighteningly magnificent direction, turns something gimmicky into something grand. When the word ‘epic’ is tossed around, it’s an effort like that of those of all involved in Benjamin Button that supply a perfect illustration. Destined to grow in critical acclaim as the year’s go by, this represents Fincher at his finest - and gods rarely find a way to top themselves.

by Bill Gibron

24 Dec 2008


Those of us who lived through it will never forget how it unraveled before our unbelieving eyes. As each new day brought another revelation, as White House damage control caused as much controversy as calm, as names like Woodward, Bernstein, Halderman, Dean, Liddy, and Ervin became part of our political nomenclature, only one word - Watergate - would remain synonymous with the entire Nixon era scandal. So it was with great interest that we revisited the darkest moment in American history on 19 May 1977 when British journalist David Frost scored the exclusive interview with the then disgraced President himself. Instead of bombshells, however, we got an oral history of the ex-leaders many accomplishments. Even the supposed coerced admission was half-baked and hearted.

But not now. Now, we get the power of the motion picture artform turning history into a remarkable bit of faux fictionalized payback. With his corpse cold and in the ground some 14 years now, and a great deal of Washington handwringing behind us, UK playwright Peter Morgan has taken his penchant for revising the past to create Frost/Nixon. A stage hit both abroad and here at home, it follows a failing Frost as he tries to find a way to jumpstart his sagging journalist credentials. Seen by many as a celeb-utante info-tainer, he was desperate for some smidgen of seriousness. Getting Nixon to talk seemed like the logical way to go - and since no one else was willing to pay for the privilege, Frost put his money where his mouth would soon be.

Of course, knowing little except what he saw on television, he grabbed a couple of consultants with agendas of their own. Bob Zelnick, Washington insider and lawyer wanted the truth to be told. College professor and Nixon naysayer James Reston Jr. just wanted the bastard hung out to dry. Together, they meticulously researched the possible Q&A while Frost worked out the details. Going head to head with ex-Marine Chief of Staff Jack Brennan, an approved plan was proposed. Frost would get four interview “specials”, each one focusing on a different subject. Nixon would sit down for 12 separate sessions, with Watergate not taking up more than 25% of the final product. While Zelnick and Reston complained, Frost accepted.

There’s much more to the story, a lot of it focusing on Frost and his personal stake in the Nixon material. Paying for most of it out of his pocket, and taking the heat from those who thought he was outmatched, outmanned, and out maneuvered, this was a true leap of faith. It’s from a Frost-ccentric vantage point that Ron Howard offers up his take on the Morgan material, opening up the play while keeping the claustrophobic feel of the two actors’ one-on-one. Utilizing the original theatrical cast - a terrific Michael Sheen as Frost, a fine Frank Langella as Nixon - and complementing them with a wonderful set of supporting players including Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, and a surprise moment from former Bad Seed Patty McCormack (as a petrified, predatory Pat Nixon), we get the best this kind of truth stretching can provide.

Yet there’s something here that doesn’t feel right. There’s a weirdness watching events etched indelibly in your brain, especially when they play out in a slightly off-kilter, pro posthumous re-examination manner. Make no mistake about it - Frost/Nixon is engaging cinematic theater, nothing more, and a great deal less. Its import offered up via grandstanding, showboating, and inferred integrity. In dealing with what is, perhaps, the most monumental issue of mistrust ever to try and undermine American democracy, history is reduced to a series of humorless confrontations, each one meant to signify something beyond its actual weight. Articles have been written about the factual inaccuracies in Morgan’s script, but that’s really beside the point. This may be the first good film that feels a necessity to tweak the truth in order to make the inevitable more dramatic, and cinematically palatable.

Clearly, we are supposed to see Frost and Nixon as cut from the same careerist cloth. Politics and performing are mirrored here, accented by director Howard’s Me Decade familiarity. But where the ex-President is a well worn known quantity, the UK jive master is not, and Frost frequently steals the narrative attention away from his Executive Branch quarry. Sheen is particularly brilliant as the mope behind the manic mask, a consistent façade of optimism covering up the flop sweat. We become so engrossed in Frost’s failed occupation, his party time disco diversions taking precious attention away from his supposed serious journalism that we wait for the moment when it all implodes. It comes during a late night phone call with a drunk Nixon, motivational clarifications arriving in spurts of spoken epiphanies. At the end, the former leader of the free world is sunk, having given over his hand to man who simply needed a real reason to succeed.

This is not to say that Langella is bad, he’s just not the Tricky Dick we remember. There’s a passing physical resemblance and an occasional triumph of cadence, but this is a Nixon that’s too much of a fame whore, too hungry for a chance to clear his name. There is none of the aggressive arrogance we’ve come to expect from the man who uttered the infamous line “I am not a crook”. Langella just doesn’t look or act like the kind of Commander in Chief who would make an enemies list or sling epithets at fellow Washington insiders. And at the end, when a defeated Nixon sounds a last gasp wish for some manner of humanity, he’s given the good old boy brush-off, leading to the one sour note in the entire film. Howard should be commended for keeping this freewheeling inversion of the truth from constantly flying off the handle. Instead, he devises a powerful drama out of good dialogue, great performances, and a splash of celebrated synchronicity.

It may not be enough for old school apologists who think our 37th President got a really raw deal, and someone like the late Hunter S. Thompson is probably spinning around in his grave over the “one confession and out” conclusion to the plotline. But make no mistake about it - Frost/Nixon is a fine film, destined to be considered among 2008’s most powerful and provocative. But unlike All the President’s Men, which used Watergate as a backdrop for explaining investigative journalism and the rise of the reporter as an important part of the Constitutional process, there is no compelling context here - just two men, each wanting a piece of the limelight, scrambling to see who will succeed. The results are undoubtedly entertaining. The truth, as usual, has no place in such a panacea. 

by Bill Gibron

24 Dec 2008


As long as they had Paris, they had hope. Actually, as frustrated suburban housewife April Wheeler would later reveal, it didn’t have to be the famed City of Light. Anywhere other than the stifling outskirts of reality known as Connecticut would have been just fine. When they first met, April and her husband Frank connected like all post-war couples did. She was lured to his solider boy sense of overseas adventure. He saw stability and blossoming homespun sexuality. Together, the formed the seemingly perfect veneer of American Dream determination. But somewhere along the route to their white picket fence home on Revolutionary Road, the Wheelers got sidetracked. The resulting diversion left them shattered, disenchanted, and barely alive.

Thus we have the setup for Richard Yates devastating novel named after the infamous avenue, and Sam Mendes return to post-Jarhead prominence. We follow April and Frank as they meet, make love, get married, and take a home outside the sprawling metropolis of Manhattan. After years living the nuclear fantasy, she feels trapped. Relocating to Europe will be the spark that reignites their previous passion, and at first, her husband agrees. But as he falls into an easy affair with a member of the typing pool, and sees his fortunes at working failing upward, Frank no longer “feels” France. Instead, he wants to stay in the states and have another baby. This devastates April, who must resort to extreme measures to keep her own hopes and dreams alive. 

Apparently, in order to enjoy Mendes take on Revolutionary Road, you have to (a) have never read the Yates’ book it is based on, (b) never watched an episode of AMC’s au courant revisionist hipster drama Mad Men, and (c) believe the filmmaker’s previous Oscar winning effort, American Beauty, was not some award season anomaly. Add in the “isn’t that cute” conceit of having three members of James Cameron’s Titanic back onscreen (Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kathy Bates) and the pedigree everyone involved provides, and you’re either drunk on the idea of the film, or failing to see the true mess that Mendes has made. Actually, none of this is true. In a season which sees underage sex with war criminals celebrated and old racists made warm and fuzzy, Revolutionary Road stands as a bold bit of filmmaking. It’s not always pleasant, but then again, neither is life.

At its core, Mendes has made a movie about why couples fall apart. This isn’t some new or novel statement about how Eisenhower era marrieds managed the ennui of a sheltered, socially acceptable existence. It’s not the precursor to the Swinging ‘60s or the rationale for the upcoming sexual revolution, civil rights movement, or any other protracted activism. Instead, what screenwriter Justin Haythe gets out of Yates’ book is the basis for how love leaks out and slowly dissipates. With bravura work from Winslet and DiCaprio, almost every conversation between April and Frank devolves into a shouting match of unspoken horrors and simmering dissatisfaction. Many of these sequences leave the viewer breathless, their truth and honesty about as soul searching and bearing as cinema gets.

But there is more than just arguments here. Revolutionary Road stages the preamble for a kind of upheaval, even if it isn’t strongly social or political. Within each person lies a series of disappointments and unrealized dreams. Mendes makes this the nucleus of his film, following two people as they destroy who they want to be in order to preserve what they think they are. We never really see the Wheelers as a family unit. Kids are always shuttered to the side (oddly enough, their first appearance onscreen is shocking since Mendes doesn’t portray Frank or April as parent material) and friendly neighborhood get-togethers become the fodder for that night’s bickering. Neither partner wants to work - April’s pipe dream derives from the “outrageous” wages paid to European civil servants while Frank has to “find” himself. But the need to conform matched with the desire to drop out sets up something seismic in their household. When the façade cracks, the quake is truly crushing.

In a movie overloaded with amazing performances, three stand out. DiCaprio has finally “grown up” onscreen, dropping any of this youthful primping and performance preening to become a true, legitimate leading ‘man’. He looks perfectly comfortable in his gray flannel suit situation. Winslet is radiant as a bohemian broken by the Stepford sense of purpose around her. She can make a happy home, but would much rather have a fulfilled life. Balancing said need within the parameters of a patriarchal three martini and beefsteak setting is the actress’s trained tour de force. She is simply stunning at times. And then there’s Bates, bringing down her dowager immenseness to play opinionated if outside. She’s the kind of fussy, frightened mouse/spouse who talks a good game, but can’t keep her own business tidy.

Speaking of her issues, Bates is blessed with a schizophrenic son who speaks as the forward thinking voice of a future blank generation. Played with Oscar worthy aplomb by an amazing Michael Shannon, John Givings is a nonconformist in every facet of the word. During a critical sequence in the woods, a walk with April and Frank turns into something so remarkable that you feel your heart literally skip a beat - and John’s line about life is enough to start an entire subculture all its own. It’s these kinds of nuanced bits that seem to fall freely from Mendes vision. When we see Frank shacking up with his temporary secretary, her Bettie Page pertness reminds us of the erotic explosion to come, and his coworkers cut a swath across the entire dynamic of last gasp machismo.

Yet it’s the overall interaction and intenseness of Revolutionary Road that turns it from a neverending episode of the Bickersons into motion picture mastery. The fights between our main characters do come across as cruel and manipulative, but they ring with a kind of brash authenticity that’s hard to shake. And even as the storyline slow burns toward its tragic ending, inevitable and yet inexcusable, we drink in the directorial beauty and pitch perfect performances. Mendes may be the current revisionist whipping boy for a geek nation convinced that Beauty beat the rest of 2000’s competition based on some manner of industry fix. Yet it’s impossible to deny his execution here. From cast to conclusion, Revolutionary Road is fate funneled through a true artist’s muse. It’s one of 2008’s very best.

And by the way, Paris would not have saved the Wheelers. Nothing could.

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Tibet House's 30th Anniversary Benefit Concert Celebrated Philip Glass' 80th

// Notes from the Road

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