*½/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B
starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates
screenplay by Justin Haythe, based on the novel by Richard Yates
directed by Sam Mendes
**/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B-
starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
written and directed by John Patrick Shanley
by Walter Chaw Impeccably acted and playing out what seems to be a collective cultural fascination with the pre-Flower Power '60s (not quite Ward and June, not quite Jimi and Janis), Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road and John Patrick Shanley's Doubt help 2008 meet its quota of prestige-y actor's studio pieces. Both are based on well-regarded (renowned, in the case of the first) literary sources, both sport high-octane casts in the pursuit of that delicate balance in adaptations between literal and spiritual faithfulness, and both, ultimately, have considerably less to say than the surrounding hullabaloo would suggest. Revolutionary Road plots another point on the graph of Mendes's steeply-declining returns--he's a stage director whose greatest weakness is his desire for little epiphanies that play like Everest off the boards, and he's guilty of too much intoxication with the medium besides. Mendes spends so much time fiddling around with his camera to a noodling Thomas Newman score that you feel like giving him some privacy.
Nowhere is that propensity more troubling than in a scene of a botched abortion that plays exactly like the death of Tom Hanks in Mendes's Road to Perdition, thus demonstrating his artistic limitations at the same time that it demonstrates his complete incomprehension of the experience of miscarriage for a woman. The general misogyny of American Beauty comes into focus in this way as something troubling outside the text as well as within. (Auteurism: double-edged.) Meanwhile, Doubt finds another theatre man, Shanley, adapting his own Pulitzer-winning play for the big screen without a clear appreciation of the effect that Dutch angles have on a scene, marking it as a pretty well-written acting exercise that has the misfortune of, more often than not, looking as seasick as Battlefield Earth. It's poorly directed enough, in fact, that the comparison that swims to mind is HBO's John Adams mini-series, which likewise boasts of some exceptional performances guided by amateurish-at-best direction that trivializes--and count Mendes guilty of this, too--some wonderful moments provided by actors strapped to unfortunate bedmates by their unfortunate desire for the proverbial big brass ring.Better to ask what it is about the Sixties that, "Mad Men"-like, acts as such an apt analogy for our current state of disarray. Something about a culture at its turning point? Something perhaps about a nation of individuals on the precipice of an essential sea change? Accordingly, Revolutionary Road and Doubt similarly deal with characters on the verge of nervous breakdowns: the married couple of the first contemplating the satisfaction of traditional gender roles in a society in flux, the Catholic clergy of the second struggling with the liberalization of the Church. Each film tantalizes with the possibility of revelation and falters in its third act with a near-identical failure to follow its premise through to a courageous or intelligent resolution. But even in failure it becomes clear in the comparison (and the proximity of their releases) that the old guard is being tested--and overthrown--in this historic election year. Taken with the spate of miscegenation subplots in 2008, this late-year concern with the traumatic, but necessary, surgery to remove ourselves from our malignant past feels prescient in auguring the current of our national tide, if only in hindsight. A pity that of the possible avenues to explore in a really rather extraordinarily sticky year in film, these pictures have taken the path of most obvious resistance and, along with the predictable Holocaust flicks and magical half-retard melodramas, made the decision to use the sepia-glow of their big-budget, major-indie sledgehammer to drum the tattoo of "change is coming." And, in case you didn't get it, here's two hours of ACTING and monologues to make sure you're hip.
In his revered 1961 novel, Richard Yates identifies his married antagonists Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) as seduced by the '50s' "lust for conformity." He's the lowest tier of middle-managers in corporate America and she's a fallen starlet; together they decide to pull up their roots and move to Paris on a whim. A pity that April comes up pregnant--a greater pity that devotion to Yates's brilliant, heartbreaking novel means the articulation over eggs and juice of significant chunks of his interior monologues. Winslet and DiCaprio are of course capable of carrying gravid silences just fine--the frustrating irony of movies that spend their budgets on their casts is that the expenditure is often so great as to preclude trusting those casts to do what they've been asked to do.
Chewing over admittedly rich dialogue about the choice between living authentic lives in relative bohemian poverty and inauthentic ones in suburban comfort, Mendes betrays in his objectivism this inability to truly understand what it is to choose home and children over house and material. Revolutionary Road is an ironic object: Bathed in the glow of its borrowed prestige, it's a Movie with Movie Stars--stars, as it happens, of the top-grossing movie of all-time--that only comes alive when the deeply troubled son (the great Michael Shannon) of Frank and April's real estate agent (another Titanic alum, Kathy Bates) offers a glimpse at what real regret looks like in this setting instead of the mantle-loading kind. Shannon shines because he's amazing, but also because he's not saddled with the burden of being an icon--of having to issue from perfect lips late-film histrionics that absolutely do not ring true in the picture's suffocating surreality. The movie had me at moments, making the many occasions that it loses me all the more painful.
Better--if only by degrees--is Shanley's directorial follow-up to his affectionately sprung Joe Versus the Volcano. Doubt pits heavyweights Meryl Streep, as stentorian Sister Aloysius Beauvier, against Philip Seymour Hoffman, as reformer priest Father Brendan Flynn; it seems that in the early-1960s of the film, Father Flynn has taken an interest in altar boy Donald (Joseph Foster) that young Sister James (Amy Adams) finds, shall we say, uncomfortable. She reports her misgivings to Sister Aloysius and Sister Aloysius, accordingly, begins a sort of "Sleuth"-ian cat-and-mouse with our Father Flynn over whatever it is we think or don't think. Set as it is about forty years before the Church 'fessed-up and started paying restitution for the many young men and women molested by their "celibate" shepherds, the gigantic elephant in the room is that Sister Aloysius, for as monstrous as she is and for as clearly as she's established as the force fighting progressive Flynn's campaign for a kinder, gentler Church, is probably absolutely right in general, if not in particular. Doubt is, shall we say, less a mystery about what happened in the vestibule between Flynn and Donald than it is a debate already won about whether or not the Catholic tradition resulted in the ritual abuse of generations of children. Too strong? The struggle of Doubt appears to be whether it's the intolerance represented by the good Sister (of race (Donald's black), or of homosexuality (Donald's gay)) that breeds serpents of the mind or freedom from intolerance as represented by the good Father. There's no good answer, clearly, but not even much in the way of fruitful discussion is offered up in what amounts to a whodunit in a minor key, ending in Beauvier's tearful confession that in a chaotic world, the only justice is chance. The Dark Knight did it the same with more faith.
This takes nothing away from Streep's best turn in years and Hoffman in one of two arguments (the other being his Caden Cotard of Synecdoche, New York) that the Oscar he won for Capote was an investment in future projects. Adams holds her own and Viola Davis, someone I've been interested in since her small role in Steven Soderbergh's Solaris, hits it out of the park as Donald's mother in the film's most troubling, most ambiguous, most obnoxious scene as she argues against her son's rescue in favour of the greater good his continued (possible) abuse might offer against the stark cruelties of the ugly world outside. Here, in Doubt, is the one opportunity for the broad discussion it desires about race, and religion, and progress versus stasis, and while it's unfair to say that it's wasted, safe to say that it's not deeply examined. Compare the conversations Flynn has with Sister Aloysius to the twenty-minute pas de deux in no-not-that Steve McQueen's astonishing Hunger for a better illustration of the difference between great acting and getting punched in the gut.
Moral relativism is a philosophical dead end, almost as much as Revolutionary Road's Ayn Rand-ian objectivism; you outgrow these arguments--you only hope that the entertainments intended to illuminate as you get more curious and, consequently, more tired, have the decency to mature at the same pace. The fact that the conversations these films are destined to inspire will inevitably be limited to the strength of their performances says a great deal about their relative importance when all's said and done. The fact that the issues that Revolutionary Road and Doubt raise should, when done properly, leave you speechless and shaken instead of basking in the righteous glow of understanding a banality writ irreducible and large says everything there needs to be said about the progress of the mainstream, end-of-year curriculum. Originally published: January 2, 2009.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - REVOLUTIONARY ROAD
by Bill Chambers It wasn't until 100 minutes into director Sam Mendes's "common tree" with screenwriter Justin Haythe that I figured out why Haythe's voice was driving me batshit: he sounds exactly like Canadian journeyman Don McKellar. "Fortunately" Mendes dominates the conversation, a feature-length apologia for Revolutionary Road's severe abridgement of its source novel that bleeds into optional commentary over a 25-minute sampler of fifteen deleted scenes. (A little rough around the edges, they're at least presented in 1080i.) Suffice it to say, the pair failed to convince me that any one edit was made for the better, though the elisions exonerate Haythe by proving that his original script wasn't the constant race to the next histrionic set-piece the movie is. Mendes self-aggrandizes with a story he tells about Alan Ball trying to stab him after screening American Beauty for the first time because Mendes had left a significant amount of footage on the cutting-room floor--and look how that turned out: Oscars galore! But, of course, Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road is a polished gem, not a diamond in the rough. While Mendes says he feared being too "reverential," there's really no point in adapting this book except to faithfully illustrate it. Any kind of truncation is just empty hubris or, giving Mendes the benefit of the doubt, pandering to those impatient masses who weren't gonna show up anyway (for starters, if the draw is the reunion of Kate & Leo, then I can't think of anything more repellent to a Titanic fan than the thought of their idealized couple quarrelling for two hours), so why not give the faithful what they came for? Restoring a few of these cut-scenes would put much-needed flesh back on this skeletal film, though it's worth noting that many of them still suffer from Haythe's insecure shoehorning of subtext into the dialogue, as in a moment where Frank tells a story to guests Shep and Millie they've obviously heard before, only to have April come right out and confirm it.
In "Lives of Quiet Desperation: The Making of Revolutionary Road " (30 mins., 1080i), the first of two featurettes on the Blu-ray Disc, we learn that Winslet, an English major at Dartmouth in a previous life, was the primary instigator of the project, having fallen in love with the novel while pregnant with her second child. I certainly can't fault Winslet's taste nor her instincts to pursue Mendes and DiCaprio (both of whom were harder to wrangle than one might assume considering the former's her husband and the latter's her best friend), but I do hope the next time she gets knocked up she reaches for Dean Koontz instead. Kristi Zea's production design becomes the major focus of the piece--even the adorable Zoë Kazan is enlisted to talk about it rather than about her character--and I must say this microscopic view of it reveals that Mendes's austere tableaux simply didn't do it justice.
The other featurette, "Richard Yates: The Wages of Truth" (26 mins., 1080i), is a compelling overview of the troubled writer's life and career courtesy Yates's daughters (who appear to range in age from 30 to 60), various friends in the publishing business, and biographer Blake Bailey. Almost all profess an intense admiration for Yates' work whilst admitting to feeling vaguely victimized by the man himself, which goes some way towards explaining why Yates's alcoholism and bipolar disorder are not only not whitewashed but may in fact be dwelled upon entirely too much. Revolutionary Road's excellent trailer (1080p) rounds out the special features, while the movie proper caps the disc in an unimpeachable 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. I found the film's colour temperature a little sickly, but I learned from the yakker that I'm supposed to, and the fine-grain image is so perfect otherwise, so natural yet so incredibly three-dimensional, that I soon adjusted to the palette anyway. The accompanying 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio delivers Thomas Newman's score in a warm and inviting timbre and keeps the shrillness of all that screaming to a minimum. Originally published: June 1, 2009.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - DOUBT
by Bill Chambers To my surprise, Doubt makes for a demo-worthy Blu-ray. The 1.85:1, 1080p presentation is breathtakingly supple, articulating the black-on-black fabrics without crushing any detail. For a test of this transfer's mettle, check out chapter 10, "Intolerance": Light sources fixed (lamps) and in flux (the cloud-covered sun) interact on the sea green walls of Sister Aloysius's office, never to band or to produce anything less than the million subtly different shades you'd see in real life--and these colours have a vividness that is achieved without sacrificing Meryl Streep's Grim Reaper-like complexion. There's a buff to the image that may point to DVNR, but I'm exercising the benefit of the...you know, since textures don't appear to be particularly compromised; Roger Deakins probably knows all kinds of tricks for photochemically minimizing grain, which has never been a signature aspect of his work besides.
If the attendant 5.1 DTS-HD Master Lossless Audio, of which I sampled the 1.5 mbps core, is similarly above reproach (dialogue sounds especially robust), the mix itself is a source of disappointment in that the frequent temper tantrums Mother Nature throws over the course of the film leave the rear channels curiously malnourished. On another track, find a feature-length commentary from writer-director John Patrick Shanley that, because Doubt the movie was marinated in nostalgia in a way that Doubt the play was not, occasionally reminds of those gushy Daniel Stern voiceovers from "The Wonder Years". (The picture was shot in the neighbourhood where Shanley grew up and peopled with faces from his youth.) Still, good things come to those who wait, including a defense for the controversial Dutch angles (which the studio discouraged) as a reaction to shakycam and other "artificial" ways of maintaining visual interest during potentially boring dialogue scenes.
Video-based extras begin with "From Stage to Screen" (19 mins., HD), in which we meet the inspiration for Amy Adams's Sister James, Shanley's first-grade teacher Sister "James" Margaret McEntee, who wound up serving as a technical consultant on the film. (And whose eyes uncannily suggest those of an older Adams.) This is a pretty by-the-numbers featurette, however, with Shanley giving a bullet-point summary of his yakker and eventually donning an interviewer's cap to ask Streep questions so stock and inane ("What's it like to work with [X]?") that I have to assume it's a form of satire. (To her credit, Streep provides sharp and insightful answers instead of seizing this opportunity to slack off.) EW's Dave Karger sits down with "The Cast of Doubt" (14 mins., HD), i.e., Streep, Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman (who could've put on a clean shirt), and Viola Davis, and while he's not a half-bad host, nothing memorable is said outside of Streep's potshots at critics; it feels like a dress rehearsal for one of those promotional appearances that entire ensembles make on "Oprah".
"Scoring Doubt" (5 mins.) sparks a measure of interest in the scoring process through interviews with a confounded-looking Howard Shore, who says he struggled to write music that was "neutral," favouring neither of the drama's binary points of view. Finally, "Sisters of Charity" (6 mins.) was culled from two hours' worth of recorded testimony from nuns affiliated with the titular society, the real Sister James among them. We learn that Shanley basically applied the Sisters of Charity founder's backstory to Aloysius, but mostly the sisters reminisce about the shockwaves that the formation of the Second Vatican Council sent through their little microcosm in 1962. The trailer for The Proposal plus promos trumpeting Buena Vista's Blu-ray line and the Miramax legacy cue up on startup and are separately archived under a Sneak Peeks sub-menu. Originally published: March 30, 2009.