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 * * * *

Bad Santa 2

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Bad Santa 2” is the kind of sequel I thought it would be; one which repeats the story of the original. Granted, many sequels are like this, and some get away with it like “Beverly Hills Cop II,” “The Hangover Part II” and John Carpenter’s “Escape from L.A.” Clearly, this is a movie made for fans of 2003 original which has long since become a holiday and cult classic, and this sequel does contain a number of gut-busting laughs as the world’s worst mall Santa Claus ever, Willie Soke, gets himself involved in another heist. But in its second half, “Bad Santa 2” loses much of the energy it built up and begins to run on fumes as scenes quickly remind us of the original and how great it was.

It’s been 13 years since “Bad Santa” was unleashed in theaters everywhere, and the holdup was the result of Miramax being sold among other things. Billy Bob Thornton was eager to get a sequel off the ground, but because of various rights issues, it seemed impossible to start production on one for years. While it is a relief to see this sequel finally arrive at your local cinema, it’s being released at a time where a major Presidential candidate bragged on audio about grabbing women by “the pussy.” As a result, it’s hard to watch “Bad Santa 2” without thinking about that, so the bad timing of its release is unfortunate.

So, what has Willie been up to for 13 years? Well, he’s still the same old cynical lout whose heart is smaller than the Grinch’s, and he still drinks himself silly at any given opportunity. Sue (Lauren Graham from the original) has long since left him as Willie is incapable of hanging onto any nurturing relationships, but he still gets regular visits from Thurman “the kid” Merman (Brett Kelly) who still acts like an 8-year-old even at the age of 21. Willie is prepared to put himself out of his misery, but he is much better at cracking safes than at attempting suicide. One thing’s for sure, he’s got one hell of a liver.

Despite having tried to kill Willie previously, Marcus Skidmore (Tony Cox) still manages to convince him to pull off another heist which will be their biggest yet. Marcus wants to rip off a Chicago charity which is said to have $2 million dollars, but Willie is against robbing a charity because, you know, they never have that much money. But Willie’s in for a big surprise as he discovers Marcus has brought on another partner for this caper, his mother Sunny (Kathy Bates). The fact Willie is quick to punch her right in the face as soon as he recognizes her should give you a good idea of just how dysfunctional the mother/son relationship is between these two.

Thornton hasn’t lost a step since first playing Willie back in 2003, and he still knows how to give a deplorable character like this one a complexity other actors couldn’t. The actor can still land a joke like the best can, and just when you think Willie can’t reach an even deeper bottom than he already has, he does. But as irredeemable as Willie seems, Thornton still gives us a reason to root for him even as he is about to sin again.

“Bad Santa 2,” however, scores a real casting coup with the addition of Kathy Bates who shows no fear in making Sunny every bit as cynical as Willie. She relishes playing an unrepentant biker chick who throws caution to the wind just as one would flick away a cigarette to the ground, and she’s the kind of actress who’s game for just about anything and everything.

It’s also great to see Tony Cox back as Marcus, and that’s even though the logistics of Marcus working again with Willie are beyond belief. Then again, you don’t bring logic into a sequel like this. While Lauren Graham is missed, it’s crazy fun to watch “Mad Men’s” Christina Hendricks let it loose as a reformed alcoholic who still feels the need to be bad when the opportunity presents itself. As for Brett Kelly, he still gives this sequel the heart it needs as man-child Thurman Merman. You would think Thurman would have long since outgrown his attachment to Santa, but again, this is not the kind of sequel you bring logic to.

But as “Bad Santa 2” heads into its second act, the laughs begin to die down as our familiarity with original sinks in to where what was once fresh now feels sadly stale. We are introduced to Regent Hastings (Ryan Hansen) who heads the charity and is Christina’s husband who cheats on her and indulges in a foot fetish which is best left to the imagination, and there’s also the security officer who is on the verge of uncovering Willie’s true identity. They eventually bring to mind the characters John Ritter and Bernie Mac played in “Bad Santa,” but these characters are nothing more than mere caricatures supplied for the audience to despise right from the start. The characters Ritter and Mac portrayed were not clichéd ones, and each actor inhabited them with a comic brilliance not easily duplicated. The both of them are very much missed this time around.

Directing “Bad Santa 2” is Mark Waters who gave us “The House of Yes,” the “Freaky Friday” remake and the infinitely enjoyable “Mean Girls” which made a star out of Lindsay Lohan and gave Tina Fey a life outside of SNL. With this sequel, he feels obligated to stay within the original’s formula as straying from it wouldn’t have worked. Waters succeeds in keeping the comic pace of the movie up, and he generates some big laughs which left me in hysterics. However, he can’t keep it from losing steam as we become more aware of where things are heading as this sequel heads to its inevitable climax which is not as inspired as it wants to be.

For me, “Bad Santa 2” is a near miss. Some sequels are mere replications of the original, and this drives most critics up the wall. I can be a bit forgiving as I’m willing to accept this to a certain extent if the sequel proves to be entertaining, but even I have my limits. “Bad Santa 2” succeeds in its first half, but its second half shows its filmmakers running out of steam long before they crossed the finish line. It’s a shame because the original is one of my favorite movies to watch during the holidays, but this one comes up short. It definitely has its devilishly inspired moments, but it could have used more of them.

* * ½ out of * * * *

 

Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates Team Up for ‘Bad Santa 2’

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Billy Bob Thornton is back in the Santa suit as Willie Soke in “Bad Santa 2” which once again involves Willie teaming up with his partner-turned-nemesis Marcus (Tony Cox) to rob a charity in Chicago on Christmas Eve. But this time they have an additional partner in crime, and one Willie didn’t expect to deal with, his mother Sunny (played by Kathy Bates). It’s no surprise to see Willie and Sunny don’t have the best mother and son relationship, and both seem intent on outdoing each other when it comes to insults and political incorrectness. But can these two get past their differences to pull off a heist and maybe try some love and tenderness in the process? Well, you’ll have to see the movie for yourself to figure this out.

It’s great to see Thornton back in one of his most famous roles. “Bad Santa” has long since become a cult hit, and the fans were eager to see Willie back in action even as we wondered if his liver could take much more damage. Thornton was joined by Bates at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the “Bad Santa 2” press day, and I was eager to find out how they prepared to play their loathsome and yet strangely appealing characters. The two of them are Oscar winners, Thornton for “Sling Blade” and Bates for “Misery,” and they have since been nominated several more times. Their attention to developing a character is impeccable, and I was fascinated to learn how they worked on the ones they played in this sequel.

Their answers to my question led to a hilarious story involving Thornton and his mother, and Bates reflected on one of the first movies she ever appeared in.

Ben Kenber: First, I just want to say Willie has one hell of a liver. Also, Billy and Kathy, I read the two of you worked on your characters’ backstories a lot for this movie. What specifically did you come up with that you really agreed on and which really helped to inform your performances?

Kathy Bates: I remember one day we were talking that maybe they were carnies together and con artists and had lived in that atmosphere. Nothing against carnies, but we figured that that’s probably where they were from. What else Billy?

Billy Bob Thornton: Yeah and the idea that I was sort of like the artful dodger and she was faking. That sort of idea that I grew up, and it even says in there, where she used to sell me out to do stuff for her all the time, and so we’re sort of grifters in a way. So, it’s not like Willie doesn’t have an understanding of what she does and why she’s that way and why I’m the way I am. We grew up rough in a weird business, so that was mainly it. And also, you can see the mother-son relationship because you know how if you’re watching a movie with your parents… My mom’s 83, and if I’m watching a movie and somebody starts making out, I get so embarrassed. I’ll never forget when my mom called me once and she said she had been to see my movie, and I was like, what movie? I never even thought she would know this existed, and she just gone to see “Monster’s Ball” with her best friend and I was like, why did you do that? How could you do that to me? But I’m still that way. I have never said the F-word around my mother to this day, and she’s 83. So, there is the scene where Kathy has the dildo, and you can see the kid and the mother in that scene and it’s kind of like, golly! Don’t do that! So, I think we had that part too. You can see a mother and son in there. I think we felt it. We did talk about it to a degree, but a lot of it just came naturally.

Kathy Bates: Can I just say one last thing? I remember doing a movie years and years ago with Dustin Hoffman, and it was my first talking part in a movie. Gary Busey was in it and his son, Jake Busey, was in it too, and he was five. Jake got the part, but Gary said, “Do you want to take the night to think about it?” So, Jake came back the next day and he said, “Well, yeah, I’ll do the movie because I think acting is pretending and making believe like you’re not pretending.” And I thought, okay, that’s it. Lee Strasberg, you can go home, and that says it all.

I want to thank Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates for taking the time to answer my question. “Bad Santa 2” opens in theaters on November 23, 2016.

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