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Category Archives: the cinema

The following paragraph from AO Scott’s review of Bruno says more about AO Scott than it does about Bruno, Sasha Baron Cohen, satire, or homosexuality:

The film demonstrates, at a fairly high level of conceptual sophistication, that lampooning homophobia has become an acceptable, almost unavoidable form of homophobic humor, or at least a way of licensing gags that would otherwise be out of bounds. An early sequence that graphically shows Brüno and his lover exerting themselves in various positions and with the assistance of, among other things, a Champagne bottle, a fire extinguisher and a specially modified exercise machine, derives its humor less from the extremity of their practices than from the assumption that sex between men is inherently weird, gross and comical. The same sequence with a man and a woman — or for that matter, two women — would play, most likely on the Internet rather than in the multiplex, as inventive, moderately kinky pornography rather than as icky, gasp-inducing farce.

HMMMMMMMM. Because I think the use of such objects during heterosexual copulation would be icky and gasp-inducing but mostly hilarious. That’s just me though! Maybe I’m heterophobic?! Because I kind of don’t find that sort of thing as kinky as AO Scott does, who would find it icky in homosexual context. Well well, is this a hall of mirrors I see?

I’m sure the movie is funny but of course I am a little suspect as far as the intention of some of its comedic setpieces but mostly I won’t be seeing it because I don’t really like humor based on cringe-worthy situations laughing at other people’s stupidity, a syndrome dating all the way back to America’s Funniest Home Videos. Because more than dildo-equipped bicycle sex, that kind of comedy is icky to me.

savage

After oh, two months of sitting in its sad little red envelope, I finally watched Savage Grace last night. Why didn’t anyone tell me that Julianne Moore is some kind of hysterical amalgam of Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce/Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?/Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?…except, you know, human. The tremendous thing about Moore’s performance here is how it often seems to wildly veer towards camp (the scene pictured almost rising to the glorious potty-mouthed breakdown heights of her pharmacy scene in Magnolia; there is no other person who makes the word “cunt” sound so transcendent) before being pulled back my some incredibly minute detail (following said scene is a static shot of Moore shakily but triumphantly walking out of frame, her face gradually fading from post-outburst pride to heartbroken terror).

If only the rest of the film was up to her standards instead of actually seeming to get in her way (or rather being frightened of being in her way). The string-laden score and gorgeous visuals reminded me of Contempt, and the laconic pace managed to convey the decadence of these aristocratic bohemians. Unfortunately for the film, the pace conjured by director Tom Kalin becomes a detriment to its success; the film throughout feels amorphous and undefined, should rightly be called “sloppy” if every shot wasn’t so meticulously framed, and when it needs to build towards the climax it instead feels as if the film has meandered enough and needs to finally end.

This is the first film in a while where I’ve been struck by the budgetary limitations of independent film. The film is certainly based on tremendously episodic source material, and screenwriter Howard A. Rodman wisely chooses appropriate vignettes in order to condense the story. Unfortunately when filmed, the condensation reveals severe narrative holes that, instead of imbuing the dramaturgy with purpose, empties it of its juice and flair. Throughout it seems that the filmmakers are constrained by their own limitations, and work to create a story as good as possible, which effectively seems to gut the meaningfulness of this story’s peculiar tragedy. Savage Grace, in the end, has an epic performance in search of an epic movie; instead it has Julianne Moore standing in a kiddie pool, bigger than every other one or thing in the film (except, oddly enough, child actor Barney Clark). I suppose that’s one comforting thing to take out of this movie: that after a few years of The Forgotten and Laws of Attraction and Next (wtf?!), Moore has proven that, for the first time since 2002, she still knows how to own a screen.

Best Picture:
Will win: Slumdog Millionaire, keeping in a tradition of Best Picture winners I hope to never see again
Should win: Milk, populism at its most artful and entertaining
If I ruled the world: Paranoid Park

Best Director:
Will win: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Should win: Gus Van Sant, Milk
If I ruled the world: Gus Vant Sant, Paranoid Park

Best Actor:
Will win: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Should win: if you’d asked me a month ago, I’d have said Sean Penn for Milk. But Rourke’s performance has managed to age more gracefully in my mind
If I ruled the world: Rourke

Best Actress:
Will win: Kate Winslet, The Reader (meh, but considering she should have won for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I’m okay with it)
Should win: Melissa Leo, Frozen River
If I ruled the world: Michelle Williams, Wendy & Lucy

Best Supporting Actor:
Will win: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight (blahblah obviously, but let’s just see this as the win he should have gotten for Brokeback Mountain)
Should win: Josh Brolin, Milk
If I ruled the world: Brolin, for creating an indelible character in spite of the clearly-drawn lines provided by a screenplay

Best Supporting Actress:
Will win: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (which is well-deserved)
Should win: Viola Davis, Doubt
If I ruled the world: Davis

Best Original Screenplay:
Will win: Dustin Lance Black, Milk (the screenplay was clearly the worst thing about this movie, by a longshot)
Should win: Pete Docter, Jim Reardon, Andrew Stanton, WALL-E
If I ruled the world: Docter, Reardon, Stanton

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Will win: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Should win: NONE OF THEM, WOOF
If I ruled the world: Kelly Reichardt, Wendy & Lucy

A while back, I wrote some effusive rambling thoughts on Paranoid Park after I watched it for a second time. I couldn’t write them after the first time, because I was too discombobulated and entranced and overwhelmed by its tone and mood, and I needed to view it more critically, and figure out the WHY of reaction. Now that I did that, I can go back to drooling incoherence. I am almost never affected by a film as much as I’ve been affected by this one–I try to watch another movie but I think of Paranoid Park or put it on instead (I have had this from Netflix for about a month now; I should really just buy the damn thing). It so successfully puts me in a specific mood, I can’t help it.

The four people who read this thing aren’t likely to ever watch this movie so I’m just going to post my two favorite scenes, because they are beautiful examples of what the film accomplishes:

(ignore the, erm, Right Said Fred at the beginning of this one, as well as the Italian)

And my favorite scene in any movie since Julianne Moore at the end of Safe:

OKAY SORRY FOR GEEKING OUT.

Paranoid Park has been seemingly lost in the shuffle as far as Gus Van Sant 2008 projects go, with Milk garnering the awards buzz and cultural capital–a return to mainstream filmmaking for Van Sant (that still allows for some of his vintage lyrical flourishes) equipped with a timely political message (thanks to the rise of Obama and the fall of gay marriage equality in California). But while Milk soaks up the attention and leaves the lasting social impact due to its narrative, Paranoid Park is Van Sant’s true cinematic masterpiece of 2008 (and possibly of his career to-date), lasting long in the memory and gaining deep resonance with each subsequent viewing.

That last sentence is perhaps not entirely applicable to his oeuvre this decade, which has memorably seen him shake off the mainstream stories of Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester for the abstract, nonlinear Varda/Tarkovsky/Tarr-isms of his “Death Trilogy” (sometimes dismissively called his “Inertia Trilogy”) of Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days. Paranoid Park continues in the vein of this trilogy, managing somehow to serve as a summation of this period of his work (as well as perhaps a summation of his entire filmography) while also eclipsing it.

While I enjoyed Elephant (it was my favorite film of that year), its seeming blase emptiness has seen it fade in memory, and many of the stylistic choices Van Sant made in that film are utilized to a far more impressive and moving end in Paranoid Park. To be sure, there’s not much inertia in the force of this film, glacial pace aside. There is, however, death.

As in Elephant, here Van Sant employs nonprofessional teenage actors to gain a sense of verismilitude of performance, mainly in the guise of Portland native Gabe Nevins as skateboarder Alex. The film, based upon Blake Nelson’s novel of the same name, is structured around a letter that Alex writes to his friend Macy (a smirking Lauren McKinney), describing his involvement in the involuntary manslaughter of a security guard.

The film’s narrative is structured in a manner that skates (no pun intended) around this plot point, though it is already foremost in Alex’s mind as the film starts, capturing him writing the letter in his journal, the words “Paranoid Park” scrawled in pencil on the front page. The brilliance of Van Sant’s construction of narrative and editing is to make the audience aware of the death while keeping us at-bay from Alex’s cognizance of it, so that when the grisly scene does come, it is so jarring in its violence that it causes a rupture in the placid pace and tone of the film that the viewer is as haunted as Alex is for the duration of the film. And while Nevins is a nonprofessional, his lack of craft seems to work in his favor, as the paranoia and guilt of the situation manifests itself in stoic teenage nonchalance, halting vocalization, and an opaque emotional expressiveness that feels messily incoherent, which to my mind is a perfect tone for this character struggling to keep his secret. To me, this works because of Van Sant’s juggled timeline, and the repetition of certain shots at the end of the film echo back to the beginning, only now we have experienced what Alex has and can read gravity on his seemingly blank face, noticing a bit lip or a fearful look in his eye that earlier we would have mistaken as inexpression.

In many ways I find Van Sant a spiritual brother to the novelist Dennis Cooper, who has also crafted nonlinear stories where the sum is greater than its parts–most notably in Period and My Loose Thread. Both Van Sant and Cooper have made careers on examining the sensuality of violence and the violence of sex within and among adolescent males. Both men have created countless protagonists that both critique and fetishize teenage masculiity, beautifully imperfect boys whose lack of eloquence masks the turmoil existing in their psyches at that exact intersection where sexuality and danger meet. Though exoticized, these are searing portrayals of adolescence lacking the sentimentality and melodrama of most media and cultural depictions of teenagers. It seems unfair to criticize Van Sant, as many have, for focusing so studiously on the blank faces of androgynous adolescent males; after all, we don’t take Woody Allen (or, at least, didn’t until Soon-Yi came along) to task for doing the same with luminous young women, nor do we have an issue with Charlie Kaufman’s stable of Impossible Bitches. Van Sant engages with Laura Mulvey’s critique of the male gaze while also upending it, focusing that gaze instead on the gender responsible for it, creating a queered subtext that is, frankly, cinematically revolutionary. In Gabe Nevins, Van Sant has finally found his perfect adolescent muse, capturing his hulking shoulders and long limbs while contrasting it to the too-smallness of his head framed by wispy, shaggy brown hair. There are shots here that Van Sant captures which are reminsicent of portraiture, a disconcerting mix of Carravagio and Ryan McGinley.

What elevates the film into a pure cinematic experience is Van Sant’s mixture of visuals and sound. Leslie Shatz should be lauded for her sound design–the scraping of the pencil as Alex writes the film’s title, the rolling of skateboard wheels down a deserted hallway, every perfectly teenage grunt and moan and sigh. And Christopher Doyle (who, along with Van Sant’s usual cinematographer Harris Savides, has the best eye in the business) and Rain Kathy Li create sumptuous visuals, alternating from tremendously expressive formalism to tracking shots to standard skate video Super 8 style. The best description for this film that I can come up with is “luscious”; there is tremendous depth of field and texture in every shot, one example being when Alex sits on a bench at the beach, long strands of grass vivid in the foreground as they bisect his corporeality rendered soft and blurred at the edges. The film is full of bravura moments: an endless line of skaters caught in mid-flight at their peak like grungy Icaruses, ending with one who can’t quite hold onto his board as he descends; Alex listening to the radio, his expressions shifting as the music changes from hip-hop to classical to Cast King’s “Outlaw” (with its refrain of “die like a man”); Alex and his girlfriend (Gossip Girl‘s Taylor Momsen, whose resemblance to Avril Lavigne made “Sk8r Boi” pop into my head whenever she was onscreen) as they lose their virginity, Alex the very picture of lassitude as her blonde hair sweeps across his face; and the greatest one: Alex takes a shower after the security guard’s death, hair obscuring his face as it gets wet while the lighting gets dark. As the shot progresses, the shower takes on the sound of a rain forest–rushing water and squawking birds–and, while realizing the gravity of his situation, Alex covers his face with his hands as the lighting is bright and luminous again, and the camera frames his head near wallpaper of birds on branches.

Narratively and sociologically there are many issues to unpack in Paranoid Park (Amy Taubin, for one, sees the allure of the skate park and its denizens as homerotic), but ultimately what I’m left with is the mastery of Van Sant, Shatz, and Doyle and Li. With Paranoid Park, they’ve made the purest contemporary argument for cinema as poetry that I’ve seen, the kind of film I wish was more abundant. It’s the kind of movie that reaffirms everything I’ve ever loved about that seemingly frivolous confluence of image and sound that very rarely manages to elevate into something like art.

Because, you know, who cares.

1. It must’ve been a hell of a play. The problem with transferring plays into films (especially if it’s the playwright doing the adaptation) is rendering the events cinematic. In John Patrick Shanley’s case, this means countless close-ups and unnecessary OOH LOOK ARTY TILTED ANGLE shots and a complete lack of compositional sense. Any formal success this film has is based on the strength of its narrative, which again: Must’ve been a hell of a play.

2. Meryl Streep does her Grand Dame Streep thing, and it becomes really enjoyable when you just realize she’s playing her character in The Devil Wears Prada again. Though what seems like a groaner of a final line (that would, again, work on a stage) she manages to sell.

3. Philip Seymour Hoffman has gone from underrated to overrated in record time, starting mainly with his loud, unsubtle performance in Capote. He is most impressive at the quiet, internal moments–he and Julianne Moore are probably the two best contemporary actors at expressive the unsayable–but when he is made to shout at Streep it becomes very Actorly and stifling.

4. Amy Adams, a wondrous presence, is miscast here, and gives a one-note performance where she often seems terrified to even be in the same scene as Hoffman and Streep.

5. Viola Davis, so good for so long in nothing roles, absolutely steals this movie in the one scene she’s in. She even manages to deflate Streep and command the screen against her, giving–in less than ten minutes–a wounded, complicated portrayal of a mother who will sacrifice everything for her son’s happiness. The only truly affecting and remarkable thing about this movie.

I guess it also made me happy that I’m no longer in Catholic school.

A few years ago I became impressed that a whole slate of films–from All The Real Girls, Raising Victor Vargas, Elephant, The Station Agent, and even (gulp) Lost in Translation (which is 95% bullshit)–despite their various flaws, tried to accomplish a narrative and cinematic economy equivalent to those one normally finds in short stories. As a short story writer, one of the aspects to the form that I respect is that, in contrast to the novel, the limitations of short story writing seem to force the most talented of writers to explore the dramatic possibilities in the most minute of details. There is no space for a novel’s slow set-up of theme; any larger meaning in a short story must be conveyed with a tightness of craft and suggestion. There is no room for didactic prose and explanatory dialogue that can usually be seen in most novels. I love a film that can work like a short story, minimal and deliberate, scaled-down and full of the ordinary details that can be suffused with high drama, no matter how internalized or small the effects may be.

Slumdog Millionaire and Revolutionary Road are recent (largely disastrous) examples of a Novel as Film, and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is the best contemporary version of Short Story as Film that I have seen (fittingly, it was adapted from a story by Jon Raymond). It is, at 80 minutes, short and to the point, but languorous and easy in its style that allows great suggestion for a larger context that is implicit but unexplained in a film where the plot boils down to this: girl’s car breaks down, girl loses dog while arrested for shoplifting, girl tries to find dog while waiting for car to be fixed.

Seeing as Wendy (Michelle Williams) is on her way to Alaska, the film is a kind of spiritual sister to Into The Wild, though without the heavy-handed dramatism and nearly fairytale-ish narrative put forth in that film (though also without a performance as moving as Catherine Keener’s or Hal Holbrook’s either). If in Into The Wild the protagonist’s boundless optimism and charm moved him through his itinerant lifestyle without so much as a mention of economic concern, Wendy is constantly seen counting down her meager savings to see what she can and cannot afford. She is–instead of optimistic and charming–pragmatic and isolated, constantly concerned with the material troubles of getting from A to B, and without any lasting connection to anything except her dog Lucy. Without exposition, without the big Dramatic Gestures and teary monologues, Williams manages to powerfully portray Wendy’s complexly rich interior: a seemingly solitary past, a currently downtrodden present, yet still full of too much personal dignity to let it get in the way of a hopeful future. It’s a tremendous performance by an actress who has steadily, without much fanfare, been acquiring such performances for quite a few years now.

What makes Reichardt succeed is a filmmaker is her insistence on telling the story visually, at her own pace, and allowing the audience to infuse their own meaning onto the mise-en-scene. The film opens with a long tracking shot of Wendy and Lucy, and our view is then immediately obscured by trees when Wendy loses Lucy for the first time. Sam Levy’s cinematography is lovely in the next scene, where Lucy is found amongst a group of drifters (including an appropriately terrifying-looking Will Oldham) around a fire, an ages-old signal of community, while a hesitant Wendy watches from the bushes. Even as she eventually retrieves Lucy, conversing with the other humans, she is not part of the group, evinced by Reichardt’s cuts from the people surrounding the fire to a solitary Wendy, bashful and distant. This distance from the rest of humanity is a visual motif throughout; Wendy is hardly ever seen in frame with another person–whether it be getting caught for shoplifting by a righteous grocery store employee (a lively John Robinson, who you may remember as the floppy blond teen angel from Elephant or, perhaps if you are a different sort of person, Shia LeBeouf’s odd friend in Transformers) or getting an estimate from a mechanic (Will Patton)–and when she is, it is often shown in medium-to-long shot, such as when an employee at the pound lets Wendy inside to see if Lucy has been found. Framewise, the closest anyone gets to Wendy is when a security guard (Wally Dalton) hands her his cellphone to call the pound. Even then, it’s only after a few scenes where they are separated physically (he is introduced waking her up in the car, peering through the window, saying that she can’t sleep in the parking lot) as well as visually (a later scene has them talking to each other across the vast parking lot, Reichardt cutting between them both). Otherwise, any other human contact is separated either by a desk or the dehumanizing paraphernalia of detention facilities. The closest relationship Wendy has is to her dog, and even then–by the end–their reunion is separated by a fence.

Reichardt neither imposes herself on the story at hand nor does she allow the story to tell itself. What makes the film successful is in how she deliberately concocts shots that properly, ably, quietly gives the narrative its power. What Wendy and Lucy is about, variously, is: the prospects that you are certain await you in a mythical Somewhere Else; the relationship between human and animal; and the entirely American concept of individualism triumphing all, and the hampering of that individualism by everything one needs to Get There–namely material concern and, conflictingly, the solidarity of others. But the greatness of Wendy and Lucy is that, unlike all the other movies of 2008 that I’ve seen, it doesn’t try to Tell it to you. It allows you to absorb its quietness, its grace, its details, and leads you to a conclusion that doesn’t strive to say anything at all, but ends up–through the craft of its storytelling–saying something. But whatever that something is is up to you.

Watching The Wrestler recently, I suddenly decided that Darren Aronofsky is committed to making the ugliest-looking films possible. I didn’t see The Fountain, but all of his features are aesthetically unattractive. Part of this is how dedicated he is in the details of subculture, whether it be mathematical Jew gangsters (or something? I haven’t seen that movie since it came out and even then I was bewildered by what was happening), awful people on drugs, or beat-up beat-down run-down over-the-hill wrestlers. Some of the wrestling scenes–most especially a time-warping one in the film’s midsection–are gruesome to look at, full of blood and metal and pierced skin.

The movie does not exist without Mickey Rourke’s performance as The Ram, and what a lovely, lived-in piece of work it is. It is impossible to look at Rourke’s battered features and the comeback narrative and not conflate performer with character; this kind of confluence of star and vehicle is exceedingly rare, and oddly the best examples I can give are all women: Bette Davis in All About Eve, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, and Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. It hardly seems performative, and there are no actorly flourishes, making his character feel remarkably alive and present, almost as if it’s a documentary rather than a narrative film (the sometimes irritating camerawork reinforces this suggestion, as do the backstage scenes filled with actual pro wrestlers, all of whom are actually quite charming and surprisingly goofily pleasant). The superlative honesty of Rourke’s performance also bleeds into that of Marisa Tomei’s. The worst thing that happened to Marisa Tomei’s career was her early Oscar win; it has underrated her ever since and she only ever seems to pop up every few years (increasingly naked, I might add) to give a performance that reminds people that she is, in fact, a gifted actress. The other main performance is by Evan Rachel Wood, who for some time now I have thought to be full of potential. She isn’t required to do much in the film besides slap on a Jersey accent (pretty good) and be Emotionally Scarred, but even then she felt indelible, showing the voids that she and The Ram create in one another.

For all of the downer possibilities, the movie also has its funny moments, almost all of them intentional (the only unintentional one is the Vampire Weekend poster in Evan Rachel Wood’s house, because that’s what the young people are into!). It’s the greatness of Rourke’s performance that he is as nimble in the dramatic moments as he is in these lighter ones, whether it be the complete joy he has in charming the customers at a deli or calling Kurt Cobain a pussy who ruined music (in fact, this scene–where Rourke and Tomei are rocking out to Ratt in an empty bar–was my favorite moment of the whole movie). In spite of a rote construction full of stock characters, The Wrestler succeeds with its lingering tone of small, graceful ease.

*

Far from easy is Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, a trip back to the suffocating suburbia of American Beauty. Though where his debut film was ugly, ironically cartoonish pop, Revolutionary Road is polite parlor music that that threatens to lull you to somnolence before you realize the house is burning down.

Richard Yates’ novel must have been a powerful indictment when it was published in 1961; reading it in 2009 makes it feel silly, trite, and didactic. The thematic and narrative thrust is compelling, and there’s this constant ominous current of doom and sadness that enables you to forgive the grandstanding monologues of the characters (and they are monologues rather than dialogue; these people aren’t talking to each other so much as serving as mouthpieces for Yates’ thesis in a construct of conversation).

It feels unfair to fault the film for adhering too closely to the book, especially when it excises seemingly important details later on, but the first hour of the film is a staggering bore and chore to get through. The audience is almost immediately thrust into a wildly dramatic argument between April and Frank Wheeler (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio), full of actorly gestures and staid blocking and camerawork (though the movie is remarkably handsome throughout). Afterwards there are flashbacks that never fully explicate their love for each other, nor their seeming specialness. What I found interesting in the novel was a tacit understanding that while you were supposed to be critical of the conformity of the suburbs, you were also right in being critical of the Wheelers as above-it-all elitists entitled to their snobbery based on nothing approaching fact. There really is no reason for the Wheelers’ feeling of superiority aside from their constant proclamations of it, and the warding off of the crushing realization that comes when you realize you’re “just like everyone else.” One of the bigger tonal mistakes the film makes is that we’re supposed to sympathize with the Wheelers through and through, never critical of them and their attitude or behavior.

The film is brought to life through the introduction of John (Michael Shannon), on leave from a psychiatric institution. The purpose of John’s character is to break the politeness of societal norms with a scathing honesty, because Only The Truly Sane Would Be Called “Insane” In This Suffocating Society. If this movie were set in the South, he would be the Magical Negro. Because it’s in the Northeast, he is Crazy White Person Who Speaks The Truth. In spite of the ludicrousness of his character’s construction, Shannon provides a live-wire energy that disrupts the primness of the film up to this point–and this includes the direction and the acting.

The movie is only as good as Kate Winslet’s performance, which may be why the film picks up in the second half. Winslet is an actress I love (her performance in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is, to me, our generation’s Annie Hall), but lately she has been sloppy in her Actorly Perfection, as if she is Becoming Meryl Streep and buying into her own hype. The flaws of her performance in Little Children are continued throughout Revolutionary Road, which also seems to have bought into its own hype: there’s an unending seriousness that is almost parodic, and Winslet’s irritating performance often seems less real than hyperreal, less how people were in the fifties than how people in the fifties were in movies. Yet Far From Heaven and Julianne Moore they are not; there is no awareness of the artifice. If in Far From Heaven they take the irony of rigidly performing the artifice in straight-face to ultimately induce honest pathos, Revolutionary Road and Winslet play pathos with so rigid a straight-face it ironically becomes dishonest artifice.

The film is far better at being Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than it is at being Far From Heaven, which is why it picks up in the second half, as does Winslet. When April begins an evisceration of Frank’s manhood filled with a mixture of disinterest, disgust, hate and fear, you see traces of the old Winslet, and the film begins to soar on her shoulders. Unfortunately, even this blow-up is so properly, primly shot that any of the tangible energy you feel from Winslet and DiCaprio is presented with no real sense of passion. I have not seen Jarhead, but American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Revolutionary Road have proven Sam Mendes to be a thoroughly pedestrian, mediocre filmmaker.

DiCaprio gives a far more successful performance than Winslet, in that he generally seems to be playing a real person. Throughout the film, he is reactive and alert, and subtly suggests that he is on to his own bullshit. He infuses his monologues with both anger and doubt, as if realizing his entitlement of intellect and good looks has still made him mediocre, and is desperate to deny the epiphany. DiCaprio ably portrays Frank’s increasing sense of shallowness in so small a way that when he is attacked by Winslet in their Woolfian final fight (as well as by Shannon in John’s last appearance), you see a man not full of righteous fury but instead a frightened boy backed into a corner. His line-reading of “Why do you live in my house if you hate me so much?”–red-faced, shaking, crying while trying not to–is one of the few truly moving, jolting moments I’ve seen in the Oscar-bait films of 2008. DiCaprio has become quite the actor, and I think the weathered lines and slight paunch on his iconic face has only increased his watchability.

Revolutionary Road is a deeply flawed film, full of too much talk and not enough suggestion (while adhering strictly to the novel in terms of dialogue, it throws away many of its silent moments that would have made for tremendously moving visuals), and stilted performances by Winslet and Kathy Bates that clash with the refined burning of DiCaprio and spark of Shannon–as well as the shruggingly natural performance of David Harbour as Shep, my actual favorite character in both the novel and film (though he is underwritten by novice screenwriter Justin Haythe) as an oafish man who yearns for more but realizes he deserves none of his dreams. That, in fact, would have been a far more interesting film to me, but even with the missed opportunities and missteps, the now-tritely didactic sociology, Revolutionary Road manages to finally compel and move you with the force of its story.

Also it’s still better than Dumbdog Swillionaire.

Because I want to pile on Slumdog Millionaire, and because this person has a far more detailed perspective on it that I did, but mainly because this shit is so damn funny:

…the problem is when you show every hellish thing possible all happening to the same person. Then it stretches reason and believability and just looks like you are packing in every negative thing that Westerners perceive about India for the sake of “crowd pleasing”. Because audiences and jury members “feel good” when their pre-conceived notions are confirmed. On the flip side, nothing disquiets a viewer as much as when his/her prejudices are challenged. So Boyle does the safe thing.

Let’s say I made a movie about the US where an African-American boy born in the hood, has his mother sell him to a pedophile pop icon, after which he gets molested by a priest from his church, following which he gets tied up to the back of a truck and dragged on the road by KKK clansmen. Then he is arrested and sodomized by a policeman with a rod, after which he is attacked by a gang of illegal immigrants, and then uses these life experiences to win “Beauty and Geek”.

I would so much like to see that movie about America.

This is my final full day in California and a complete inventory of how terrific my time here has been would be both indulgent and long-winded, but the sweetest surprise was how absolutely lovely a time I had with my extended family during Christmas and New Year’s.

Holidays are always the most stressful time, and combine it with it being the only time you (read: I) get to see your large family is alchemical for frustration and resentment and criticism. My relationship to the vast majority of my extended family has been fraught with these emotions for about as long as I can remember. But for every grandmotherly utterance of “When are you getting married?” there was a round of Sambuca shots; for every argument about George W. Bush’s presidency, a sing-along to Bon Jovi.

The myriad, complicated feelings inspired by my family dovetailed nicely with the experience in (and the experience I had in watching) Rachel Getting Married last week. It’s not without its flaws: Jenny Lumet’s casual screenplay has a maddening, meandering lack of dramatic structure while also finding time to insert such hoary narrative cliches like the Big Buried Tragedy. The multicultural liberal hipsterism of the family–interminable play by a live band, Neil Young songs, AntiWar Statements in front of decorated War Hero, ethnic theme wedding divorced from actual heritage of the participants–are so garishly presented that you almost wish someone would utter a racist epithet to change the tone of inclusivity. And Anne Hathaway has moments of occasional irritating hamminess, though in its way its a note-perfect performance, considering the irritating hamminess of her character.

But any of the film’s flaws seems to lead directly to its strengths. Lumet’s loose narrative fits snugly onto Jonathan Demme’s home movie aesthetic, and the false screenwriting notes are delivered perfectly by Bill Irwin as a placating father, Debra Winger as an absent mother, and Rosemarie DeWitt as perpetual second banana (even on her wedding!). The hyperbolic underlining of the family’s multicultural trappings begins to feel incredibly organic in both presentation (liberal white people are exactly this ostentatious) and in elicitation (you begin to feel the same kind of love and irritation towards them as you would your own family). Such endless devotional outpourings of love and togetherness and spirituality and MUSIC and yadayada, charming though they may be, quickly become a drag on both audience interest and comfort. Enter Hathaway, with an appallingly self-serving trainwreck moment that is at once exhilarating and exhausting, cringe-worthy in her dedication to a black sheep’s sense of martyrdom.

I’m not sure I would have had such a favorable reaction to Rachel Getting Married had I not just spent the holidays in California with my family. There were so many elements that provoked irritation and frustration, but the end result is a begrudging acceptance. The film seems to say “This is, for better or worse, your family, and you only ever get one, so love it.” And it says it in as honest a way, warts and all, as I’ve ever seen in a movie. How funny that I hear what it’ss saying and for the first time ever feel like the sentiment could be personally affecting and ring so true.