A Movie A Day #318: The War At Home (1996, directed by Emilio Estevez)


The year is 1972 and it is Thanksgiving week in small town America.  The Colliers are getting ready for the holidays.  Maurine (Kathy Bates) is intent on preparing the perfect Thanksgiving meal.  Bob (Martin Sheen) is keeping an eye on his car dealership and wondering why kids today are not as respectful as they once were.  The two Collier children are coming home from school.  The youngest, Karen (Kimberly Williams), is hoping she can keep the peace because she knows that her older brother, Jeremy (Emilio Estevez), has returned from Vietnam a changed man.  Suffering from severe PTSD, Jeremy is haunted by flashbacks and angry at everything, especially his father.  The only reason he even attended college was so he could be near his girlfriend (Carla Gugino) and even she has told him that she no longer feels comfortable around him.  When Jeremy returns home, his family first tries to ignore the problems that he’s having adjusting to civilian life but Jeremy is determined not to be ignored.

Emilio Estevez famously agreed to appear, for free, in the third Mighty Ducks films in return for Disney agreeing to produce and distribute The War At Home.  Unfortunately, this heartfelt movie has never gotten the attention that it deserves.  While Estevez’s direction is never subtle and the script , which was based on a play, is often heavy-handed, The War At Home is redeemed by the powerful performances of Estevez, Bates, Sheen, and Williams.  Bates is especially good as the perfect homemaker who is revealed to be smarter than anyone realized.  The War At Home is a good but overlooked film that is still relevant today.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #115: Revolutionary Road (dir by Sam Mendes)


Revolutionary_roadI have such mixed feelings about the 2008 film Revolutionary Road.

As you may remember, Revolutionary Road got a lot of attention because it reunited the Titanic lovers, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.  In Revolutionary Road, they would be playing the type of married couple that we all know Jack and Rose would have become if the boat hadn’t hit that iceberg.

Revolutionary Road also got a lot of attention because it was directed by Sam Mendes and it was a return to the “suburbs-as-Hell” genre of filmmaking that won Mendes an undeserved Oscar for his work on American Beauty.

And finally, Revolutionary Road was based on a 1961 novel by Richard Yates that had originally been declared to be unfilmmable.  After decades of being optioned and then abandoned, Revolutionary Road was finally coming to the screen.

With all that in mind, a lot of critics expected that Revolutionary Road would be one of the best films of the year.  When the film itself was finally released, there were a few ecstatic reviews.  There were predictions of Oscar glory.  But, for the most part, both audiences and critics had a somewhat muted reaction.  The film itself simply did not live up to all of the build up.

That said, Kate Winslet gave a great performance.  In the role of aspiring actress-turned-housewife-turned-prisoner April, Winslet gives a fierce and tragic performance.  The film revolves around April’s struggle to live her own life and pursue her own ambitions in a world that continually tells her that she should simply be happy and content to have a husband, two children, and a house in the suburbs.  When April describes her life as being full of “hopeless emptiness,” we all know exactly what she’s talking about.

Leonardo DiCaprio was a bit less convincing as her husband, Frank.  Then again, that’s not really a surprise.  DiCaprio is always at his worse whenever he has to play a “normal” character.  His screen presence is too off-center for him to be believable as a suburban conformist.  It was obviously good publicity to reunite DiCaprio and Winslet but that doesn’t change the fact that Leo is totally miscast.  Whenever Frank and April fight, Kate Winslet seems to be screaming from her very soul while DiCaprio is just shrill.  Admittedly, Frank is meant to be a shallow character but that doesn’t justify a shallow performance.

Throughout the film, Frank and April are constantly nagged by their real estate agent, Helen Givings (Kathy Bates).  Whenever Helen drops by the house, she goes “Yoo hoo!” in the shrillest way possible and the audiences is reminded that Sam Mendes is not a particularly subtle director.  That willingness to go over-the-top made him the perfect director for Skyfall but, in both American Beauty and this film, it just leads to some talented actors giving very bad performances.

Helen’s son, John (Michael Shannon), has one of those cinematic mental illnesses, the type that gives him the power to explicitly state each scene’s subtext.  John is also one of those overly theatrical characters who works a lot better as a literary conceit than as an actual character.

And really, I guess that sums up why I have never liked Revolutionary Road as much as I wanted to.  The film works whenever it focuses on Kate Winslet, precisely because she gives such a heartfelt and naturalistic performance.  However, at the same time, Winslet is so good that she exposes how artificial and theatrical the rest of the film is.  If only the rest of the production had followed Winslet’s lead, Revolutionary Road could have been something great.

For all the pre-release Oscar hype, Revolutionary Road was largely ignored when it came to the Academy Awards.  Michael Shannon received a surprise nomination for best supporting actor but otherwise, the film was snubbed.  Kate Winslet, however, did finally win an Oscar that year when she picked up the Best Actress award for her performance in The Reader.

Shattered Politics #63: Primary Colors (dir by Mike Nichols)


Primaryposter

Jack Stanton (John Travolta) is the charismatic governor of an unnamed Southern state.  After spending his entire life in politics, Jack is finally ready to run for President.  Even more ready is his equally ambitious wife, Susan (Emma Thompson).  Jack proves himself to be a strong candidate, a good speaker who understands the voters and who has the ability to project empathy for almost anyone’s situation. He’s managed to recruit a talented and dedicated campaign staff, including the flamboyant Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton), Daisy Green (Maura Tierney), and journalist Henry Burton (Adrian Lester).  Henry is the son of a civil rights leader and, as soon as they meet, Jack talks about the first time that he ever heard Henry’s father speak.  Within minutes of first meeting him, Henry believes in Jack.

The problem, however, is that there are constant hints that Jack may not be worthy of his admiration.  There’s the fact that he’s a compulsive womanizer who is given to displays of temper and immaturity.  When one of Jack’s old friends reveals that Jack may have impregnated his daughter, Jack and Susan respond with a pragmatic ruthlessness that takes Henry by surprise.

When one of Jack’s mistresses threatens to go public, Henry is partnered up with Libby (Kathy Bates) and sent to dig up dirt on her and her sponsors.  When the former governor of Florida, Freddie Picker (Larry Hagman), emerges as a threat to derail Jack’s quest for the nomination, Henry and Libby are again assigned to research Picker’s background.  Libby is perhaps the film’s most interesting character.  Recovering from a mental breakdown, Libby has no trouble threatening to shoot one political opponent but she’s still vulnerable and idealistic enough that it truly hurts her when Jack and Susan repeatedly fail to live up to her ideals.  As an out lesbian, Libby is perhaps the only character who has no trouble revealing her true self and, because of her honesty, she is the one who suffers the most.

First released in 1998 and based on a novel by Joe Klein, Primary Colors is an entertaining and ultimately rather bittersweet dramedy about the American way of politics.  John Travolta and Emma Thompson may be playing Jack and Susan Stanton but it’s obvious from the start that they’re meant to be Bill and Hillary Clinton.  And while it takes a few minutes to get used to Travolta’s attempt to sound Southern, this is ultimately one of his best performances.  As played by Travolta, Jack Stanton is charming, compassionate, self-centered, and ultimately, incredibly frustrating.  One reason why Primary Colors works is because we, as an audience, come to believe in Jack just as much as Henry does and then we come to be just as disillusioned as Libby.  Emma Thompson’s performance is a little less obviously based on Hillary.  Unlike Travolta, she doesn’t attempt to imitate Hillary’s voice or mannerisms.  But she perfectly captures the steely determination.

Primary Colors captures both the thrill of believing and the inevitability of disillusionment.  It’s definitely a film that I will rewatch in the days leading up to 2016.

Embracing the Melodrama #38: High Stakes (dir by Amos Kollek)


High Stakes

Yesterday, I said that Dance or Die was the most obscure film that I would be reviewing for this series of melodramatic film reviews.  Well, I may have spoken too soon.  Originally, I was not planning on reviewing the 1989 film High Stakes for this series.  Until a few nights ago, I had never even heard of it.  However, I watched it late last night and I realized immediately that I had to include it in this series.

High Stakes is one of those odd, older films that occasionally pops up as filler on Encore, playing in between showings of movies that people have actually heard of.  When I first came across this film listed in the guide, it was mentioned that High Stakes was Sarah Michelle Gellar’s film debut.  However, before all of my fellow Buffy fans get all excited, they should be aware that Sarah was only 12 years old when she appeared in High Stakes and she spends most of her screen time going, “Mommy!”  If not for her name in the credits, you would never suspect that the little girl playing Sally Kirkland’s daughter would later grow up to play one of the most iconic characters in film history.

Sarah plays the daughter of Bambi (Sally Kirkland), an aging New York-based prostitute and stripper who works for the demonic pimp Slim (Richard Lynch).  Bambi hates her life but she does what she has to do to support her daughter.  One night, Bambi finds a man passed out in the garbage across the street from her apartment.  That man is John Stratton (Richard LuPone), a crooked stock broker who has recently grown disillusioned with his greed-fueled life.  John is laying in the garbage because he’s just been mugged.  Despite her natural instincts, Bambi takes sympathy on John and allows him to come up to her apartment.  John and Bambi start to talk about their respective lives, just to have the conversation interrupted by one of Slim’s henchmen showing up at the apartment and demanding money.  John and the henchmen get into a physical altercation and soon, he and Bambi find themselves on the run with $4,000 of Slim’s money.

As directed by Amos Kollek, High Stakes is essentially two different stories.  One of which is rather conventional thriller, in which John and Bambi have to escape from Slim.  The thriller elements are rather predictable, distinguished only by Richard Lynch’s notably unhinged performance.  The other part of the film is the opposites-attract love story between John and Bambi and these scenes work a lot better.  LuPone and Kirkland have a lot of a chemistry and some of the best moments in the film are the ones where the characters simply talk about their different lives.  Kirkland, in particular, does a good job and she manages to bring some unexpected shadings to a stock role.  She’s especially good in her scenes with Sarah Michelle Gellar, radiating a very natural maternal instinct.  By the end of the film, you truly like Bambi and root for her.  Despite all of my natural expectations, High Stakes turned out to be a rather sweet and touching film.

High Stakes may be an obscure film but it’s definitely one to keep an eye out for the next time it shows up on Encore.

Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sally Kirkland in High Stakes

Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sally Kirkland in High Stakes

That concludes the 80s.  Tomorrow, we’ll start in on the 90s.

Horror Scenes I Love: Misery


Our next horror-themed “Scenes I Love” entry comes courtesy of Rob Reiner’s film adaptation of the Stephen King novel to celebrity stalkers everywhere.

Misery was one of those novels that was actually much better when adapted to the film screen. Maybe it was the performances of the small cast with Kathy Bates’ star-turning role as Annie Wilkes who happens to be Paul Sheldon’s (James Caan) Number 1 fan. I’m not a huge Rob Reiner fan, but he hits on all cylinders with this adaptation and the scene which cements this film as one of my favorite horror films is the one many have simply called “The Hobbling”.

The scene itself was actually much more graphic in the novel since Annie uses an axe instead of the sledgehammer in the film. Yet, the lack of blood and chopped flesh and bone didn’t keep the scene from being wince-inducing. In fact, the use of the sledgehammer and the wooden block and the slow build-up to the money shot made the entire sequence almost hard to stomach and bear. I think I’m not the only one who ended up having phantom pains as soon the Annie went to town on Paul’s legs.

Film Review: Midnight in Paris (dir. by Woody Allen)


Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, has an appealing premise behind it. 

Gil (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter who has come to Paris with his shallow fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her stuffy Republican parents (played by Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy).  Disillusioned with American culture, Gil idealizes the Paris of the 1920s, the Paris that was home to Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce.  However, Inez and her parents are far less impressed with Paris and, as quickly become clear, with Gil himself.  While Inez spends her time with self-important “intellectual” Paul (a bearded Michael Sheen), Gil takes to wandering the streets of Paris at night.

One night, as Gil wanders around Paris, a vintage car approaches out of the shadows and the two well-dressed passengers in the back seat invite Gil to join them.  Gil does so and discovers that he’s been transported back to 1920s Paris.  He meets everyone from Hemingway (Corey Stoll) to Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill).  At the end of the night, Gil finds himself transported back to modern-day Paris.  Soon, Gil finds himself sneaking out at midnight every night so he can escape to the past, where he eventually meets and starts to romance an idealistic model named Adrianna (Marion Cotillard).  While Gil finds himself torn between his modern life and the past that he loves, he also begins to discover that the inhabitants of the 20s feel the same way about their present as he does about his.

The premise of the film itself is likable and one that I think anyone can relate to.  Who doesn’t wish that they could go back in the past and live with all the amazing people who they’ve only read about?  Myself, there are many eras that I often fantasize about finding myself in.  1920s Paris is definitely one of them but I’ve also occasionally dreamed of being in 1950s New York, having a threesome with Kerouac and Cassady or maybe being in Paris during the early days of the French new wave, appearing in movies directed by Rollin, Truffaut and Godard.  Ever since I read Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, there’s been a part of me that wishes so much I could have been out in Hollywood or New York in the 1970s, hanging out on the beach with directors like Martin Scorsese, William Freidkin, Jon Milius, and even Peter Bogdonavich.  (But especially Freidkin, his terrible charisma just radiates from the page.) 

Still, Allen is smart enough as a screenwriter to know that everyone tends to idealizes the past, even those who we now idealize in the present.  Perhaps my favorite part of the film came when Wilson, while in the 1920s, sees a character getting into a horse-drawn carriage so that she can go back to the time that she idealizes as fiercely as he idealizes the 20s.

Midnight in Paris has a lot to recommend it.  Cotillard, despite the fact that she’s played the same idealized French mystery woman about a thousand times, gives a likeable performance and Rachel McAdams is hilariously shallow.  Michael Sheen, as well, makes a perfect stand-in for every pompous, self-important jerk who has ever talked down to you.  On the basis of his cameo appearance here as Dali, Adrien Brody really needs to consider doing more comedy.  He’s a lot more appealing when he’s being funny than when he’s trying to be a leading man.

At the same time, I have to admit that I wanted to like Midnight in Paris more than I actually did.  I like Owen Wilson as both an actor and a writer but he’s a little bit miscast here and the end result is that he occasionally seems like he’s trying too hard.  You just never buy him and McAdams as a couple and, as such, there’s really not much at stake as far as his romance with Cotillard is concerned. 

As well, I found it hard not to be a little bit disappointed with the way Allen presented 1920s Paris.  Though they were all well-cast and acted, Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and all the rest just fell flat as actual characters.  Gil gets a chance to go into the past and essentially, he discovers that Hemingway was macho, the Fitzgeralds were neurotic and self-destructive, and that Dali didn’t make much sense.  Personally, I would be a bit let down if I got a chance to meet these icons and I discovered that essentially they just acted the exact same way that they acted in various PBS educational programs.

Despite this, Midnight in Paris is still a likable, frequently engaging comedy that works best as a tribute to a legendary and beautiful city that Allen (not to mention myself) obviously loves.  Flaws and all, this movie made me want to visit Paris once again (though Florence and Venice remains my favorite cities of all time) and, for that reason alone, it makes Midnight in Paris a film worth seeing.