Underseen Movie: ‘JCVD’ – The Muscles From Brussels Lays Himself Bare

I have never really been a fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme. He has the moves, but he has never been much of an actor. I still vividly remember watching “Cyborg” with my brother and a friend of his on the family VCR years ago. My dad even watched it with us, and he could not stop bagging on Van Damme throughout the whole monstrosity which was made by those creative geniuses from Cannon Pictures. This is some of what he said:

“This is the single worst actor I have ever seen in my life! His face is completely immobile! He’s like Stonehenge!”

Oh, the memories! You’d figure after us seeing “Cyborg” that none of us would ever bother watching a Van Damme movie ever again, but he was everywhere for much of the late 80’s and early 90’s. “Bloodsport” was nothing extraordinary, but those fight scenes were pretty awesome.

“Death Warrant” was one I only saw because my best friend from high school wanted to check it out. It was alright, but this is probably being generous. I got a little pissed when that nerdy kid with glasses wanted to watch “Star Trek,” but the hot lady played by Cynthia Gibb did not want to bother. She would rather be screwing Van Damme’s character while he was taking a break from working undercover in a prison to catch a killer. Seriously, not all “Star Trek” fans are this geeky!

But following the commercial failure of “Universal Soldier: The Return,” Van Damme went from being a Hollywood star to being thrown into the hard to escape realm of straight to video movies, and he also went through drug problems and several divorces. I always wondered how people like him or Steven Seagal deal with going from big Hollywood action movies to direct to video crap which continues to define their careers to this day. I imagine they are not happy being in this movie star limbo. On one hand, they are still making a living, but at the same time I keep thinking they must miss where they were before Hollywood abandoned them in the wake of several box office disappointments.

JCVD” is a fictionalized answer to this question, and is not your typical martial arts ass kicking epic. Van Damme plays himself, and we can what years of drugs, court battles, and many B movies, most of them lousy, have done to him and his face. As the movie opens, we see him arguing with the director of his latest movie, but the director is more interested in throwing darts at a postcard with the Hollywood sign on it then in listening to a man whose only distinction is getting John Woo to come to America and make “Hard Target.”

We see Van Damme at court fighting for custody of his daughter (played by Saskia Flanders), and his ex-wife’s attorney presents his movies as arguments against him as a person. They pile up so high to where he excuses himself to go to the bathroom while the titles are still being read off. His problems keep mounting as he can’t get cash out of the ATM, and his lawyer calls saying he still owes him money. Then his custody suit hits an impasse when his daughter says she doesn’t want to live with him because, whenever a movie of his is on television, she gets picked on by all the kids at school. Even worse, he just lost a film role to Seagal just because he offered to cut off his ponytail.

So, Van Damme heads back to Belgium to reconnect with his roots and where he came from (hence his nickname “The Muscles from Brussels”). He is still treated as a big star and a hero back home, and as a man who helped put the country and its people on the Hollywood map. But soon after, a hostage situation erupts at a nearby post office and, yes, all hell breaks loose. At first, it looks like he is robbing the post office, but events are seen from different perspectives, and it turns out he has arrived at the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, he can’t rely on his martial arts moves to get him out of this situation. Van Damme is not seen as an action hero here, but as a regular man who is caught up in a situation not of his making.

“JCVD” is presented as a comedy/drama hybrid, and while the tone is a bit uneven, there are some very funny moments. We see one of the robbers buddy up with Van Damme and talk to him about his movies, and he even gets him to show off one of his classic moves. While the other robbers couldn’t care less, this one wants his autograph. In the meantime, the townspeople have come out in force to support the fallen celebrity for what he is doing. In many ways, the movie is a look at the crazy nature of fame and a celebrity is forever trapped in a prison because of it.

The big question I had when I went out to see “JCVD” was this; has he gotten any better as an actor. Even Los Angeles Times film critic Sam Adams in his review of this movie said that “most of the acting in Van Damme’s films takes place below the neck.” Surprisingly, the answer is yes, he has. In fact, in “JCVD” he is really good playing a fictionalized version of himself. My dad’s description of him as “Stonehenge” does not apply to him here, and while he will never be Laurence Olivier or Sean Penn, this movie is a big step up for him creatively speaking.

The movie has one tremendous moment of pure raw emotion from Van Damme when he suddenly rises above the film set and starts talking directly to the audience. His monologue lasts for several minutes, and he talks about how he always wanted to be a movie star. All these years later, he feels as though he is being punished for it. Granted, he admits to his mistakes like taking drugs, and I felt like he is still paying a price for his usage even while he is staying clean. The star never fakes a moment during this scene, and the scene is alone worth the price of admission. Van Damme has said doing this movie was like therapy for him, and I have no doubt about that.

The concept of “JCVD” is by no means original. We have seen many movie stars play themselves and have jokes played at their own expense to show they have a healthy sense of humor about their image. But while we have them take this route like John Malkovich did in “Being John Malkovich,” I can’t think of any others who have put themselves on the line like this. I can’t see Chuck Norris doing this as I am certain he would rather do an action movie where Mike Huckabee is President and he has to rescue him from being held hostage by pro-evolution terrorists.

If there was one big problem I had with “JCVD,” it’s that its subtitles were at times almost impossible to read. The movie, directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, is shot in a grungy style which is very close to black and white but not quite. As a result, the subtitles which are presented in white lettering almost blend completely into the background, and I had to keep leaning forward to better see what was being said. Considering how many of my friends hate subtitles and would rather watch movies dubbed in English, this certainly does not help.

You really have to give Van Damme a lot of credit here. Not many action stars would even risk being seen like he is shown in “JCVD.” Here, he lays himself bare to show us the man he has become through many mistakes and bad movies. I came out of it with a renewed respect for him, and it makes me want to see him get better. “JCVD” is not a great movie, but it is fun and kept me enthralled throughout its running time. Where he goes from here remains to be seen, but hopefully some good will come out of his performance here.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Burn After Reading’ – Another Darkly Comedic Film From the Coen Brothers

WRITER’S NOTE: Ralph Garman selected this as his Video Vault pick on the August 14, 2020 episode of “The Ralph Report.” It was an excellent selection on his part.

WOW! That was quick! Following Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning masterpiece “No Country for Old Men” in 2007, they gave us their follow-up of “Burn After Reading” a short later. Some filmmakers take their sweet time following up a cinematic triumph of theirs, but the Coens did not want to waste any time. This film follows the tradition of them making a movie which is the polar opposite of what they previously gave us. Most reviews at the time mentioned of how the Coens went from making “Fargo” to giving us “The Big Lebowski,” and how they went from “The Man Who Wasn’t There” to “Intolerable Cruelty.” With these brothers, it is always important to expect the unexpected because they are never out to do the same thing twice.

I’m not going to bother comparing “Burn After Reading” to “No Country for Old Men” because the only thing these two have in common is they were made by the same people. It’s like comparing the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” to Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves,” and this threatens to say more about the critic than it does about the films themselves. This particular one is more of a lightweight effort you could ever expect from the Coens, and it is a reminder of how hysterically dark their comedy can get.

“Burn After Reading” is a crazy movie to say the least, and it does not really have a plot as much as it does a plethora of characters who are unleashed on us through a selfish act of utter stupidity. As a result, there is no rug of any kind which can tie this room of a movie together. The main drive of the action comes from Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) who discovers a disk at the gym he works at which contains classified information from a former CIA operative, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). Along with his fellow co-worker, Linda Litzke (the always fantastic Frances McDormand), they both connive to act as “good Samaritans” and give the disk back to Osborne, providing he pays them several thousands of dollars as a reward. Naturally, this plan, which was not given much thought to begin with, goes awry and involves many others in this scheme, all of whom are never entirely sure of what they have gotten themselves into, or of whom they can trust.

Let’s look at the characters, shall we? Chad is a personal trainer at the Hardbodies gym who is, to put it mildly, rather dense and not playing with a full deck. His manager, Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) doesn’t want to get involved in this blackmail plan, but he simultaneously has a huge unrequited crush on Linda, and she is upset because her insurance won’t cover the various forms of plastic surgery she wants to get. In the meantime, she is going through the motions of internet dating and ends up meeting Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Harry is actually married and in the midst of an affair with Osborne’s wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), and she herself is planning to divorce her husband who is now in the midst of writing his memoirs. In the midst of all this, CIA Officer Palmer DeBakey Smith (David Rasche) reports to his superior (the priceless J.K. Simmons) of the goings on, and of the ways they are going to keep this all under wraps.

Are you with me so far? Clearly, this is a movie which will benefit from more than one viewing to keep up with everything. Like I said, there is no real plot to speak of, other than the blackmail of Osborne Cox. While in some movies this would be an Achilles heel, it works for the Coens as it allows you to keep guessing as to what will happen next. Just when you think you know where things are going, it has another surprise up its sleeve. There were moments both funny and shocking, and I was eager to see what would happen next.

“Burn After Reading” combines a lot of actors the Coen brothers have worked with over the years like George Clooney and Frances McDormand, and they also got to add newcomers to their strange cinematic universe like John Malkovich and Brad Pitt. It’s a kick to see all these actors let their hair down in a film which was never meant to be taken seriously by anyone.

The most inspired performance in this movie comes from Pitt. Clean shaven, thin, buff, and an avid bicycle rider, his character is a hilarious creation of a physically fit moron who has no clear idea of just how in over his head he is. It was funniest performance since his ultimate stoner of a character, Floyd, in “True Romance.”

Another one who is a huge kick to watch here is Clooney as he blows away just every bit of coolness in his system to play an increasingly neurotic philanderer who is always on the verge of anaphylactic shock as he keeps warning everyone he hangs out with about his life-threatening allergies. To see Clooney let loose here is a reminder of how he constantly tries in real life to not take himself too seriously. It also makes you wonder if he and Swinton will ever be in a movie together where they play characters who have a healthy relationship with one another. Keep in mind, they previously appeared together in “Michael Clayton.”

It’s actually a shock to realize this is the first time Malkovich has ever worked with the Coen brothers. He lets it all out here as a CIA operative who quits his job after being demoted in part because of his drinking problem. To see this actor go completely nuts at all the complete idiots he has to deal with is such a hoot. Not many actors can play a character who is quick to absorb the situation they are in and yet still remain in the dark when it comes to the truth of the matter. Malkovich may prefer the stage to the silver screen, but it is always great to see him do something like this.

Frances McDormand gives this movie one of its most lovable characters, in a manner of speaking, as she makes Linda into someone who wants to be free of the ravages of getting older. Seriously, give McDormand the smallest role in a movie, and she always succeeds in making it one of the most unforgettable. If you would like further proof of this, check her out in John Sayles’ “Lonestar.”

Richard Jenkins ends up giving us perhaps the saddest character here, and it is one we hope we don’t end up being. You know, that one person who is forever punished eternally with the pangs of unrequited love. Throughout, Jenkins shows you in his eyes of how much he wants to be with Linda, and he reminds us of how he remains one of the most dependable character actors working in movies.

And I loved the scenes between Rasche and Simmons in the offices of the CIA and how flippant they seemed about the situations which occurred here. I have yet to see another movie where you have CIA members seeming rather laid back in the decisions they make. It never comes down to doing what is best for their country, but of how to make this strange chain of events not get too overwhelming or hectic. Their inconvenience is the biggest problem because it involves secrets getting out, and of more responsibility and paperwork. Seriously, who wants that?

“Burn After Reading” may not be on the same comedic level of brilliance like “The Big Lebowski” or “Raising Arizona,” but it sure is a lot of fun and filled with more daring and originality than many movies which came out in 2008. Many have described it as a “trifle” from the Coens, but you have to admire what they accomplished here as it never fails to entertain from start to finish. We can also take comfort in the fact that these brothers continue to entertain and enthrall us from one film to the next, and their artistic brilliance never lets us down.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Hamlet 2,’ A Most Unusual and Unexpected Sequel

WRITER’S NOTE: Eddie Pence selected this as his Video Vault pick on the August 15, 2020 episode of “The Ralph Report.” But while the host of the podcast, Ralph Garman, was not particularly crazy about it, I think it is better than Garman gives it credit.

“Hamlet 2” starts off with an invisible voice telling us that to be an actor, you have to live in a dream. But dreams do die however, and the question posed here is this: Where dreams go when they die? Well, if you are Dana Marschz (played by Steve Coogan), then you go to Tucson, Arizona to spend the rest of your life teaching high school drama. Being an actor myself, there is something quite scary about the fate of this particular actor who is best known for his herpes medication commercials. Here in Arizona, he hopes to pass on his love of acting to high school students, and this is the thrust of the plot which powers up a motion picture dealing with one of the most unlikely sequels ever to be created.

“Hamlet 2” was a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival, and while it didn’t quite live up to the hype in my eyes, it was still a very clever movie which kept me entertained from beginning to end. It is a hilarious look at how art can never truly be suppressed, and this includes art which was never all that good to begin with.

We meet up with Dana Marschz sometime into his career as a high school teacher, and he only has two students, Rand Posin (Skylar Astin) and Epiphany Sellers (Phoebe Strole), who really seem to care about drama and acting. His latest class, he discovers, is largely populated by Latino students who are in attendance because their other electives have been cut, and drama is the only one left. It reminds me of all those high school kids with who were in drama class because was the only one they could get an easy A in other than physical education. Dana, however, is convinced this is being presented to him as a challenge he must face with no fear. While these students may seem unenthusiastic about drama, he is determined to change their minds.

Dana’s existence is a recovering alcoholic with a wife named Brie (played by the great Catherine Keener) who drinks a margarita from a gigantic martini glass. They also have a boarder, Gary, (David Arquette) who is sleeping with Brie while Dana rollerblades to school because he cannot afford a car. His gift to the high school is plays he wrote which are direct adaptations of the movies “Erin Brockovich” and “Dead Poets Society.” Still, they get ripped to pieces by a young critic who shows no mercy for Dana’s passion. Dana’s basic cry for all the negative criticism is, “He fisted us!”

Dana ends up conversing with this unsympathetic teenage critic to seek inspiration, and he suggests to Dana that he write something original and put everything into it. Thus, he comes up with what in many ways is a completely unnecessary sequel to one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays, “Hamlet.” There is a rather large problem though as just about every character dies at the play’s end. But Dana, still up for an artistic challenge, remains undeterred by this, and he comes up with a device to solve this problem in the form of a time machine. Upon discovering the rather racy nature of the play, the most suburban students do everything they can to keep it from being performed, but Dana ends up proving to everyone that you cannot stop art.

It’s a little hard for me to critique “Hamlet 2” objectively because Dana’s fate is one I hope to avoid. It is made clear from the outset that he is not particularly talented, and we get a montage of scenes featuring him as an actor. The funniest one is a commercial he did for Herpes medication as he tells us, “Right now, I am having a herpes outbreak. But you wouldn’t know it!”

In the process of writing and directing his sequel play, it gets banned from being performed at the high school, and Dana ends up inspiring the Latino kids to put it on at another location. He even gets help from the ACLU to keep his play from being censored. Talk about free publicity!

“Hamlet 2” is a terrific star vehicle for Coogan, and he is never afraid to make himself look completely silly. He shows no fear in portraying Dana as a complete failure both as an actor and a drama teacher. That he somehow inspired these students who have grown up in a far different environment than his is pretty amazing. But in the end, it doesn’t matter if Dana is really bad or good because he gets the play up to the excitement and infuriation of everyone in Tucson, Arizona, the city where dreams come to die. Coogan proves to be a brilliant comic actor here, and he still is all these years later.

The director and co-writer of “Hamlet 2” is Andrew Fleming, and he does a good job of not taking things too seriously. Fleming started off his career as the writer and director of the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” wannabe, “Bad Dreams” (this title tells you all you need to know). From there, he went on to direct “Threesome,” “The Craft,” “Dick,” and “Nancy Drew.” Suffice to say, he has been around for a while, and this film proved to be one of his stronger efforts.

“Hamlet 2” also features a terrific performance from Elisabeth Shue who plays herself here. In this movie, she has given up on acting and appears to be much happier working as a nurse in a sperm bank. Dana goes gaga over Shue and invites her to speak with his class, but they have no idea who she is. We all remember her from “The Karate Kid,” and she earned a much-deserved Oscar nomination for her unforgettable performance in “Leaving Las Vegas,” but over the years her star has not ascended in the way we thought it would. Still, she works constantly and is always on the verge of giving us her next memorable performance. And, as “Hamlet 2” shows, she has a great sense of humor about herself.

Anybody who has ever been involved with community theater or in high school plays will get a kick out of this film. In retrospect, the high school students were the ones who manage to get the show up and running, and this is shown here. That Dana manages to inspire these kids through his embarrassing ways is astonishing. When you are already deep into the production of a show and your director flakes out or becomes useless, you can’t just give up. As Dana’s personal life hits rock bottom, it’s those kids who pull him up from the abyss.

I also like how “Hamlet 2” got into the conflicts Dana has with the school and parents because everyone in these situations always acts in an overly conservative way. As time goes on, I get more interested in what does not offend people because it seems like we are always looking to get mad about something. Granted, you can see why people might object to Jesus Christ kissing Satan or with a song entitled “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” a song which was criminally robbed of an Oscar nomination. But everyone in the end is saved due to the protected freedom of the 1st amendment of the Constitution. That pisses a lot of people off, but that’s their problem.

The ACLU eventually gets involved when the show is threatened to be shut down, and a lawyer comes to visit Mr. Marschz to lend her help. She is played in a kick ass scene stealing performance by Amy Poehler. Her character of Cricket Feldstein is a ball buster about protecting the production, and she makes sure everyone involved gets to put it up. Her disinterest in whether or not the play is any good (“It’s irrelevant,” she says) is hilarious, and Poehler continues to show why she is one of the funniest actresses ever.

“Hamlet 2” is a lot of fun to watch, and the play which comes out of it is a hoot as it is a quasi-musical in which Hamlet and Jesus team up to change the past. Granted, they take all the drama and tragedy out of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” but it is a little hard at times to argue with Dana who calls the play “a real downer.” In addition to “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” there is another song called “Raped in The Face” which is Dana’s stab at the critics who keep taking apart his plays based on movies. The song title alone demands your complete attention.

All the same, I wished the filmmakers had pushed the envelope a bit more. Seriously, you have to expect some envelope pushing when one of the writers, Pam Brady, is from “South Park.” I’m not saying “Hamlet 2” had to be insidiously evil, I just wished the satire in parts was a little sharper. Or perhaps I got a little depressed with Dana’s station in life because it is one I hope to avoid in my own life, and this made it hard for me to be more objective about what I saw. Still, this comedic film has stayed with me since I first saw it, and at some point, I need to watch it again.

Shakespeare once wrote about how all the world is a stage, and he was absolutely right. We are all merely players in this crazy thing called life, and “Hamlet 2” plays with this to such an enthusiastic extent to where I wonder if another “Hamlet” sequel is in our future. Or better yet, maybe we can get a “Romeo & Juliet” sequel as young love does not have to be so infinitely depressing. Seriously, everyone deserves a second chance.

* * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: Michael Haneke’s Shot-For-Shot Remake of ‘Funny Games’

There is no in between with a film like this. You will either like or hate it with a fervent passion. Reviews for “Funny Games” have gone all over the place from praise to vicious hatred. Some will describe it as a completely immoral piece of work which revels in what it despises. Others will look at as very strong suspense film which does not hide from the ugly reality of violence. After seeing this film, I can’t help but think this is what director Michael Haneke wanted. Alfred Hitchcock was once quoted as saying, “I love playing the audience like a piano.” So does Haneke.

Truth be told, Haneke must be reveling in getting us into such an emotional state as he did the same exact thing in the past. “Funny Games” is a shot-for-shot remake of his original suspense thriller of the same name from 1997. I actually did not realize it was a remake until around the time it arrived in theaters. But since this is a virtual duplication of another film, I’m not sure how necessary it will be to see the original.

Haneke wanted to remake “Funny Games” for an American audience because he felt it was in essence an American story in which he sees its citizens being giddily in love with violence onscreen and in the media. While there is something rather condescending about him thinking this, he does have a point. Every once in a while, we need a film which reminds us of the brutality of violence. While we may fiend for gun battles on the big screen, violence in real life is scary and something we should be eager to avoid. “Funny Games” was the first ironically titled and truly polarizing movie of 2008. It is anything but entertaining, and in the end, it is not meant to be. Some movies are made to be experienced, and this is one of them.

“Funny Games” revolves around the married couple of Ann and George Farber (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) whom we first see driving down the highway with their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) and their sailboat in tow. When they finally arrive at their destination, they are met by two young men, Paul (William Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), both of whom look like well-bred preppies equipped with very nice manners. Brady’s character comes to borrow eggs to give which Watts gives him kindly. But on the way out, he accidentally drops them and won’t leave until he gets some more. Soon, both husband and wife are trying to throw these two guys out, and then the two show their true intentions when they take a golf club and smash one of George’s kneecaps.

With the family held hostage, Paul and Peter reveal their heinous plan; they bet that in 12 hours, the whole family will be dead. From there, it becomes a game of survival for the family as the games these two force them to play get increasingly dangerous. One of the major criticisms I have heard leveled at the killers is they have no motive. Sometimes not knowing why people do the things they do makes things much scarier. When “Silence of The Lambs” was first released in theaters, we were never told why Hannibal Lecter was a cannibal. But here, these two evil schmucks do have a motive which is senseless and viciously cold: they are torturing this family for the thrill of it and for what one of them calls “the importance of entertainment.” The director has given us two psychos whose motives, as he puts it are not “easily explained by societal factors.” They look to enjoy the power they have over this helpless family.

This phenomenon of people getting a high off of violence and torture feels like it is growing at a horrifying rate. There have been movies like “Henry – Portrait of A Serial Killer” and “Menace 2 Society” that have moments where the characters commit violent acts which have been intentionally or unintentionally videotaped. We later see these same characters watching their hideous acts over and over. There was an episode of “Homicide: Life on The Street” which featured a scene with one man filming his friend as he goes over to a nearby bus stop and shoots an old lady to death. No reason is given, other than the fact they find the visual so incredibly entertaining.

Like those characters, Paul and Peter are utterly repellent individuals. But the thing is, you should be repelled at what these guys are doing. They are without morals, and the rules of society are nonexistent to them which makes them all the more threatening and dangerous. The comfortable conventions of the normal suspense thriller are thrown out here. If they are employed here, then it is only for us to see them overturned when we least expect them to be. Unlike other Hollywood thrillers, the violence here feels much more real than you would expect it to be.

Another interesting thing is while this is technically an ultra-violent movie, there is actually not a lot of violence shown onscreen. Most of the violence is committed offscreen, making it all the more terrifying. There’s another moment where Ann is forced to disrobe completely, but you never see her from below the neck. It’s a moment where Haneke dares you to wonder why the camera isn’t showing us more here. You may end up hating him for that, but you cannot deny your mind went down to that dark and dirty place.

Like “Cache,” Haneke likes to film shots in long takes. This succeeds in trapping the viewer in with this family as we wait to see if they can escape their fate. One shot lasts a good five minutes or so as Ann desperately tries to break free of the tape which binds her hands behind her back. There are a lot of static shots here which are free of overly clever camera moves, and they suck us in to the action while generating strong suspense. There are points where we are not sure when these two psychos threaten to strike next.

Haneke goes even further by having Paul break the fourth wall between the characters and the audience watching this movie. Many found this device to be annoying, but I wasn’t bothered by it because it made the movie seem even creepier than it already was. It probably would have been an unnecessary device had it been overused, but the director uses it sparingly and to a powerful effect.

There is also a moment a rewind of events is employed. It is as brilliant a move as it is done to completely frustrate the viewer as it completely eschews the formula of movies like these. Haneke doesn’t hesitate to subvert our expectations, and trap us into a reaction we cannot hide.

Whatever you think of the movie, there is no denying the superb work done by the cast here. Tim Roth does strong work, and I can’t remember the last actor who made the pain of broken bones feel so vivid. I also don’t want to forget Devon Gearhart who plays Georgie Jr. as he has a very unenviable role as a child caught up in the worst of situations. He is asked to do things we would rather not see a child actor do, and he makes his sheer terror seem all the more horrifyingly real.

Michael Pitt makes Paul into such a cleverly cold character to where some have compared Paul to Alex in “A Clockwork Orange.” This is a young actor who has made a strong impression in movies like “The Dreamers” and “Bully” among others. He excels in roles like this which play on his charm to an incredibly unsympathetic effect. Brady Corbett plays the seemingly Peter, and he also has done memorable work in “Thirteen” and “Mysterious Skin.”

But in the end, this movie really belongs to Naomi Watts who has long since proven to be one of the bravest actresses working today. She has portrayed characters so naked in their vulnerabilities onscreen to where I constantly wonder how she gets through these roles without having a nervous breakdown. Her performance in “Funny Games” is no exception as she puts herself in situations so difficult to make seem real, but she succeeds here in making us believe just how terrifying her ordeal is.

“Funny Games” is one of those movies which make me want to ready everyone’s reaction to it. Like I said, this is without a doubt a very polarizing motion picture which people will either admire or despise. The again, if many did not have a negative reaction, then Haneke would have failed in his mission to completely unnerve us. No, it is not an enjoyable movie, but it is an experience which cannot easily be ignored as you walk out of the theater. It is a thought-provoking as it in no way allows for a neutral opinion. For my money, it is a very strong exercise in suspense which never lets up throughout its two-hour running time.

While it is not the most disturbing movie I have ever watched in a theater (“Requiem for A Dream” takes the cake there), it sure does come close. The violence presented here is of a real kind, and it does not offer the typical feeling of escapist entertainment. The best advice I can give you is if you don’t want to subject yourself to a very disturbing cinematic experience, then don’t see “Funny Games.” You have been warned, so take the R-rating seriously.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Milk’ Celebrates the Life of a Man Who Opened Doors For Many

I keep hearing about how Sean Penn wants to retire from acting and just direct from now on. He keeps saying he never really enjoys acting, so it has to make you wonder why he would keep doing something he doesn’t enjoy. But after watching him give another great performance in “Milk,” I would really like to believe he really enjoyed playing the late gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk despite the role’s emotionally draining moments. Penn gives us a man who loved life and smiled more often than not. Whether you are gay or straight, I am sure you would have like to have known the real Harvey Milk as he always seemed to be in the best of spirits no matter what he is doing.

Milk” is a longtime dream project of Gus Van Sant, and it looks at Harvey before and after he became America’s first openly gay man ever elected to political office. It follows him from when he moves from New York to the Castro district of San Francisco and the numerous political races he ran in. It culminates with his and Mayor George Moscone’s assassination at the hands of Supervisor Dan White. But don’t worry, I have not given anything away. The movie is an intimate character piece of Harvey as well as those closest to him as he fought for equal rights for all homosexuals in San Francisco and the rest of America.

It was actually quite prophetic that “Milk” was released in the same year California witnessed the depressing and infuriating passage of Proposition 8 which banned gay marriage in the state (it was later ruled unconstitutional in 2010). In the movie, we see Harvey and his friends fighting the good fight against Proposition 6 which was enacted by then California Senator John Briggs with the objective of banning gay men and women from teaching jobs in California public schools. Back then, people foolishly believed there was a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia which was and still is total crap. “Milk” came out at a time when the fight for gay rights was still far from over.

The majority of the action takes place in San Francisco in the Castro market. Anyone residing in or familiar with the history of Castro will see it is to San Francisco what West Hollywood is to Los Angeles. Harvey ends up opening a little camera shop with his lover Scott Smith (James Franco), but he is not greeted with open arms from the local merchants as they are convinced that, because he is gay, he will be closed down in record time. From there, Harvey decides to run for public office in order to find a voice for those who never had one before.

Van Sant does a great job of recreating 1970’s ever so vividly on what must have been a very tight budget. He also successfully interweaves television footage of the time with the actors to where it is not at all distracting. But his biggest accomplishment here is he does not turn Harvey Milk into some sort of superhero, and instead he treats him as a regular human being with flaws and all. Harvey helps those in need of help as much as he can, and he does this to a fault. His political life eventually overtakes his personal life and creates heartbreaking difficulties in his ability to maintain a loving relationship. He is encouraged to give up running for political office after he loses for a second time (he ran for office 4 times before he won), but with each election he makes a bigger impact with more and more voters.

Van Sant was originally planning to make this movie with Robin Williams in the lead several years before, but it did not work out. At first, it almost seems a bit odd to have Sean Penn playing Harvey Milk, but after the movie is over, you realize there is nothing odd about it at all. Penn gives this role an utterly gleeful spirit which I do not often see in his other performances. Most roles he plays are of characters in the pit of despair or of those so cynical about the world that it takes a battering ram to get through the traumatized psyche to get a genuine sense of feeling. This may very well be his most cheerful performance since he played Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Penn really captures the spirit of what made Harvey so special, that he wanted to help people and gays around him come out of the closet.

Aside from Penn, there are other great performances to be found. James Franco plays Harvey’s lover, Scott Smith, and he is excellent as he creates a link to Harvey which can never be broken, ever. Franco matches Penn step for step in showing the highs and lows of a relationship between two loving people who struggle constantly to make things work between them.

Another standout performance comes from Emile Hirsch who plays street hustler Cleve Jones, and Harvey ends up encouraging him to help run his campaign. Hirsch gives Cleve a spirit and a determination which can never be easily broken, and he shows no shame in whom he is nor should he.

Other great performances come from Alison Pill who plays campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, a proud lesbian who helps Harvey finally win an election. Diego Luna is also heartbreakingly good as Harvey’s second lover, Jack Lira. An emotionally high-strung man with needs greater than anyone, let alone Harvey, can ever satisfy, Luna holds the screen strongly as he carefully illustrates his character’s constantly unsteady state of mind.

But another truly great performance in “Milk” comes from Josh Brolin who portrays Supervisor Dan White. Ever since 2007, Brolin has made a name for himself with terrific performances in “No Country for Old Men.” With his role as Dan White, he never goes the route of simply demonizing this man whose crime is still absolutely unforgivable to so many. Along with director Van Sant, Brolin gives us a complex portrait of a man brought up through a strong religious background, and who ends up getting so caught up in it to where it blinds him to the deep dark hole he keeps digging for himself. In a sense, his outcome is tragic in its own way, and when you find at the end credits how he ended up leaving this earth, there is no cheering. There is nothing but pity for the man who got a much too lenient sentence thanks to the so called “Twinkie defense.”

You don’t come out of this movie wanting to forgive Dan White for what he did, but the filmmakers never try to make you hate him. Besides, I am not sure Harvey would have wanted anyone to hate him either.

Van Sant succeeds in making “Milk” a largely uplifting motion picture without resorting to manipulative tactics in an effort to tug at your feelings or with an overwhelmingly emotional film score which begs you to shed tears. Truth be told, composer Danny Elfman does a great job of creating music which supports the characters and the movie without ever overdoing it. Van Sant is also served well with a tremendous screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, and he introduces us to the wonderful people in Harvey’s inner circle and makes each one a unique individual worthy of attention.

If there is anything which disappointed me about “Milk,” it is the archival footage of Anita Bryant featured throughout where she talks about how she sees homosexuality as a sin. Anita speaks of how the word of God must be directed, and she is clearly one of many people who have completely misinterpreted what the bible says about homosexuality. The one scene I kept waiting for was when she got a pie thrown in her (even God knows she deserved that). The fact this footage was not shown here was a bit of a letdown.

The real triumph of “Milk” is in how Van Sant makes you see what an inspiration Harvey was to so many people. The movie starts out with him saying, as he is about to turn 40, that he has done nothing with his life. By the end, both Van Sant and Penn make it clear he did so much and is still a huge inspiration to many more than 30 years after his assassination. Come to think of it, he may even be more of an influence to people in death than he was in life.

Many may end up not seeing this movie either because of their misplaced religious views, or because we know it will end with Harvey Milk being murdered. But “Milk” is not a movie about how Harvey died. It is a movie about how he lived, and of how his life is worthy of celebration. His courage did so much for people, and it is still needed in the darkest of times. This was a career high for Van Sant and Penn, and it was one of 2008’s best movies.

* * * * out of * * * *

American Teen – The Breakfast Club as a Documentary

“High school is the bottom. Being a teenager sucks, but that’s the point! Surviving it is the whole point!”

-Christian Slater from “Pump Up the Volume

High school. Like you, I do not miss those years, and you couldn’t pay me enough to go back through all that nonsense, and I see this even though I have credit card debt to pay off. The peer pressure, the rejection, the heartache, the unfulfilled longings and all the pressure which is unloaded on us by our parents when it comes to getting into a good college; I am stunned I survived any and all of it.

Still, I wonder what it is like for kids today. They have all these new advances in technology I never got to play with back then, but has the way we deal with each other in high school changed? Are people nicer now after horrible school shootings like Columbine or Parkland, or have things gotten worse? After you see “American Teen,” I think you will agree life as a teenager and in high school are neither better nor worse. In fact, everything remains the same. There are the cliques and the pressure to get into a prestigious college, and there are those who fit in and those who feel endlessly rejected. It has been more than 20 years since I graduated from high school, and kids still go through the same crap.

“American Teen” is a documentary by Nanette Burstein who previously directed “The Kid Stays in The Picture” and “On the Ropes.” Here, she gives us “The Breakfast Club” as if it were a documentary as she follows the lives of various teenagers as they go through their senior year at a small-town Indiana high school. There is nothing too edgy about this film, and it doesn’t deal much with drugs, sex, or school violence. What she is more interested in is taking the stereotypes of the jock, the nerd, the rebel, and the beautiful to where turns them upside down as she looks closely at the individuals inhabiting those stereotypes.

Burstein has gone on record and said that she considers herself a part of the “John Hughes generation,” and it’s very interesting how she takes the tropes of Hughes’ films and melds them into a movie filled with real people.

Unlike reality shows such as “The Hills” or “The Real World,” I think “American Teen” has a lot more to offer in terms of how teens deal with real problems, and I think it is also good viewing for those who are in high school right now as many of them likely think they are the only ones going through what they are going through. It’s important for them to know they are not alone, and we also need to listen to what they have to say.

Of all the subjects here, the most appealing one is Hannah Bailey, the liberal rebel of the highly conservative town of Warsaw, Indiana where this documentary takes place. She starts off as a free spirit and, deep down, she is the person many of us wanted to be like: free spirited and unconcerned of how others think of her. However, she is forever shattered when her boyfriend whom she was madly in love with, ends up breaking up with her after they have made out. Her emotional devastation is hard to watch as we have all dealt with the harsh pangs of young love. Hannah ends up getting so depressed to where she cannot bring herself to go to school out of shame and embarrassment. With her breakup comes a feeling of worthlessness which can easily engulf a young person and change who they are. From the start to the very end, Hannah is the one you root for the most.

We also have Jake Tusing, the nerd with a face ravaged with acne which cries out endlessly for the nearest dermatologist. Jake is a guy you at times feel sorry for, but you later find yourself cringing when he opens his mouth. A painfully shy kid who still suffers from the emotional scars he suffered in junior high, we see him being very uncomfortable around large groups of people. When a new girl moves into town, he sees this as his opportunity to get a girlfriend, something he hopes to acquire before he graduates. But soon, his defenses go up and he begins to push people away before they have the chance to do the same to him. In retrospect, Jake almost comes across as a real-life Dawn “Wiener-Dog” Wiener from “Welcome to The Dollhouse” as he goes from being likable to unlikable throughout the documentary.

Then there is Colin Clemens (no relation to Roger Clemens), the star of the high school basketball team in a town the sport is like a sacred religion. We see his dad constantly pressuring him to make those shots in the game when he is not doing his Elvis impersonation act for the local senior citizens in town (and who refuse to believe Elvis is dead). This intense pressure comes from the fact Colin’s family does not have enough money to send him to college, and his best hope is to impress the college recruiters so he can get a basketball scholarship. Colin comes across as a good kid whose parental influence leads him to make some crucial and painful mistakes, but he becomes a better person and teammate by this documentary’s end.

Finally, we have the most popular person at the school, and she proves to be a bitch beyond repair when you cross her. She is Megan Krizmanich, the daughter of a prominent local surgeon, the student council vice president and the homecoming queen. She is what many of us would call “little miss perfect” even though she is far from it. Like Regina George from “Mean Girls” in that she is one of the most popular people in high school as well as the one most loathed by the audience. She is under enormous pressure to get accepted into Notre Dame as all her family members have been accepted there. I won’t spoil it if she gets in or not, but when she gets the letter from the school, her expression isn’t so much happiness or sadness as it is sheer relief that the waiting is over.

One of this documentary’s taglines is “which one were you?” Taking that into account, you should be able to see yourself in all of these individuals regardless of what high school stereotype you ended up being trapped in. The pressures, the heartaches, the isolation; we have experienced it all. After watching “American Teen,” you may have felt like you lived through your high school years all over again. The high school pecking order on the social ladder has not changed one iota, and it remains an emotional boiling pot in the life of an adolescent.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

-Kurt Russell from “Escape From LA

I wanted to know everything there was to know about these kids as “American Teen” went on, and I wanted them to succeed in what they wanted to do and to be happy. Happiness can be in such short supply when you are in high school at times. This documentary is filled with animated interludes which serve to illustrate the inner lives of its main characters. With Jake, we see him as the hero of those “Legend of Zelda” games he loves to play, rescuing the princess he longs to have as a girlfriend. With Colin, we see his dream of playing on an NCAA team after graduating from college. Hannah’s animation interlude illustrates her painful post-break up existence as she feels so differently about herself, and of her deep-seated fear of ending up like her manic-depressive mother. Then you have Megan’s moment which you can’t help but laugh at as she sees Notre Dame as this heavenly place where she can meet a diverse crowd of people who are nothing like those she picks on at school.

This is a great documentary to watch with an audience because everyone is bound to have a strong emotional reaction to what is going on throughout. We share in Hannah’s heartbreak and her triumphs as she proves to be the real hero here. We cringe and laugh at the socially awkward Jake as he stumbles through conversations with potential girlfriends. When he talks, you can’t help but put your hands in your face and shake your head in disbelief. With Megan, you feel a hatred and resentment which dissipates when you get to know her better. All the same, she reminds me of the one blonde cheerleader in my Shakespeare class who interrupted the teacher by saying, “THERE IS A RUN IN MY NYLONS!”

All that said, “American Teen” is by no means a perfect documentary. It does feel a bit staged, and it probably was in some cases. Also, part of me wished Burstein went a little deeper with other subjects. We see Hannah’s best friend is a homosexual who is always there for her when her self-esteem plummets, but we never really get to know who he is or of how he deals with living in a very conservative town. I also wanted to see more of the adults and of how they went about raising these young adults. We complain about the way kids act, but a lot of it has to do with the way their parents spoil them rotten. Trust me, this was a big problem in the town I grew up in.

Granted, Burstein wanted things to be shown from as much of the teenagers’ lives as possible, but the adults factor into this more than what we are shown. While “American Teen” does show the relationship Colin has with his Elvis impersonating dad, we don’t get as much with the other kids. Megan ends up committing a slanderous act of vandalism which she gets busted for, but her dad isn’t so much mad at her for doing it as he is with her not being able to keep from being caught. You have to wonder what kind of values these parents are instilling in their children as some are not the least bit healthy.

We also Hannah determined to move to San Francisco, California so she can pursue a career in television and film. She is so determined to get out of Indiana and lead a life which is anything but mundane, and we want to see her accomplish this regardless of how the odds are against her. But her mother ends up telling her she is “not special, and this is one of “American Teen’s” most wounding moments. I think any parent who tells their child this should be slapped. The world is tough enough without our parents breaking us down like that.

There is also a good deal of profanity bleeped out here. “American Teen” is rated PG-13 despite the f-word being mentioned only a couple of times. If the MPAA thinks they are trying to protect the kids old enough to see this movie from the bad words contained in it, they have failed. You wouldn’t believe the amount of bad language I heard on the playgrounds of the elementary and junior high schools I attended. It reminds me of Roger Ebert’s arguing how “The Breakfast Club” should have been PG-13 instead of R because he felt it was more than appropriate for teenagers. I couldn’t agree more, and the beeping out of “bad” language is ridiculous and only draws more attention to what the MPAA is trying to suppress.

Whatever you may think about “American Teen,” you have to give these kids credits for bravery because what they did here will forever be captured on celluloid and burned into our memories forever. It will be interesting to see a follow up to this documentary on where these kids are today. I’m not talking so much about the effect of the movie itself, but of the effect their years in high school have on their lives today. After graduation, they have nowhere to go but up, but life still has its pitfalls. How will their past inform their present?

Go Hannah!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Stranded: I Have Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains is an Unforgettable Documentary

Now I am sure many of you have long since become familiar with this story. On October 13, 1972, a young ruby team from Montevideo, Uruguay, boarded a plane which was going to take them to a match in Chile. Their plane ended up crashing on a remote Andean glacier, its fuselage torn off and wings shorn. Anticipating they would be rescued, they waited in the snowy wreckage for help, but none came. When they ran out of food, they were forced to eat from the bodies of those passengers who had died. Eventually, two passengers managed to breach the treacherous Andes Mountains and brought help to their teammates left stranded in what was left of the plane. Out of the 45 passengers on that plane, only 16 survived. They were stranded on that glacier for 72 days. The fact any of them survived is nothing short of a miracle.

This story caused a sensation when first presented on the news, and many focused more on the sensational aspects of what happened, namely the cannibalism or reports of it. It was later documented in the 1973 bestselling book “Alive” written by Piers Paul Read. I have not read the book, but I did see the movie it was based on back in 1993 which starred Ethan Hawke. I remember watching it with my brother, and we both dug the seriously nasty plane crash which opened it. The movie was okay, but even with a screenplay by John Patrick Shanley of all people, it got weighed down by an endless variety of clichés. There did not seem to be any real tangible way to really get at how those rugby players truly felt while they were stranded on a glacier which they seemed destined to die on. How could they anyway?

Decades after this plane crash occurred, we got a documentary about it entitled “Stranded: I’ve Come from A Plane That Crashed on The Mountains.” This one has the advantage of having all the survivors from the crash participate participating in interviews in which they recount all the horrors they were forced to endure, and it was directed by a documentary filmmaker who also happened to be a childhood friend of theirs, Gonzalo Arijon. Through archival footage, interviews and reenactments of the events, Arijon succeeds in creating a shockingly intimate look at what these people went through in order to survive, and it puts us right into the mindset of the survivors in a way no movie or book, however well written it was, could. It proved to be one of the most astonishing cinematic portraits I have ever seen about survival, and it has stayed with me ever since I first watched more than a decade ago.

A documentary with reenactments almost sounds like an oxymoron. Certain other documentaries like “American Teen,” which came out in the same year, have been accused of restaging events that happened to the people, and it threatened to take away what felt truly real about it. The director of the movie, Nanette Burstein, admitted to restaging one event regarding a text message, and it did make for a good emotional moment, and I really do not blame her for doing so. I bring this up because the reenactments and restaging of events in “Stranded” serve to illustrate how incredibly desolate the circumstances were for these people, and they are necessary to show the way they survived. Plus, there is not a lot of archival footage for Arijon to work with, and without the reenactments, I am not sure he would have had much of a documentary.

The archival footage consists of photographs which were taken before and after the crash, and they are haunting to see as they show who these people were and what they ended up becoming. There are also some interviews shot with the survivors after they are rescued, and the audience reacted strongly when the interviewer asked them how they managed to survive. Their response to this at a later news conference brilliantly spells out why they did what they did.

The issue of cannibalism, if you really want to call it that, is handled very sensitively here. The reactions of the survivors to eating the flesh of those who have died goes through a variety of emotions from revulsion of even thinking about it to determination to survive and see their families again. But in the end, who are we to judge them for what they did? These were people pushed to the brink of madness and did whatever they could to survive, and “Stranded” puts us right in their mindset as they made their decision to eat from the bodies of their teammates. Do not even think you would have done things differently because you have not been through what they had. If you want to get cynical about it, those teammates were already dead, so they did not have a lot of say in the matter.

But the most astonishing moments in “Stranded” come from the survivors themselves. Their recollections of what they went through are still very vivid to them to this very day. The participation they gave to this project was invaluable, and we see them with their spouses and children as they go to revisit the site of the crash and go over what happened with them. What they do here is very brave, and their willingness to talk about what went on is beyond commendable. While this documentary may seem more about death than anything else, it is really more about survival and the power of the human spirit. It is also about the power of friendship and how indestructible it can be even in life’s worst moments.

With the aid of Arijon’s work, we see specifically how the survivors remember all the details of what happened. We see them lose their friends and of how they died, and of the ways they survived which included punching each other constantly so the blood would circulate better in their bodies. The moment we see those three men, which later became two, breach the Andes Mountains, we feel their desperation as well as their dwindling feeling of wanting to survive. All of these elements provide us with the most intimate portrait of this plane crash they could ever hope, or want, to get.

2008, the year in which “Stranded” was released, proved to be a tremendous year for movies set in the coldest of environments. During the summer, we got “Frozen River” which took place in the subzero weather of upstate New York. A few months later, I watched “Let the Right One In” which observed the tender relationship between a young boy and a female vampire in a frigid suburban neighborhood of Sweden. The details of these ferociously cold climates are almost completely dwarfed by the barren coldness which this documentary focuses on. Some of us are spoiled by the elongated summers we have in certain parts of the United States, but nothing we have experienced thus far will ever seem as cold as it is here.

“Stranded” gave me one of the most powerfully absorbing cinematic experiences I back in 2008. It is at turns thrilling and harrowing and, in the end, it is utterly inspiring as some of these passengers just refused to give up and die. Gonzalo Arijon brilliantly succeeds in capturing the events of this situation in a way no other filmmaker could, and it will stay with you long after you have finished watching it.

* * * * out of * * * *

One From Sam Mendes: Revolutionary Road

“Once in a lifetime comes a motion picture that makes you feel like falling in love all over again. This is not that movie.”

– Tagline for “War of The Roses.”

Revolutionary Road” feels more like a horror movie than a romantic drama. It is brutally honest in the way it depicts the terrible disintegration of a marriage, the kind none of us ever want to get trapped in. Those of you who still think gay marriage is a threat to the sanctity of marriage should take a look at this movie, for it is a much more astute examination of what can really destroy such a prized institution. When the movie starts, we know we are in for a fateful journey of two people who at first look like they belong together, but we know they will eventually tear each other apart limb from limb.

But as tough as “Revolutionary Road” is to watch, it is also an utterly brilliant film which serves as further proof of how Sam Mendes’ Oscar win for his directorial debut of “American Beauty” was no fluke. There is not a single false note to be found here, and it feels practically flawless in its making and design. It has great visuals, a great screenplay and amazing performances from the entire cast. Mendes makes “Revolutionary Road” an enthralling experience into the horrors of conformity, the very thing we all try to fight against.

The movie starts with its two main characters, Frank and April (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), when they first meet at a party where they are instantly attracted to each other. The story then moves forward to years later when April is taking a curtain call for a play she is acting in, and she ends up bowing to a very unenthusiastic response from an indifferent audience. It is clear their relationship has gotten cold, and the utter frustration constantly simmering under the surface seem to be the only thing left for them to deal with. This leads to April to come up with what she sees as the perfect plan: They can sell their house and car and move to Paris where she can support Frank through secretarial work while he figures out what he really wants to do with his life. They both see it as their great chance to escape the confines of normalcy which has been eating away at their fragile little souls. However, reality threatens to take away from their dream one piece at a time.

This was Mendes’ fourth film as a director, and you can see a common thread through all his movies. Mendes seems endlessly fascinated with characters whose lives are at a standstill, and who hope for something incredible to happen to them. They are waiting for that moment where they can change into what they always hoped to be, and yet it never quite arrives. In “American Beauty,” it was the characters’ desire to wake up from their dead and dysfunctional lives. In “Road to Perdition,” it was the desire of Tom Hanks’ character to get his son away from the devious life he was leading as a mob enforcer, and to redeem himself in the eyes of his son. In “Jarhead,” it was the desire of the soldiers to enter a war and fight like men, and to take down their enemies by lethal force.

All of this comes around full circle in “Revolutionary Road” as this film deals with characters eager to escape their suffocatingly conformist suburb to live a life of sheer excitement. But they soon come to find they are not as special as they thought they were, and the desires of Frank and April seem to work in opposition to one another. The characters are complex in their creation, and we see what fuels their individual needs, desires, fears and anxieties which serve to define them and their actions. It’s almost like Frank and April are like George and Lenny from “Of Mice and Men;” they are two people hoping to get something they can never truly have, and they constantly delude themselves into thinking all is within their grasp and that their dreams will soon become a reality. But reality comes to rear its ugly head at them, and you know that it ain’t gonna pretty.

In a sense, “Revolutionary Road” can be seen as kind of a distant cousin to “American Beauty” in how it details the suffocating environment of suburban living, but each film approaches this differently. While “American Beauty” dealt with its characters with a dark sense of humor, the environment in “Revolutionary Road” is much bleaker and more consuming. In fact, “American Beauty” seems like a delightful walk in the park compared to this one.

This movie takes place in 1950’s Connecticut, and yet it feels quite contemporary which shows how frighteningly timeless story is. This is what will make the movie hard for many people to watch as they may end up seeing themselves in these two people; the longing for a more exciting existence, for an escape from the suburban way of living which has drained them almost completely of feeling, and to get another chance to get what they truly want out of life.

Along with cinematographer Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men“) and production designer Kristi Zea (“The Silence of The Lambs”), Mendes perfectly captures the look and feel of the 1950’s to where you feel like you are right in it. He also captures the routine of the life in suburbs and manages to capture some unforgettable moments like when April takes the garbage out to the front of the driveway, and she sees everyone else has placed theirs out in front as well. In this moment, he captures April’s realization of how she and Frank have bought into the resigned way of living they both thought they would somehow avoid. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, but the ugliness of its characters’ frazzled emotions come through to make this seem like anything other than a Norman Rockwell portrait.

In addition, Mendes is served very well by his frequent film composing collaborator, Thomas Newman. While his music score may sound like many of his others, Newman captures the longings of both Frank and April as they tumble through their seemingly mundane existence, and soon end up being driven crazy by it and each other. Throughout all his work, Newman seems to work with music so subtle in how it is performed, and yet so powerful in what it ends up conveying. It’s no accident that Newman also scored Mendes’ “American Beauty” and Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom.” Like Mendes, Newman has a strong feel for life in the suburbs no matter what decade a movie takes place in.

“Revolutionary Road” is really a tremendous acting showcase more than anything else, and I don’t just mean from the two main actors. You have the always wonderful Kathy Bates who plays Mrs. Helen Givings, the endlessly talkative real estate agent who sells Frank and April the home they end up living in. The smile on her bright face serves to hide the pain that we see later as we are introduced to her son who has just been released from a mental institution. You also have the terrific Dylan Baker as Frank’s co-worker, Jack Ordway, a man who endlessly waxes philosophically over the craziness of our existence. David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn are also excellent as the next-door neighbors, Shep and Milly Campbell. The excitement April and Frank have over their plan to go to Paris both enthralls and depresses Shep and Milly, and the way they react to it implies how April and Frank are not the only ones leading lives of quiet desperation.

But one of the true standout performances from the supporting cast comes from Michael Shannon as Helen Giving’s mentally unhinged son, John. In an atmosphere where the truth is felt but never verbalized, John finds himself completely incapable of telling a lie. Essentially, he is a Vulcan like Mr. Spock, but with an overabundance of raw emotion. Through his thoughtlessly cruel remarks to everyone around him, he exposes the seemingly perfect couple and their marriage for the sham it has become, and you can clearly feel his betrayal by these two people who had promised to escape the lifestyle they found themselves so hopelessly trapped in. Shannon’s performance is astonishing in its uninhibited nature as he becomes the voice of reason in a world so full of lies.

This of course brings me to the two main actors, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. This is the first film they have appeared in together since “Titanic,” but one is very different. It could almost be seen as a story of what happened to Jack and Rose after the big ship sank, assuming Jack survived the freezing waters. Both DiCaprio and Winslet have an incredible chemistry with onscreen, and it seems crazy it took them over 10 years to do another movie together.

DiCaprio continues to prove why he is one of the best film actors of his generation. Throughout the movie, he lets us look past the egotistical nature of Frank Wheeler which allows him to seduce a naïve young secretary (played by the wonderful Zoe Kazan), and to see the pain and fear which threatens to steer him further in a direction he never planned to go in. The relationship he had with his father always seems to be surrounding him in ways which are never fully explained, but we can see how it enforces the decisions he ends up making. Frank clearly cannot stand the job he has as a salesman, but he is also equally terrified of leaving it as he feels he may let down his family in the process. DiCaprio brilliantly captures the complexity of this character whose needs and desires constantly tangle with one other, and whose anger and frustration with life eventually boils over to the only person he can take it out on, his wife.

But as raw and complex as DiCaprio’s role is, he is almost completely blown away by Winslet’s performance. Watching her here, you might think she was in a Lars Von Trier movie. Whereas Frank may have been desperate to escape his mundane existence, April is ten times as desperate to do the same. Her desire to escape the boring life she sold herself out to is never ending, and she can never hide her pain and feelings of hopelessness from those around her. You have to wonder where she gets the energy to do this emotionally exhausting work, and she has more than earned her place in the ever-growing pantheon of great actresses.

“Revolutionary Road” is not the most enjoyable of movies to sit through, but not all movies are meant to be, and this one is not without purpose. We empathize with Frank and April in spite of the way they treat each other because we know all they go through could easily happen to us.

Sam Mendes is one of the best directors working today, and he created another masterpiece of suburban isolation which stands proudly alongside “American Beauty” and “In the Bedroom” among others. It also shows how the term “civil marriage” can seem like the ultimate oxymoron. It goes back to people saying how love is a four-letter word, or that it is a sentence. Frank and April’s story is a tragic one, and probably not a movie to be watched by those who just got engaged.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Zack and Miri Make a Porno’ Goes Down in a, You Know, Pleasurable Way

Zack and Miri Make a Porno movie poster

Kevin Smith’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” is the first movie he made which takes place outside of New Jersey. Instead, he takes us to Pittsburgh where we follow the exploits of the title characters who share an apartment and have been the best of friends since they were kids. When we first meet them, their lives are hanging by a thread as they are behind on all their bills, and soon after they lose their water and electricity. Both work at a Starbucks-like shop called Bean n’ Gone where they waste their lives away like those two guys from “Clerks. “Sound like anyone you know?

These two end up going to their high school reunion where Miri ends up connecting with her biggest crush, football hero Bobby Long (Brandon Routh), in the hopes of having a nice little fling. She has yet to find Bobby doesn’t “swing that way.” This soon becomes clear as we see Zack talking with Bobby’s boyfriend, Brandon (Justin Long, who is frackin’ hilarious), who reveals to Zack he is in fact an actor in gay porno films, the stuff Zack doesn’t quite fit the demographic for.

Later on, when both Zack and Miri are in very dire straits, Zack comes up with the idea of the two of them doing a porno. Miri is not quite up to the idea, but the way Zack sees it, porno is now so mainstream that even Paris Hilton (albeit unintentionally) did one and now hawks her own line of perfume to “tweens.” They end up committing to it despite one thing; they have never had sex with each other before. The way they saw it beforehand was they get along so great that they both believe sex will just get in the way of the friendship they have a la “When Harry Met Sally.” Of course, you can’t help but get the feeling Zack would love an opportunity to get up close and personal with Miri, you know?

There’s this line from “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of The Clones” which keeps floating around in my head of when Anakin meets up with Padme again and tells her how she has grown more beautiful since the last time they were together. To this, Padme replies, “Anakin, you’ll always be that little boy I remember from Tatooine.” I totally remember the audiences groaning after she said this, and the line kind of sums up the relationship between Zack and Miri, and we feel we have a pretty good idea of where their relationship will end up.

Zack is played Seth Rogen who, for a moment, appeared to be Smith’s new man crush since Ben Affleck was far too busy with his acting career at the time. Rogen is perfect as he handles the raunchy and profane material of the movie with the confidence of a pro, and at the same time he projects a sweet side to his character which really wins the audience over. Elizabeth Banks (“W.“) plays Miri who stays close to Zack throughout their hardships and spends nights with him in front of a trash can in which all their unpaid bills are burned to a crisp. The chemistry between these two is very good, and they play off of each other really well.

In addition, Smith has rounded out a great cast to keep the laughs going throughout this ode to porn. Some of his regulars show up here like Jason Mewes who plays Lester, a hopelessly dense individual who also yearns to be a porn star. Another is Jeff Anderson (the immortal Randal Graves from “Clerks”) who plays Deacon the cameraman. How he manages to get a movie out of all this insanity is beyond me.

Smith even goes out of his way to even cast actual porno stars as well. The most noticeable one is Katie Morgan who has been featured on some documentaries on HBO about her career (how I know this, I refuse to reveal). She is as perky here as she is in those interviews, and her cheerful presence here is kind of a surprise compared to other actresses in her line of work. Traci Lords co-stars as well, and she shows us an amazing new way to blow bubbles. A former porn actress herself, Lords has long since escaped adult entertainment and has dived into the bad taste escapades of John Waters to a delightful effect. Both of the actresses being in this movie should show just how mainstream porn is getting and of how much this scares conservative politicians to death.

But one of the truly scene stealing performances in this movie belongs to Craig Robinson who plays the producer of the porno, Delaney. Robinson is a big kick to watch here as he delivers his lines in a terrifically deadpan manner. At once disgusted at what he has been hired to do, Delaney suddenly becomes incredibly enthusiastic when he realizes he gets to do. He also has a pretty hilarious response to when he is asked to work “Black Friday,” and it serves as a reminder of how some people take things a little too literally.

Smith also has loads of fun skewering the porn films we know from our past but never really admit to ever having watched. Zack and Miri end up coming up with the title “Star Whores” for their porno, and this in reference to how so many of these pornos are typically named after Hollywood blockbusters. See if any of these remind you of anything (some of these I made up):

“Pulp Friction”

“Robocock”

“The Hard Knight”

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Boner” (Justin Long’s character could easily be cast in this one.)

Smith directs this movie to those who are more familiar with pornos than they would ever admit during a sales pitch. It’s also an ode to when he started as a filmmaker all those years ago with “Clerks.” Using a hockey stick as a boom mike holder? You can believe he utilized things like these to get his first movie done.

“Zack and Miri Make a Porno” is not as consistently funny as some of Smith’s other movies like “Clerks” or “Dogma” among others. Like “Jersey Girl,” it follows a certain formula to where we pretty much know where the story is going to end up. At the same time, he gleefully skewers the formula by adding his own brand of raunchy humor. There was one moment I laughed so hard that I almost passed out, something which does not always happen if at all. I fell over, the color went out of my eyes for a second, and things got fuzzy. Yes, that’s how hard I was laughing. I refuse to spoil this particular moment for you, but I will say I will never look at cake frosting in the same way ever again.

Smith also makes clear the difference between having sex and making love, and this difference is made clear at a pivotal moment in the movie which changes everything for the characters. There’s the one nighter, and then there’s the sex which reveals true feelings and which proves to be more than extraordinary. I may not be an expert on the subject for reasons I will plead the fifth on, but I do know this much. Smith, after all these years, still gives us down to earth characters which shows how he has not come even close to forgetting where he came from.

“Zack and Miri Make a Porno” may not be the best movie of Kevin Smith’s career, but it definitely has its moments of utter hilarity. It also shows there is more to him than making movies in New Jersey. By making a break from his usual comic territory, we can and should expect him to go beyond his comfort zone for a good dose of naughty laughs filled with heart from here on out.

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‘The Dark Knight’ is the Best Comic Book/Superhero Movie Ever Made

The Dark Knight poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008.

OK, let’s just get it out of the way: “The Dark Knight” is fucking brilliant! It is a triumph not just of action and direction, but also of acting and characters. This is not simply a story of good guys versus bad guys, but of flawed human beings whose childhood scars have long since formed them into people who can never lead a truly normal life (whatever that means anyway). How thrilling it is to see a movie which actually lives up to the hype. I was desperately trying to control my expectations before going in, but it was hard to with all the glorious reviews it has been getting. How relieved I am to see that all these reviews are more than justified!

No longer burdened by the traditional origin story, “The Dark Knight” thrusts us right into the action with a brilliantly staged robbery sequence. Christopher Nolan has said “Heat” was a big inspiration in this movie’s making, and it does have the look of a Michael Mann movie. It also allows the Joker, the Caped Crusader’s main nemesis here, a truly inspired introduction. Unlike other movie villains who are interested in money and power, the Joker really has no discernable movie other than creating total chaos. This makes him the scariest kind of villain as he has nothing to lose while everyone else does.

We catch up with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as his alter ego of Batman is beginning to take its toll on him psychologically. Like Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 2” or Clark Kent in “Superman II,” he is starting to tire of the role he is playing, and he yearns to spend his days with the love of his life, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes), as she represents the best chance for him to lead a normal life. This is even more so as Batman is now seen more as a vigilante and a danger to Gotham City, despite all he has done to clear the streets of the crime which nearly consumed it. This is made all the more complicated when the Joker gets everyone’s attention by saying he will kill one person a day until the Batman takes off his mask and reveals who he really is to the world. Naturally, the public blames Batman for what the Joker’s actions, and this adds to his desperation to rid himself of his alter-ego. But while Bruce may be able to live without Batman, can Gotham City?

Of all the Batman movies to date, this one gives us a Gotham City totally rooted in reality. All the previous installments have presented Gotham as a place of gothic buildings and ominously dark colors which come to consume the spirits of those living there. This is not the fantastical city we have seen in the past, but instead a city like others we know which are forced to deal with high levels of crime and corruption. As a result, the look and locale really add a lot to the story and the characters in it, and this makes everything seem more dangerous and precarious as a result. To do this I think is a brilliant move on Nolan’s part and, along with this summer’s “Iron Man,” it helps to completely redefine how a comic book movie can be cinematically realized.

I saw “The Dark Knight” on opening day with colleagues from my day job, and some of the people I work with have lived in the rougher parts of Los Angeles for a long time. They definitely saw some of those rougher parts in this movie, and when we exited the theater, one of them said, “Gotham is even worse than South Central!” To quote a line from “Pulp Fiction,” that’s a bold statement!

Bale now effectively owns the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Before him, it was Michael Keaton who gave us the strongest portrait of this character. With Bale, you get a Batman and Bruce Wayne with different levels which he plays ever so effectively. Bruce goes from being a swinging playboy to a fighter of crime in no time at all, and even when he comes off as a cad, you still care about and root for him because it seems like no one can take care of crime the way he does.

The one person Bruce believes is the one who can relieve him his Batman duties is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a lawyer with a big ego and endless integrity which he vows never to relinquish. If “The Dark Knight” does not make Eckhart into a star, nothing will. It should have happened already last year with Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking” where he played a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, but this one should do the trick. Seeing Harvey’s transformation to strong district attorney to a tragic figure when he becomes the villainous Two Face is devastating. Eckhart makes you believe in him as a public servant, and when it seems like so much has been taken away from him, you feel tremendous sympathy for him while even as he makes which may forever destroy his valiant reputation.

By the way, his changing into Two Face was one of the movie’s best kept secrets throughout its advertisements. His transformation to this sinister character is hideous in its look and a brilliant mix of both makeup and technology. It is a face burned to where an eyelid is missing as well as part of the lip and gums, and it is a shocking visual when we first see it.

The movie has a strong cast with actors who ably fit the roles they have been cast in. Maggie Gyllenhaal fits the role of Rachel Dawes much better than Katie Holmes did, and she makes it all her own by creating a character who you can believe is not easily intimidated by the criminals she prosecutes. When she is caught between with Bruce and Harvey, Gyllenhaal believably makes her character seem like anything other than a pushover.

Michael Caine returns as Bruce’s loyal butler and silent partner in justice, Alfred. Caine is always a welcome presence in any movie he appears in, and the moment where he compares the Joker to another criminal from his past is a strong one as he makes it clear to Bruce and the audience what kind of nemesis he is facing up against this time around.

Morgan Freeman is also back as Lucius Fox who is to Batman as Q is to James Bond. The moment where he stares down an employee making a threat against him and Bruce Wayne is a brilliant piece of stone faced acting which reminds us of why we love him so much as an actor. Even as a supporting player in the movies, he remains a force to be reckoned with.

We also have Gary Oldman back as one of Gotham’s few incorruptible cops, James Gordon. In the past, Oldman has given us some of the scariest and deadliest of villains we could ever hope to see onscreen. Since then, he has moved on to portray the good guy, and while this may seem like a bland choice for an actor like him to make, he succeeds in making his goodness and unstoppable nature in getting the bad guys very appealing. There are not many other actors I can think of who could pull this off, and you come to truly respect the kind of man Gordon is through his terrific performance.

But then there is Heath Ledger in what sadly became his final completed onscreen before his shocking death. There was a lot of talk, before “The Dark Knight” came out, of if he should be nominated for an Oscar and perhaps even become the first posthumous Academy Award winner since Peter Finch in “Network.” Some like Terry Gilliam have found this to be utterly annoying and simply see it as Warner Brothers’ way of juicing up the excitement for this movie so it can have one hell of an opening weekend. While this criticism is certainly justified, I now count myself on the bandwagon for Ledger getting the damn Oscar as he took on a role already made famous by Jack Nicholson and others, and he more than succeeded in making it his own. This seemed unthinkable when it was first announced he would playing the Joker, but Nolan was correct in saying Ledger was “fearless.”

Seriously, Ledger’s performance is a work of art. Whereas Nicholson made us share in his gleefully sadistic nature as the Joker to where we couldn’t deny we were endlessly entertained, Ledger gives us a Joker who is a viciously terrifying psychotic and one to be feared whenever he is onscreen. God only knows what depths the actor went to in order to play this role, but it is easy to see why he lost a lot of sleep over it. His Joker is indeed the scariest of villains as he has no real motive for doing what he does. This guy is in it for all the chaos and anarchy he can get out of Gotham, and he couldn’t seem to care less about money and power. Ledger makes his Joker a live wire, and the tension when he is in a room with one he is taunting is so thick, you need a heavy-duty chainsaw cut through it. There is no real back story to this Joker other than a story he tells about his daddy cutting his face to explain why his face is scared, but then again, can you really be sure he is telling the truth?

Seriously, I would put Ledger’s Joker on the same level with Hannibal Lecter from “The Silence of the Lambs” as well as Robert DeNiro’s Max Cady from “Cape Fear.” I would even go as far as to put him on a pedestal alongside Ben Kingsley’s ragingly raw performance as Don Logan in “Sexy Beast.” I love a bad guy who totally gets under our skin to such an effect to where it feels like he or she is reaching out of the screen to choke you. I get such a fiendish delight out of this, and Ledger’s performance makes it seem like it has been so long since we have had a truly unnerving villain show up on the silver screen.

While we revel in the brilliance of Ledger’s performance as Joker, it makes his loss seem all the more tragic because he succeeded in completely disappearing into the character he played in the same way Marlon Brando and De Niro have in the past. We were tragically robbed of an actor who would have easily become one of the greatest actors of his generation had he lived. His role as the Joker is one hell of an exit, but it feels so unfair that he now has to join the ranks of actors like James Dean who left us way too soon.

Unlike other summer movie blockbusters, this one is not afraid to take us on a journey to the darkest and most despairing depths of its characters short-lived triumphs and endless sorrows. This is a movie about how blurred our moral and ethical boundaries can get when we are pushed beyond our limits. Many big choices are made not just by the main characters, but by the people of Gotham. What will they do to survive? What choices will they make? But more importantly, what will their choice say about them, and are they prepared to live with the consequences of their actions?

These questions hit everyone hard, but no one gets hit harder than Bruce as he finds, in order to defeat the Joker, he has to become almost as bad as him. But can he live with that? Can the others close to him live with that as well? Bruce starts to find himself boxed into a corner as the Joker continually taunts him in a ways which turn the public against him. In the end, he becomes a lot like Jack Bauer from “24” as he protects the people as much as he can, but in the process comes to pay a very high price for what he does. Batman says he is not a hero, and while his actions are heroic, he does have a point. And in order to protect what integrity Gotham has left, he has to make some hard sacrifices.

Nothing in the city of Gotham is black and white, but an endless sea of grey as people are challenged to see who they really are. No one is innocent, and everyone is guilty of something. “The Dark Knight” finds its power and tragedy in the characters who start off good, but who soon lose their way as they head down a path they can never easily turn back from. As Harvey Dent says, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Nolan is now officially one of the best directors working today, and I am thrilled he got away with making a film as dark as this one and still get a PG-13 rating in the process. He started his career off with a bang with “Memento,” and he gave us his one of the few genuinely great remakes with “Insomnia” in which he directed Al Pacino and Robin Williams to some of their best performances ever. With “The Dark Knight,” he has continued to make Batman and the world he inhabits very much his own, and he may very well have made the best superhero movie ever. Even while it clocks in at about two and a half hours, you never feel the length because Nolan fully immerses you into what everything going on.

After the movie was finished, I went right out and bought the soundtrack which is composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It is a fantastic and intense score, and they easily best the work they did on “Batman Begins.” For me, this is a sign of a truly great motion picture as I did the exact same thing after I saw “Pulp Fiction” and “Boogie Nights.” I loved this movie. I LOVED IT!! I hope it makes a HUGE killing at the box office because this is the kind of summer movie I want to see more often.

As of right now, “The Dark Knight” is the movie to beat for 2008.

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