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I love me a good suburban malaise movie. I’ve lived in a variety of types of suburbs and now live in a city so I think I have a good handle on the pros and cons of suburban living. There can be a lot of interesting themes to mine there, not the least of which is that chase for the elusive “American dream.” That’s a broad subject to tackle though, especially for a viewer like me with a “quit yer whining” mentality.

But I really loved American Beauty so I thought Sam Mendes’s return to suburbia might be up my alley. Advanced word diminished my hopes, which even still turned out to be set way too high. The problem is that Revolutionary Road isn’t an effective portrait of the soul-sucking suburbs, it’s just a story of two tools in a bad marriage. They use the oppressive homogeneity of suburban living as an excuse for their crumbling relationship, a potentially interesting topic, but in the end they’re two pieces of work that shouldn’t be married to each other, if anyone, who just subject us to their yelling and whining for two hours. I’d be curious to hear if anyone else found themselves leaning towards one character or the other. I found myself sympathizing with him marginally more; he is a jerk but she’s truly unbalanced.

Revolutionary Road is billed to be this great acting movie, but to me it felt bogged down in its Serious Acting. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio never felt real (she was a worse offender than him). Or perhaps the style of precise enunciation and showy emotion missed its mark for me; regardless I was not terribly impressed. Supporting Actor nominee Michael Shannon steals every scene he’s in, but he feels like part of a completely different movie. His character also managed to sap any sense of subtlety out of the film; what better way to hammer a point home than to have a crazy person just come out and say it explicitly?

Not all of it is bad, however. A lot of it is quite interesting from a technical or more cerebral standpoint (y’know, if you don’t bother with little things like plot or character). It’s fun to see a film throw itself so completely into its era, especially since 1950s America tends to get overlooked in film in favor of World War II on one side and the swinging 60s on the other. So the sets and costumes, both Oscar nominated, were interesting, as were all the little touches from the time period (like the serious amounts of liquor and cigarettes Kate Winslet manages to imbibe while pregnant, or the glimpses into the business world). And I will say it’s often effective in tone; if more people had seen it it could’ve been responsible for a measurable increase in marriage postponements. For a film with so many missteps it was impressively brutally bleak and mostly earned it.

I also really dug the ending. I wasn’t always fond of where the film leads but for where it does lead the resolution works very well. But then the very final scene killed my good will. If your film has to make an over-the-top, meaning-telegraphing final pronouncement, then make it ridiculously over the top like the absurd rat at the end of The Departed, not stupid and smug like In the Valley of Elah.

Maybe the American dream with its illusory suburban picket fence is just a formidable challenge to take head-on. One of my favorite suburbia movies of recent years isn’t really about the suburbs at all: Brick, a modern noir populated with detached youth and set among the sidewalk-free roads and empty big box store parking lots of the suburbs. Maybe suburban angst works best as a supporting character.

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I don’t often get a chance to say it, but: John, you are absolutely right.  Don’t let it go to your head.  To briefly summarize, The Duchess is a conventional costume drama.  Read John’s post for further details on that front, there’s no point in me repeating what he said, but suffice it to say that if the spoof movies (e.g. Scary Movie, Meet the Spartans, Dance Flick) ever get around to doing these type of movies, they probably could just watch this one and do a pretty job on the genre.  I agree that The Duchess could have taken a number of potentially interesting different tacks, but instead decided to play the game as straight as possible.  Which I guess is good if you like your movies as low risk/low reward as possible.

I suppose I should come up with a few original points, huh?  Let’s see.  The movie co-stars Hayley Atwell, who took 2008 as the year to tackle the incredibly specific niche of “The Other Woman In Mostly Failed Oscarbaiting Costume Dramas” as she also fielded that role in Brideshead Revisited.  She’s rather fetching in both films, I thought.  But maybe more importantly, her characters generally added some flavor to the movies, no small feat given the general blandness of the two films.  Indeed, I could see the argument being made that The Duchess could have been more interesting had it focused on her character rather than Knightley’s.

The late, great Fire Joe Morgan blog had this thing about working food metaphors into their posts, so they could add the “food metaphor” tag.  I’m beginning to think I do the same with Starter For Ten.  But surely it is no coincidence that James McAvoy followed starring in that with having a doomed romance with Keira Knightley in Atonement and here Ms. Knightley has doomed romance with Dominic Cooper…who co-starred as McAvoy’s best friend in Starter For Ten.  Ha!  To me, Cooper’s facial features have a certain leonine quality which creep me out a bit, so maybe it isn’t surprising he keeps showing up in these third fiddle roles, but he sure seems to be getting some plum ones (see Mamma Mia!)

Otherwise, the film probably ended up with the Oscar nominations it deserved (Art Direction and Costume Design).  I’m a big Ralph Fiennes fan, and I did think he was pretty great here as the cold husband who just wants a male heir (and to be fair, he was promised Knightley would be good at pumping out a male baby, can you really blame the guy for wanting a contract honored?), but I don’t think he was snubbed, really.  I also like Keira Knightley, sure because she’s breathtakingly pretty, but also because she has actual range.  I’m not advocating Bend It Like Beckham 2, necessarily, but I hope she can add some more non-period films to her slate, maybe even something on the lighter side.

I liked that Changeling has a sharp sense of time and place. I didn’t like that it didn’t have a sense of focus or pacing. I think where it unravels is when it tries to do too much; there are plenty of aspects to it that I found admiral but maybe there are just too many aspects.

The root of the story is the disappearance of Christine Collins’s (Angelina Jolie) son, Walter, in 1928 Los Angeles. Months later the LA police return to her a boy that she insists is not actually her son. She then campaigns to force the police to stop dragging their heels and look for her real son while the police fight her back viciously. It’s certainly an emotional story with Christine trying to keep it together while dealing with the loss of her son and seeking justice. I liked Jolie’s performance, which is generally not showy. Christine is a fairly grounded and very strong woman and even in dramatic moments Jolie plays her with some restraint. Of course there are scenes involving emotional outbursts and those mostly felt earned and genuine.

But the film doesn’t stay focused on Christine’s story. Deep into the runtime it takes an abrupt and dark shift to a farm east of the city. Jolie is offscreen for significant periods of time as the investigation into the farm unfolds. I’ll keep it vague until after the jump to avoid spoilers, but this subplot feels like part of a different film. It is still often effective taken on its own, but it’s too involved and developed of a subplot for a film that should really be focused on Christine Collins.

Then the film begins to feel like it’s spiraling out of control. It goes on for way too long, far past what felt like its natural climax. It’s frustrating because the film feels so promising for so long and each of the scenes and story elements usually works on its own, just to discover as the film unfolds that many are wasted.

From an Oscars standpoint, Jolie will likely get a Best Actress nod and it’ll be well-deserved. As I mentioned at the beginning, despite Changeling‘s thematic and story missteps, to its credit it creates a wholly enveloping and consistently interesting environment. Even during the times I felt the story slipping away from me I found something of interest in the setting. A Costume nomination could certainly be in the cards and I would love to see an Art Direction nomination. The sets and the props were my favorite part of the film. Just take in the architecture, trolleys, cars, and time-appropriate props.

Besides directing, Clint Eastwood also contributed the score, nominated for a Golden Globe. I think it succumbs to indie/artsy guitar plucking far too often, a trend I find ever more obnoxious. The Academy loves Clint, but maybe they’ll go for him for Actor in Gran Torino and shut him out for Changeling.

One weird note is that there is a completely superfluous scene about the Oscars in the film. Christine’s coworkers go out to listen to the 1934 Oscar radio broadcast while she hangs back and happily cheers when It Happened One Night is announced the winner (wouldn’t it be something if the audio used in the film is from the actual broadcast; the Academy jealously guards that footage). All I could wonder is if Eastwood was sucking up; at 130 minutes in I was just ready to go.

It won’t be getting Director or Picture nominations and it shouldn’t. Specifics and theories after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

The thing about The Duchess is that it’s entirely conventional. It’s a genre pic that plays out exactly as you would expect, with the requisite lush art direction and costume porn. The heroine is trapped in a society that doesn’t permit her to marry the one she loves but her big personality allows her to make her mark on society. Normal stuff for bodice-rippers, but ultimately I think this conventional and competent film is pretty good for the genre.

The Duchess is significantly better than the dreadful Elizabeth series. It’s more engrossing and accessible than the usual Jane Austen adaptation. But I think there’s a limit to how much I can like this sort of movie without it taking some risks and trying something different and The Duchess does not. It’s solid and adequate but nothing new.

Keira Knightley plays Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire in the late 18th century. Her marriage to Duke William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes) is political with little personal connection between the two. William really just wants a male heir and generally ignores Georgiana otherwise. Her inability to produce an heir sours their relationship further, to the point of occasional physical and emotional brutality. Naturally there’s a strapping young man who captures Georgiana’s heart, Dominic Cooper’s Charles Grey. And you already know where this is heading: forbidden love, betrayal, a young woman rebelling against an aristocratic society that prevents her from determining the path of her own life.

I found the public Georgiana more interesting than her private dramas. She was a fashion icon of her time and a very vocal supporter and campaigner for the Whig party, making her a larger public figure than her husband. She was an intelligent woman fairly in tune with her society despite her place in the aristocracy. Maybe I liked these parts because they were a little different. I liked the political scenes more in Elizabeth too, but maybe just as a respite from the mind-numbing personal drama.

Knightley is getting some Best Actress buzz, which I guess is at least better than last year’s buzz for her role in Atonement. She’s gotten quite good at these period pieces and she is good here, though not spectacularly so. If she were to get nominated I would be okay with it though I’d be surprised if there weren’t five performances I end up liking more. Fiennes got even more buzz for his role that mostly required quiet seething punctuated by impressive rage and again I just found him fine. It just wasn’t that interesting. But now he’s going for Supporting Actor for The Reader so his role here will likely move to the back burner. Technical nominations in categories like Costume and Art Direction are expected and deserved.

In movies like this, the heroine generally gets married off to some man who she has little in common with. She’s a romantic, however, and pines after a handsome gentleman who, through class differences, she cannot be with. But she’s a smart woman and despite personal drama she makes her mark on the world. Often her mother is an important supporting character, a realist and strong matriarch who tells the heroine to buck up and get her head out of the clouds because she has certain duties to perform for her husband, country, and/or family. I want to see a movie about that mother for once. Why can’t the heroine be like pretty much every other aristocratic woman of the time and accept her role? Why can’t she understand the politics of marriage and use them in her favor? Why must she spend so much time brooding about love? It’d be nice to have a historical film where the woman can do her thing (lead her country, influence policy, head the royal court/her family, etc…) without spending much of the movie bemoaning her broken heart because, let’s face it, she probably doesn’t know anyone in her social circle who married for love.

I guess when it comes down to it, The Duchess is good assuming the restraints of the genre, but it never challenges those restraints, which I think limits its potential. I can’t help but compare it to Sofia Coppola’s unfairly-derided Marie Anoinette, which tried something different in terms of style, character, and plot. Not everything works in that film, but it’s always interesting and refreshingly different. The Duchess is already solid, I just wish it had some more interesting touches.

Why are all these posts concentrating on little categories like “Best Actor” and “Best Director” when what we all really care about is Art Direction and Costumes? In the course of seeing all of the films nominated for the big eight I ended up seeing most of the films nominated for all those other categories they hand out awards to in the middle 2 hours of the Oscar telecast. Since you obviously care about my make-up preferences, please, read on!

Best Song
“Falling Slowly” Once, “Raise it Up” August Rush, “Happy Working Song” Enchanted, “So Close” Enchanted, “That’s How You Know” Enchanted

For some reason I feel like I already covered this category. But since the Academy stupidly ignored my recommendations, let’s take a look at these inferior choices.

The clear winner for me is “Falling Slowly.” It’s the central song in the wonderful musical Once that embodies the heartbreak and loneliness of the main characters. “Raise it Up” is actually fairly offbeat and I imagine it works well in the film, schmaltzy as it surely is. Nothing against Enchated, but if one of its triumvirate wins it better be “That’s How You Know,” a clever take on the Disney fairy tale tune set in modern times. “Happy Working Song” is a cute but uninspiring ditty while “So Close” is a toothless and unmemorable love song.

Snubs: See my breakdown of the eligible songs to find about a dozen songs I liked better than all the non-Once songs. Read the rest of this entry »

I loved the style of Sweeney Todd but little else. It looks stunning, as Tim Burton flicks are wont to do. The sets are gorgeous in their dingy and gloomy splendor. The colors are vibrant, mostly dark but sprayed with red. Some of the scenes are so stylishly gruesome that they made me groan. The score is great. The Oscar nominations for Art Direction and Costumes are well-deserved.

And merely looking at all of this was enough for a while, but not entirely. The major problem is that Sweeney Todd is a musical but the songs just aren’t good. They have no melody, nothing to hum as you leave the theater. The music should be a style to tell the story but it’s just inaccessible.

I also didn’t really care about the story. It mostly just made me hungry for a meat pie. And to top it off, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter aren’t very good singers. This would be fine if they merely had to compete with Alan Rickman, but all the children in the film can actually sing! It doesn’t serve the movie well that the supporting cast members blow the stars out of the water when given their chance to sing. Depp’s Best Actor is a pretty weak nomination. Except for the singing voice I liked him fine, but I wasn’t blown away.

So I’m glad I saw it because I’m a big fan of Burton’s style but I doubt I’ll go back for a second helping.

Atonement is a sweeping epic that actually works a lot better before it becomes sweeping or an epic. It’s a melodrama about love torn asunder by a false accusation, an offense that will reverberate through the lives of all involved for a long, long time.

It all begins at a country manor where Keira Knightley’s Cecilia lounges in the garden and James McAvoy’s Robbie is the Oxford-educated gardener’s son. The two are long-time friends who grew apart at university but come back together one fateful day. Cecilia’s sister Briony, a precocious girl of about 12 played by Saoirse Ronan, is a budding writer who stumbles across certain glimpses of Cecilia and Robbie’s lustful relationship: a dirty letter, a teasing incident in a fountain, a tryst in the library. Briony’s imagination runs wild and she begins to think Robbie is a sex-crazed maniac. Later, when something horrific does happen, Briony misidentifies the perpetrator and Robbie is arrested.

I go into detail here because this part of the film, roughly the first third, is very good. In a long, sweeping epic it’s when the story stays focused on a country manor that it really works. Most of it is fairly undramatic, but the film ratchets up the tension by showing us multiple scenes from different perspectives. What looks sinister from Briony’s perspective looks flirtatious from Cecilia’s. The time-shifts and piercing score complement this very compelling segment.

Alas, as the scope expands the film loses its punch. Read the rest of this entry »

I pulled double duty on this one. I felt obligated, writing for a site that every week gets dozens of readers people searching for Outkast lyrics and misspellings of Edith Piaf, to give Elizabeth: The Golden Age due process by first watching its predecessor, Elizabeth.

What a long and baffling prospect that turned out to be. Elizabeth is unfocused, cluttered, and confusing. The Golden Age is a bit tighter but then adds in heaps of silliness. There’s a love triangle! And a rousing speech to the troops in full armor! And a convenient war hero swinging from a mast! And cat fights! And playful but pointed ruminations about love! My eyes hurt from rolling so much.

I probably went into these films at a disadvantage since I haven’t paid any attention to the era since European History in 10th grade, but frankly I should have been able to decipher a bit more. There’s plenty of room for offering tidbits to the Tudor-obsessed, but not by forsaking those of us with barely a passing knowledge. There are too many characters to get to know many of them so all their political and religious motivations get glossed over. The result is their actions often don’t feel justified or well-developed. Read the rest of this entry »

Sweeney Todd is, at its core, ridiculous. At least in the sense that if the turns of the plot were translated into a non-musical, it would probably make for a half-decent Fear.net movie. You know, one of those they can pump out on a weekly basis. But, the thing is, musicals are inherently ridiculous. Unless you normally detail and solve your problems in song and dance. In which case, I commend you. But ultimately, I think Sweeney Todd works, and works well. Read the rest of this entry »

Atonement pivots around a letter that should never have been written, and I wouldn’t go nearly as far as saying that this movie shouldn’t have been made, but its existence seemed rather irrelevant. Having not read the Ian McEwan novel, I still felt the distinct sense that I was watching a film adaption of a very lyrical novel. Apart from one sequence, which I’ll get into later, I never felt invested in the movie; it lacked the epic qualities I’d expect of a period piece. Not all great stories make great movies, and Atonement is no exception. Read the rest of this entry »

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