in suburbia: (l-r) DiCaprio and Winslet in Revolutionary
by Sam Mendes
director Sam Mendes has said in interviews that he wanted
to film Revolutionary Road because he loved the novel.
Author Richard Yates, acclaimed for his depictions of the
postwar “age of anxiety,” is also known for his books going
out of print. And in this post-9/11 era of global terrorism,
Yates’ scathing depictions of the American Dream—Revolutionary
Road is the name of leafy street in 1950s suburbia—seem more
irrelevant than ever. And so Mendes’ prestige production,
starring Kate Winslet (his wife), Leonardo DiCaprio, and the
work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, is a shellacked, out-of-sync
diatribe about a time (or at least an economic climate) that
seems unhampered and optimistic in retrospect.
Less so for women, of course. Revolutionary Road isn’t
especially feminist, though; in fact, its sympathy for Frank
Wheeler (DiCaprio) is the script’s least predictable discourse.
The film opens with, and sustains, a note of stiff politeness.
Frank is watching his wife, April (Winslet), perform in a
play. The play, something about soldiers, isn’t very good,
and April is worse, as members of the audience point out audibly.
During the drive home, the couple’s tension escalates into
a vicious argument: Frank tells April she’s sick, April tells
Frank he’s disgusting, she walks away, he pounds the hood
of the car, and neither of them is able to acknowledge that
April’s dream of being an actress has fizzled into humiliation.
In flashback, April’s flashback, we see the couple meeting
for the first time, and April is so taken with Frank’s description
of his sojourn in Paris during the war that it colors her
view of him through the early years of their marriage. Stifled
by the routine of being a housewife, she proposes that they
move to Paris, so Frank can quit his humdrum job with a business
machine company and discover what it is that he really wants
to do, while she supports him and their two children working
as a secretary for the U.N. or some other important, high-paying
organization. Frank sheepishly admits that he doesn’t have
an artistic talent to discover, but caught up in her enthusiasm,
and stung by criticism at work, he agrees. Frank takes more
delight in flummoxing his coworkers and neighbors with this
bohemian plan (not that the Wheelers, or any of their acquaintances,
knows what bohemian is) than he does with the particulars
of the move.
When April and Frank both receive (what might have been) happy
news, the plan shifts from impractical to nigh impossible,
and their undercurrent of marital passion turns destructive.
The gender reversal is that it’s April who goes stone-faced
and silent while Frank needs to talk things over. A mentally
ill dinner guest (Michael Shannon), the son of their cheery
real estate agent (Kathy Bates in a thankless role), inflames
their problems with his button-pushing belligerence. Only
Shannon’s powerhouse performance overcomes the inherent clichés
of this social-misfit-savant.
Road doesn’t have the satire, sly affection, or narrative
moxie of American Beauty (for which Mendes, who came
from the theater, received an Oscar). It does have an evocative,
rather than nostalgic, authenticity, and its polished realism
affords more pleasure than the characters do. The Wheelers,
April especially, might’ve been intolerable if played by actors
without the considerable talent of Winslet and DiCaprio (Kate
and Leo together again! barely registers because the characters
are so different from their iconic pairing in Titanic).
Winslet has won a Golden Globe, and DiCaprio is just as deserving,
if not more so.
However, the film’s slight but noticeable thread of contrivance
dissolves into melodrama, and the film ends with a cheap shot
at the expense of Bates’ character. Frank’s Dictaphone, April’s
sheath dresses, and all of the film’s wonderful 1950s touchstones
by Edward Zwick
After the onslaught of Oscar-bait movies around the holidays,
one usually expects a return to cinematic crumbs in January,
but the gods—of the studios, that is—have favored us with
at least one more stellar production. Defiance, directed
by Edward Zwick, is at once a solid retelling of a little-known
chapter in history, a tense study in survival, and a compelling
tale of brotherly conflict and solidarity. It is a good-old-fashioned
movie in its straightforwardness, but that is not to imply
stodginess or retro charm. Rather, it is the kind of well-made,
well-written story that packs a powerful punch—and used to
be the bread and butter of Hollywood.
Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai) is the perfect
director for this material, which was adapted for screen by
Clayton Frohman from a book by Nechama Tec. After the murder
of their parents by Nazi collaborators, the four Bielski brothers,
headed by Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber), head
for the forested mountains of their native Belarus. Determined
to survive, they are initially confounded by ever-increasing
numbers of other refugee Jews seeking shelter and protection.
The revenge-minded Zus wants nothing to do with these largely
helpless stragglers, whereas Tuvia, no less brutal when necessary
than Zus, decides that the best defiance against the Nazis
is simple survival. Thereupon, he makes the remarkable decision
to accept and protect any Jew, regardless of his or her handiness
with weapons. Over time, hundreds of Jews survive because
of the Bielskis.
What’s interesting, and what Zwick shows in brilliantly edited
scenes, is how that survival developed. Tuvia gives men and
women equal opportunity to learn to shoot. The intellectuals,
not so handy with a gun or a hammer, nevertheless provide
valuable support in building a sense of community among the
refugees. As David Denby, writing in The New Yorker,
observed, the rules of sexual engagement are turned on their
head, as university-educated young ladies find heretofore
unappreciated skills such as killing and food gathering, well,
sexy (not to mention downright essential to the future of
the race). There’s a great scene, both humorous and touching,
in which a woman delicately offers herself to Zus’ protection.
Beyond the grim aspects of life in a snow-swept and timbered
landscape, Defiance focuses on the relationships among
the brothers, especially between Tuvia and Zus. Sure, it’s
kind of old- fashioned, but the push-pull of love, devotion,
jealousy and resentment between siblings still exists. Zus
resents Tuvia’s leadership role among the Jews, and he sneers
at his brother’s unwillingness to engage the enemy as often
as possible. He questions Tuvia’s decision, rooted in sheer
survival instinct, to partner with the Russian army, although
Zus himself eventually fights alongside them for a time.
I’ve always thought of Schreiber as more of a cerebral actor,
but here his brute physicality is thoroughly convincing, even
menacing. And yet, there’s a soulfulness deep within. Craig
has the much harder role, because he has to convey a leader
of determination and grit without coming off as, well, Biblical.
What helps is that we are allowed to see his character’s doubt
and insecurity—even his out-and-out fear. Tuvia is a great
leader, in part because he isn’t perfect and Teflon; another
incredible scene occurs when a deathly sick Tuvia is forced
to stay behind as Zus leads a band on a dangerous mission
to steal medicine from the Germans. The sheer terror of not
knowing what’s happening in the enemy camp is as unnerving
as being forcibly sidelined, of not being able to lead as
is expected. The dilemma of taking action versus waiting for
redemption is felt throughout Defiance, but perhaps
never more so than at this moment.
by George Tillman Jr.
In hindsight, the East Coast-West Coast rap “war” of the 1990s
was pretty dumb, just a huge digression from the point of
rap music. An art form that until this point had been about
rising above and telling the stories of the streets was, thanks
in large part to the Bad Boy-Death Row feud, folded back on
itself and turned into nothing more than an extension of the
street lifestyle. Rappers were suddenly no different than
the hustlers on the streets they rhymed about; beefs that
could have been settled with words were settled with guns.
Seems kind of childish in a really horrific, adult way.
Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” “Biggie Smalls” Wallace never
had the opportunity for such perspective. Gunned down at the
age of 24 as retribution for, many believe, the murder months
earlier of his former friend, rapper Tupac Shakur, Wallace
was the most prominent casualty of a feud that had escalated
well beyond the bounds of reason.
But Notorious, the Biggie biopic directed by George
Tillman Jr., would have you believe that Biggie had some kind
of revelation in his last days, that he had seen the error
of his ways and was ready to transcend his past and be a responsible
adult. The film does this by allowing Wallace to narrate from
the great beyond—the ultimate hindsight. It’s a cheap stunt,
an attempt by the filmmakers to make audiences sympathize
with a character who’s been nothing but a selfish brat his
Opening with the night of his death, the film quickly flashes
back to the rapper as a young man (played by Wallace’s son
with Faith Evans, Christopher Jordan Wallace) growing up in
“do-or-die Bed-Stuy,” where he’s being raised by his mother
(Voletta Wallace, played in a clenched performance by Angela
Bassett). From there, we see his transition from straight-A
student and reluctant mama’s boy to teenage crack hustler,
to inmate, absentee dad, and eventually to the hip-hop superstar
he would become.
Unfortunately, Notorious is full of more catchphrases
and clichés than a Puff Daddy record. The grown Wallace, played
by Jamal “Gravy” Woolard, is a walking contradiction, at least
in the universe of this film. We see the rapper lovingly attending
to his sick mother, then treating all the other women in his
life (not to mention the children he fathered with them) like
garbage. But the neat-and-tidy closing minutes show Biggie
spending his last days with his kids, being respectful to
their mothers (Faith, played by Antonique Smith, and Jan,
by Julia Pace Mitchell) and making up with his on-again-off-again
lover, Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton).
The script misses a lot of opportunities to put things in
real perspective: At no point does Biggie reflect on his missed
potential as a student, nor his philandering past. There’s
no introspection until those possibly fabricated last days.
And the peripheral characters are uniformly one-dimensional.
Lil’ Kim is nothing more than a hanger-on; Tupac (Anthony
Wallace) is an easily led party boy. The one character who
comes out spotless—Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke)—just so
happens to be the film’s executive producer. Fancy that. Regardless
of your feelings about Biggie as a rapper (and he was, undeniably,
very talented), Notorious will do little to improve
anyone’s feelings about him as a human being.