MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Revolutionary Road, Inkheart, Notorious, Outlander and The Secret of the Grain

Revolutionary Road (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Sam Mendes

Revolutionary Road is one of these novels I’ve always been meaning to read — like Remembrance of Things Past, or Middlemarch or At Swim Two Birds, but a somewhat easier read. So I was happy to see it on screen, successful or not. The Sam Mendes version of Richard Yates’ highly regarded 1961 novel — a book which got great reviews and maintained its reputation afterwards –gets points with me. It gives me a chance to buy and read Yates’ book, in a nice cheap movie tie-in paperback with Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet on the cover, nuzzling noses and swaddled in white.

I’m not done with the book yet but I’ve seen the movie twice and it holds up better than some have indicated: a sometimes too distant and painterly, but often laceratingly ironic and despairing look at people trapped in the immaculately humdrum life of middle class suburbia in the ’50s. Frank and April Wheeler (DiCaprio and Winslet) married young and hot, have seen their dreams dissipate in a world where the only escape seems to be infidelity or madness, and are facing a terrible crossroads — something that only April and a local lunatic sense ahead. The book (or the part I’ve read) traps you, sings to you, stings you and so does the movie.

Yates, a bit like John Cheever, writes in that slightly dry, chiseled, ironic, luminous American prose that both castigates American middle class culture and, in an odd way celebrates it — or at least celebrates the artists ensnared in it. The book is about how marriages collapse and how artists and would be artists or outsiders suffer in the more materialist realms of Eisenhower America, and that’s a worthy subject.

Indeed though, some writers seem a little miffed by movies that try to adapt great or highly praised books. How can they possibly measure up, not mess up? Look at Garbo’s Anna Karenina. Look at Richard Brooks’ The Brothers Karamazov. Look at Joseph Strick’s Ulysses. Adapt Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky or the rest? Why even try?

To me, that’s nonsense. The alternative might be to adapt nothing but children’s books, comics or crap and juvenilia: old TV shows or video games or half-baked original scripts by hustling young writers — which some of the dimmer bulbs at the studios would probably be all too happy to do.

Yet among the glories of the American cinema are many classic or very well-regarded books and plays, including Lolita, The Grapes of Wrath, David Copperfield, The Maltese Falcon, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Double Indemnity, Rebecca, The Big Sleep, A Streetcar Named Desire and more recently No Country for Old Men. Some of those movies are (very) faithful translations. Some are not. Some are better because they’re not (like Gone with the Wind, which lost much of its racism in the adaptation). But every one of them gets a leg up, because they start with strong or splendid material.

So does Revolutionary Road — which, is a good adaptation — by director Mendes and writer Justin Haythe. They preserve much of the story and dialogue and strive to capture and maintain tone, get Yates’ postwar blues, and keep everything at a high quality level. They mostly do. For one thing, it seems to me that there are three (maybe four) indisputably top-notch performances in the film: by DiCaprio and Winslet, and by Michael Shannon as John Givings as the electroshock-shattered son of their gabby realtor Helen (Kathy Bates, who probably belongs with this threesome too.)

The movie begins with Frank and April meeting at a New York party, flirting and then grabbing each other — hot, lascivious and unfettered — and then it segues to the book’s opening scene: Frank and April at their Laurel Players Community Theater play, which is a disastrous failure and starts their little private war and (fleeting) peace. In the novel, the play is identified as Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest, which Yates probably thinks is a crummy play, but which duplicates Revolutionary Road’s theme: the artist or sensitive outsider destroyed by society or themselves. April is playing Gaby, the Bette Davis part (in the movie adaptation of Forest) and Shep Campbell (David Harbour), of the neighbor couple who have a crush on Frank and April–is playing Duke Mantee, the Humphrey Bogart role. Leslie Howard, the doomed intellectual, is nowhere in sight.

The play bombs and Frank, rather than sympathizing with poor April — in the book she’s giving a standout performance at first, which crumbles because of a sick lead actor and the lousy production around her.

April is the romantic, Frank the cynic, and the play starts their crackup, interrupted by April’s heart-shattering would-be gift to him, of a start over in his favorite city, Paris, with her supporting him while he finds himself. To a writer like Yates, that may make April an angel; in the movie, when she becomes pregnant, and Frank is offered a promotion and gets sensible, you can feel her heart breaking. (You’re just a boy who made me laugh at a party, a devastating line.) Frank doesn’t feel it yet. That’s his curse; he dismisses her grief as maladjustment. And all around them are those trim lawns and austere interiors: bookless, artless, somewhat like a ’50s Universal movie soap opera set.

The movie skids toward tragedy, interrupted by great argument scenes, brilliantly executed by Leo and Kate. (What a team. Did you see that slightly clenched, careful look in his eyes at the Golden Globes, when the double-winning Winslet said that she loved him?)

It may be a great book, but it’s not quite a great movie. But it has those mind-bending performances. The best scenes in the film are the sullen, nervous clashes with Michael Shannon as crazy John Givings, who has had his gift, mathematics, driven out of his brain by electroshock, who tells the truths the others conceal or ignore, who is at first amusedly tolerated, then angrily attacked by, Frank and whose mother, Helen (at whom he threw a table) keeps standing in front of him, saying “He’s not well! He’s not well!” Shannon is amazing in those scenes; he turns the whole film around and galvanizes the other actors. His is the most richly deserved of all the supporting actor Oscar nominations this year (especially since at least two of them are leads, or near-leads).

There’s one strange element in Revolutionary Road, movie and maybe book. Why aren’t the children more present? That’s why The Ice Storm an inferior novel, is a better movie. But Revolutionary Road does seem to me, after that second viewing, a better movie than Mendes’ American Beauty And you can only be happy for the actors — Leo, Kate, Michael, Kathy, Dylan Baker (acrid Jack Ordway) and the others — when they get to play parts like this. They should be happy too.

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Inkheart (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U.K.; Iain Softley

A movie for bookworms. a group in which I’m proud to belong. Another elaborate children’s fantasy spectacular literary adaptation, in the Harry Potter mode. This time the source is Cornelia Funke’s bestselling German series. The story gives us nervous scholar Mortimer Folchart (Brendan Fraser), his adventurous young daughter Meggie (Elizabeth Hope Bennett), library loving, acid-tongued Elinor (Helen Mirren), dotty author Jim Broadbent and a raft of characters who come out of Broadbent’s book, including arch villain Capricorn (Andy Serkis) and hysterical Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), who all came pouring out of a book, which Mo had the misfortune to read ten years ago. Explanation: Mo is a Silvertongue, which means that when he reads a book, he can unintentionally bring the characters to life. (Hollywood could use him.) He can also unintentionally send real people into the books, the unfortunate fate of his wife.

Iain Softley was better with The Beatles (Backbeat) and Henry James (The Wings of the Dove) than he is with Funke. But, since the movie has been given a full Brit all-star treatment, it’s an okay classy entertainment. If you want to see a non-trollish Serkis delivering cold, heartfelt villainy, Inkheart is the one.

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Notorious (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; George Tillman

A disappointing movie bio of murdered New York rapper Biggie Smalls, aka Christopher Wallace, aka Notorious B.I.G. — played here robustly by the excellent Jamal Woodard (aka Gravy). There s a lot of meat on Gravy’s bones, but not enough on the movie’s, which concentrates too much on making Biggie as a deprived cultural hero, and not enough, for my taste, on at least speculating about who killed who. At least Tillman covers the East Coast-West Coast rap community feud, which may also have claimed Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie).

The cast is good, the parts juicy. Angela Bassett shines as B.I.G.’s mother, Naturi Nuaghton is Lil’ Kim and Derek Luke puffs up Sean “Puffy” Combs. But we’re left asking too many questions and hearing not enough music. Notorious is no Cadillac Records. By the way, I think there should be a moratorium on unnecessarily repeated movie titles, especially when the earlier movie is an all-time Hitchcock classic, like the Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman Notorious. Notorious B.I.G. is actually a nifty title.

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Outlander (One-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Howard McCain

Outlander, a really outlandish movie, takes us deep into the somber Scandinavian forests and rivers of the Age of Iron — and of the iron-man Vikings. There, accompanied by the eerie sound of exploding clichés, a UFO crashes into a lake, disgorging two alien beings: James Caviezel as the oddly human-looking Kainan, and the Moorwen, an awful blood-crazed dragon-like beast that will soon be wreaking havoc all around the countryside. Eventually, the monster and Kainan, who learns Old Norse miraculously fast with a Rosetta Stone-ish device he claps on his ear, will have the local Vikings longing for the days when the only things they had to worry about were an occasional massacre, loose axe-blades, snails in the mead and crowd safety at Viking funerals.

Outlander is a visually spectacular but dramatically cheesy sci-fi gorefest with a surprisingly good cast — headed by Caviezel, Sophia Myles, John Hurt and Ron Perlman — trapped in an oddball story that dubiously tries to mix up The War of the Worlds-style alien invasion shockers with heroic literary sagas like the Icelandic and Norse epics, and Beowulf.

Aaargh! Rothgar! What a concept! Monsters from outer space vs. lusty Viking warriors! Fire-breathing extraterrestrials attack carousing, battle-hardened, mead-quaffing sword-slingers! Predator vs. The Vikings! The fort burns up! Wenches scream! Adorable kids hide! Brave Kainan (Caviezel) flirts with feisty wench-princess Freya (Miles), while fighting the blazing outer space marauder, with the aid of hot-tempered Wulfric (Jack Huston, grandson of John), reckless Gunnar (Perlman) and wise old Rothgar (John Hurt, for God’s sake).

Isn’t that the kind of picture you’ve been dying to see? Probably only in a moviemaking world where marketing hooks can be more important than scripts, would we end up with something like this. But give writer-director Howard McCain (no grandson to his John) some credit. McCain does most of Outlander with a straight face and he’s even had Icelandic scholars translate part of his dialogue into old Norse (a movie first), and had the actors sometimes speak it. With a straight face.

Yet, though Outlander isn’t exactly Plan Viking from Outer Space, it might be more entertaining if it were. I wouldn’t have minded a cheapo-nutso movie that blended Ed Wood’s honest-to gosh flying saucers with dippy Scandinavian heroes out of some Guy Maddin pastiche. Unfortunately there’s a loony sobriety to Outlander that tends to kill any real chance for subversive laughs. And it’s positively, uh, hurtful to see a consummate actor like Hurt — whom I recently re-watched, with much delight, doing his great mad performance as Caligula in I Claudius — wandering around in animal skins trying to duck alien-flames and match-make between Kainan and Freya, while Wulfric burns. Aaargh! Rothgar!

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The Secret of the Grain (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
France; Abdel Kechiche

This superb French film, set among an extended Franco-Arab family in the Southern French seaport town of Sete, has the raw gutty realism and emotional truth of a John Cassavetes or Maurice Pialat movie, plus some of the ensemble brilliance of a Robert Altman. In it, Abdel (a.k.a. Abdellatif) Kechiche, a wonderful new director, takes us into the heart and soul of a melancholy, active, scooter-riding but very quiet old man — a Maghrebi immigrant named Slimane (Habib Boufares) — and his lively, sometimes infuriating family.

Severed from his longtime port job, Slimane decides to parley his savings and his wife‘s talent for making fish couscous (the grain of the film’s title) to open a restaurant. He does, with not entirely happy results. Along the way, Kechiche paints a thoroughly convincing portrait of the city’s colorful, but sometimes painful mixed-race milieu. The entire cast catches and holds us, especially Hafsia Herzi as indomitable teen Rym; the semi-documentary shooting style works perfectly, and Boufares is, finally, heart-breaking. In French and Arabic, with English subtitles.

Read Michael Wilmington’s The Children of Huang Shi, Max Payne, Magnificent Obsession, George Wallace, The Express

– Michael Wilmington
January 23 2009

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Wilmington

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