Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Wasted Postage - Reports from the Netflix Theater

Revolutionary Road (2008)
In the last episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Jason Alexander is ribbed by Seinfeld for promoting a book entitled "Acting without Acting," Alexander's attempt at a how-to guide for inspiring thespians. The book's goal is obvious: acting is accomplished through techniques and effort that are, when executed correctly, seamless and invisible to the audience. That trick, I imagine, only becomes more difficult when actors such as the stars in Revolutionary Road, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, are the types that pick prestige films to showcase their chops. It's nearly an invitation for an audience to take themselves out of the picture and think about how these two megastars are, in fact, acting like a disturbed married couple in '50s suburbia — trapped by the shell of conformity, expectations and what's "realistic." Leo inhabits his character fairly convincingly. For a while you forget he's a millionaire actor living in L.A., and think he really is an unhappy salesman who tries to validate his masculinity by sleeping with naive secretaries. Winslet is less successful but on occasion terrifying, though her performance may have been more hampered by Sam Mendez's direction, who, in an effort to depict Winslet's acceptance of desperation, unrealistically forces her to quickly resume smiling-housewife mode immediately following soul shattering arguments. It's all fire, and then all ice.

Throughout several one-on-one, back-and-forth exchanged, Winslet and DiCaprio have a sort of actors duel — who can out-scream, out-emote, out-intensify the other. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But when it does, it knocks you on your ass. Every American can relate to the Richard Yates source material. The feeling that we do things only because we're expected to, and that we don't have the guts to break free of convention. Or even worse, that we are not special, and that we don't deserve to lead any sort of extraordinary life. DiCaprio and Winslet decide near the beginning of the film that they are, indeed, special. She convinces Leo to move to Paris, but before long, life gets in the way, and the couple unravels as they try to ignore their hopes and dreams and settle for predictability and mediocrity, with devastating conclusions.

Despite DiCaprio and Winslet's top billing, the real powerhouse performance is contributed by Michael Shannon's depiction of a mentally ill friend who initially finds the couple's desire to break free charming, before letting loose with a devastatingly honest analysis at a dinner party when he sees the once-promising couple dissolve into domestic hell. B+

Human Nature (2001) I saw this too many weeks ago to provide commentary respectful to the film's genius, so I'll provide a little background. Human Nature is sort of the bastard film of the best screenwriter of his generation, Charlie Kaufman, and charmingly whimsical director Michel Gondry. It was Kaufman's first film since the beloved Being John Malcovich (dircted by Spike Jonze), and the film just before Kaufman and Gondry's triumphant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. So here sits Human Nature in the middle. Critics and audiences alike didn't know what to make of this absurdest comedy featuring a scientist who's obsessed with table manners (Tim Robbins), a woman with a bizarre genetic condition that causes her to grow hair everywhere (everywhere) who just wants to live like an animal in peace with nature, and a man raised in the wild to believe he's a monkey who Tim Robbins takes to civilize as an experiment. I'll leave it at that, only to add that there is a bizarre love triangle, awesome comedic performances, a midget, and the thought provoking mind-fucks only Kaufman can provide. A

The Rocker (2008)
Rainn Wilson's drum-solo facial expressions and gut-protruding leotards are enough to warrant "The Rocker" a watch. You know what would have helped? A band that actually rocked, and not the Ryan Cabrera-light schlock preformed throughout the 102 minute run time. C+

Star Trek (2009)
Easily the best big-budget action bonanza since The Dark Knight, Star Trek managed to entertain this non-trekkie for the full two-hour run time. It manages to avoid the inane plotting, offensively stupid dialogue and cliche motivations that drags Transformers and most every other summer event film into the doldrums of aneurysm-causing idiocy, proving that a film full of explosions, chases and fight scenes doesn't have to inspire suicide. Thank you for not treating me like a child.
If Star Trek has a flaw, it is one inherent in any prequel, reboot or origin story: no matter how nefarious a villain is, they're still not able to instill any sense of doubt or worry that things might not go well for Spock or Captain Kirk, lead characters created to reboot a franchise and star in future installments. That being said, Nemo (Eric Bana) doesn't really come close besting that impossible task, though he does have face tats that would make any Tool Academy student jealous. B+

Miami Blues (1990)
Miami Blues was largely forgotten upon release — lukewarm reviews from critics, ignored by audiences — that has somehow gained a bit of the cult following, a status cemented (not really) by it write up in the AVClub's "Cult Canon" series. It's a noir that doesn't dwell in the shadows, instead displaying the blood and deceit squarely in the Florida sun. Like Body Heat, the '80s neo-noir remake of Double Indemnity, the hot, muggy setting is a character in itself. Staying in the noir tradition, it stars a suitable anti-hero as the protagonist, a man you wouldn't want to meet on the street but don't mind watching on screen. Alec Baldwin plays "Jr." an ex-con who first appears on screen catching a flight away from jail and towards Miami where he plans to break enough fingers and wring enough necks to carve out his own perverted version of the American dream. The guy even entertains white-picket fence fantasies with his new found hooker girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh)

Baldwin's crime spree through Miami feels like the do-whatever-you-want sandbox gameplay of the "Grand Theft Auto" video game series, in that he generally does whatever the fuck he wants. Using a police badge stolen from a toothless (literally, not figuratively) detective on his tail (played by the always craggy Fred Ward) Baldwin steals, loots, handcuffs and generally makes a bitch out of Vice City. Miami Blues' strength lies in those traits criticized when it was released — that the plot mechanics relied on happenstance and brash decision making by characters instead of logical actions and consequence, and that events transpired with no particular rhyme or reason. Instead, Baldwin's manic performance and the seaming lack of real world concern give the film an unpredictable fever-dream like energy, bustling from one darkly-humorous catastrophe to another, rarely stopping to view the damage until it's too late. B


The Juice Box said...

I think you and I had the same thoughts on Revolutionary Road. Definitely loved the dinner scene with the brother (I think it was one of their brothers? Or their realtor's brother).

I also recently saw the Rocker and was reminded of a more "hardcore" Josie and the Pussycats. But not by much. That Rainn Wilson is a good guy, though.

Face tats > Tool Academy. Ha.

Warped Coasters said...

Do you think Revolutionary Road aspired to make any pro-life or pro-choice statement? I can't tell for certain, but it was definitely a good movie. I

The awesome dinner guest was the realtor's son.

The Juice Box said...

Oh, OK. That's right.

Maybe it was trying to go one way or the other. But I think mostly what it was trying to say was, "don't boink your husband on the kitchen counter without protection if you're not comfortable with the state of your marriage."

And, ya know, don't do home abortions.