Revolutionary Road

Posted on June 2, 2009 at 8:08 am

It may be, as Thoreau said, that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” but in the movies, desperation is much more likely to be loud. “Revolutionary Road” is another movie about unhappiness, phoniness, and corrosive dysfunction behind the manicured lawns of suburbia story from Sam Mendes of American Beauty. This time, it is set just after WWII, based on the novel by Richard Yates. It is the story of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Kate Winslet), a couple who are devastated to find themselves unable to escape the stultification of conventional middle class lives and who respond by devastating each other.

There is a moment for each of us, when we begin to see outside everything we have known and start to think of something different for ourselves, confident that we can avoid the mistakes of our parents and their generation. And then there is another moment when we learn that it is not that easy. This notion of exceptionalism, whether at the personal or national level, is the question these characters must face.

And it is that issue that gives this film its power. Yes, it is beautifully observed detail, rich images, and brilliant, fearless performances and yes, it has a scathing portrayal of the foul rot beneath the superficial suburban prettiness, with only a madman who can tell the truth. But all of that has been done before and these stories themselves tend to risk an aura of smug, we’re-in-on-the-real-story superiority that is as artificial as the lives it is dissecting. What makes this story transcend its setting is the resonance it has with the notion of America’s own sense of its exceptionalism in the world and in history.

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Based on a book Drama
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He’s Just Not That Into You

Posted on June 2, 2009 at 8:00 am

It turns out that it all goes back to the playground. What did our moms tell us when boys teased us and knocked us down? “He only does it because he likes you!” This leads to two consequences. First, women lose the ability to apply common sense in interpreting the signals about level of interest sent by men. Second, men get positive reinforcement for sending those mixed signals. Add in a couple of doses of fear of getting hurt and fear of being alone, and a just a dash of fear of missing out on The One and you have “He’s Just Not That Into You,” a movie inspired by a non-fiction book inspired by one line on the television series “Sex and the City.”

On that episode, a man named Berger (Ron Livingston) took pity on a character who was coming up with increasingly far-fetched excuses for a man’s turning down her invitation to come up to her apartment after a date. “He’s just not that into you,” said Berger. This was a revelation. The episode attracted so much attention it led to a non-fiction book (written by a male-female team), and that led to this daisy-chain of stories about love old and new, sweet and sad, funny and wise.

At the heart of the story is Gigi (“Big Love’s” Ginnifer Goodwin), an ever-hopeful sort who is always willing to see the glass as half full even if there is nothing in it at all. He hasn’t called? He’s busy at work or he had a sudden business trip. Or maybe he forgot her number. She is helped in this romantic delusion by her friends, who try to cheer her up by persuading her that men behave like this all the time when they are interested and they always have these hopeful little urban legends about someone’s second cousin’s college roommate who thought that a guy wasn’t calling but then they got married and lived happily ever after.

It takes a cynical bar manager named Alex (Justin Long) to give Gigi the movie title advice, and that leads to some more bracing honestly. It all boils down to this: the only signal that matters is the choices people actually make. If he wants to talk to you, he will call. If he wants to see you, he will make it unequivocally clear. Same for women, by the way.

Meanwhile, a young married couple (Jennifer Connelly and Bradley Cooper) is dealing with stress on two levels, external and internal. Their new home is being completely gutted and renovated. And he is feeling attracted to a vixenish young singer (Scarlett Johansson) and to the possibilities of a life without constraints and promises. An ad saleswoman for a gay men’s newspaper (co-producer Drew Barrymore) says that modern technology has just created more ways to keep from talking to each other — email, texting, voicemail, and myspace. She gets a lot of support and some good advice from her sympathetic co-workers. And another couple (Jennifer Aniston and Ben Affleck) gets along just fine on every issue except for one — she wants to get married and he does not.

You will get a sense for which side this film takes in the gender wars when you look at the cast — the big names and familiar faces are mostly on the female side. But the performers are all attractive and capable and director Ken Kwapis (“Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”) knows how to keep several stories going at once. He manages his talented cast well and he skillfully handles the material so that it stays comic without losing sympathy for the characters. The film balances humor with some sharply observed moments and painfully familiar conversations that are sure to provoke some lively debates on the way home from the theater.

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Based on a book Comedy Romance

Defiance

Posted on June 2, 2009 at 8:00 am

Cowriter-director Edward Zwick, who also made “Glory,” the story of an all-black Union regiment in the Civil War, spoke to me about why it was important to tell the story of the Bielski brothers, who kept 1200 Jews hidden from the Russians and the Nazis during WWII.

There is a perverse irony in commemoration of the dead in the Holocaust with little attention to the survivors and the resistance, especially the Jewish resistance. Its immensity can’t be underestimated and it is a story that needs to be told. We all know these iconic images of Jews in the Holocaust and those are important but we have come to accept them as the only images and that needs revision.

This is not the story of Jews trying to stay alive in concentration camps. This is the story of Jews who were lucky enough to have the chance to fight back. Tuvia Bielski does not just have a gun — he is played by James Bond himself, Daniel Craig.

When the Bielski parents are killed by the Nazis, the three brothers hide out in the woods. In addition to Tuvia there is Zus (Liev Schreiber) and the youngest, Asael (Jamie Bell of “Billy Elliot”). Over time, other escapees ask for their protection and they are faced with the wrenching choice between turning away those who are old or ill or putting the entire group at risk by taking on people who were not strong enough to help them or quick enough to keep out of sight. They have to make other choices, too. The Russian army will give them some minimal protection but only if they will join forces and devote their energy to fighting the Nazis, just just hiding from them. Zus joins them but Tuvia stays on to take care of the people who are not capable of fighting.

The natural world of the forest is for the escapees a sort of Arden where many things are turned upside down. Back in the village, social status depended on class, profession, education, devotion to religious study and ritual. The Bielskis had none of these. In the forest, status depends on the ability to survive in the forest, including the ability to find a balance between asking and telling everyone what to do. Tuvia falls somewhere between achieving greatness and having it thrust upon him. He never wanted to be a leader; he certainly never wanted everyone to depend on him. And most of all, he never wanted to make the tragic choices he must make, to have to find out that he is a person capable of killing and of moral compromise.

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Based on a book Based on a true story Epic/Historical War

The Seven Little Foys

Posted on June 1, 2009 at 3:58 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 1955
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B00004YS74

Bob Hope would have turned 106 this week, and his birthday and the upcoming Father’s Day reminded me of one of my favorite of his films. It’s also one of the least characteristic because he is playing a real-life character (as he would again two years later in “Beau James”) and even though the character was a performer and he does manage to get off some wisecracks, it is as close to a dramatic performance as he ever gave. He also said that the dance number was the hardest work he ever did, because he had to keep up with James Cagney reprising his portrayal of George M. Cohan of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Hope plays Eddie Foy, Sr., a vaudevillian whose only way to care for his seven children is to put them into his act and take them on the road. The fact that he barely knew the kids was of no more relevance than the fact that they had no talent.

Foy, as played by Hope, was not a great father. But he was devoted to his children in his own way, and I have special affection for this film. A couple of other points worth noting: fans of the old “Father Knows Best” series will recognize Billy Gray as one of the kids. And take a look at “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” too — you will see the real-life Eddie Foy, Jr. appearing as his father opposite James Cagney as his long-time friendly rival Cohan, and as the bookie in “Bells are Ringing.”

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Based on a true story Biography Comedy Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Family Issues Musical

Jon and Kate: Can Their Marriage Be Saved?

Posted on June 1, 2009 at 8:00 am

Why do we care so much about Jon and Kate?

Why is the show about these two people and their twins and sextuplets so popular? And why are their marital problems getting so much attention?

I feel terribly sad for the entire family. Jon and Kate were a young couple with twins who wanted another child and so had fertility treatments which resulted in sextuplets. They now support their 10-person family by allowing television cameras to follow them everywhere and they have become celebrities, with Kate spending a lot of time on the road promoting her book and giving talks. The younger children, who just celebrated their fifth birthday, have grown up on camera. Their show is popular because people enjoy seeing how they cope with the unimaginable challenge of feeding, bathing, transporting, and listening to eight children under the age of seven. The children are cute and Kate’s unfazed normalcy seemed to be grounded in her Christian values, though many people commented on her harsh on-camera treatment of her husband. She once memorably told him he was breathing too loud.

Before the new season of the show began, there were supermarket tabloid headlines that Jon and Kate were becoming estranged and possibly having affairs. The couple addressed these questions on the season’s first episode, but what was most important was what they did not say. They did not deny the rumors but they did not say that they were committed to staying together.

Here is a clip from happier days, but even there, you can see some stress between them. Look at the body language as Kate leans away from Jon and compare it to the light-hearted home movie footage of their engagement, wedding, and honeymoon. It is impossible not to be touched by the tenderness of their vows and not to hope that they find their way back to one another.

Jon and Kate have experienced enough stress to drive a dozen couples apart. They got married very young, they very quickly produced eight children, and then, and this may be the most stressful of all, they opened up their lives 24-7 to the viewing public. Any parent of very young children knows what it feels like to see your romantic partnership turn into an endless series of logistical demands. It can be very difficult not to feel frustrated and impatient, and parents often feel they are losing a sense of themselves as separate, functioning, and appealing adults. Jon and Kate may find it difficult to resist whatever reminds them that they merit adult approval. That could be a flirtation with another person or with the audience as a whole — Kate appears to enjoy her glamorous makeover and the attention from audiences.

Jon and Kate will have to work out what is best for them and for their family. But we, too, should give some thought to the part we have played as their audience — whether for the show or for the salacious gossip. Were we too ready to believe the best about them? Are we too ready to believe the worst? Think of poor Susan Boyle, that gentle, unassuming soul who just wanted to sing and who has been almost crushed by overwhleming adulation and scrutiny since her appearance on “Britain’s Got Talent.”

We need to understand that it is absurd to think that “reality” shows give us any real sense of what truly goes on It is a fantasy to think that Jon and Kate could handle all of these children as the show made it appear. And it is an even bigger fantasy to think that the show itself does not fundamentally change the dynamic and relationships it depicts. We need to understand that just as Heisenberg proved that sub-atomic particles behave differently when they are observed, so the very fact of our watching people changes their lives, often for the worse. Look at the Jon and Kate who are so tender in reciting their wedding vows. If they knew what they would have to give up in exchange for the money and product placement and notoriety, would this be what they would have wanted for themselves? For Aaden, Joel, Alexis, Hannah, Leah, Collin, Cara, and Madelyn?

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