Monday, January 19, 2009

Film Snapshots: The Edge of Heaven, Revolutionary Road, Let the Right One In

Yup -- still haven't posted that 2008 year-end list, yet....but I swear it's coming. I'm just going to admit defeat on a few films and wait to see them when they are released on DVD. As for now, here are three films I recently saw:

The Edge of Heaven

It's impossible for me to champion this film enough, but thanks have to go to my friend Brandon for making me aware of this beautiful, poignant film. Certainly one of the best films of 2008. It’s so much more fulfilling than the slew of hyper-link films that came out during the post-Crash era. I never felt like these coincidental occurrences or happenstance moments were me being jerked around by a filmmaker who was just trying to use smoke and mirrors to mask a flimsy parable about humanity and forgiveness. Akin is wise to not for the grandiose and to let some of the most simple moments and facial expressions speak for the multitude of emotional currents running through the film.

That last image is as poetic as it gets. Just the sound of the waves was enough to bring tears to my eyes, and the image of the son waiting for his father was enough to make me smile wider than I’ve smiled in a long, long time at the movies.

Let the Right One In

Sad, pitiful Oskar (a preteen Swedish boy) is getting picked on at school, lucky for him there's a vampire living next door to him in the form of a 12 year old girl named Eli. The amazing thing about Thomas Alfredson's film is that somehow, someway it doesn't flub the premise with what could be an eye-rolling horror/love story; instead he treats the horror genre not as a convention, but as just another element to add into a wonderful story about a lonely, misunderstood boy who just wants someone his own age to relate to.

Certainly there are bigger themes at work here, as the androgynous Eli brings up themes that seem too big for a story about pre-teens. This is certainly a film Hollywood would never have green-lighted. What I liked about the film was how despite its predictability, the film rushed headlong into BIG themes for a horror picture, themes of anxiety and longing, and the need to be rescued. All of this plays out in a final scene that is as predictable as anything else in a vampire movie, but the way Alfredson stages it, and the investment I had in Oskar and his need to be rescued, allowed me to set aside my qualms about the sheer ordinariness of the films final moments.

Revolutionary Road

Sam Mendes once again tackles the themes of suburban discomfort with Revolutionary Road, a film that contains two of the finest acting performances in film this year, specifically Kate Winslet. However, if it weren't for these two actors and a performance by Michael Shannon (that cuts to the heart of the films central themes) you wouldn't think twice about such an ordinary film. As the film begins we jump right into the struggling marriage of April and Frank Wheeler; five minutes in and we have the films first Oscar-bait shouting match, ugh. The film actually evolves from there as surprisingly the Wheeler's look to pick up the pieces and formulate a plan to get them to actually "feel" something again. This is what I liked about the film, the way Mendes has his characters saying what the audience already knows: that they are hollow shells of their former selves, they don't like their assigned suburban roles, and that they are just acting a part. Well, duh. So I was glad the obvious was out in the open within the first 30 minutes of the film, and there is a moment within that first 30 minutes where Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes home on his birthday after an afternoon of infidelity; the performance in this scene by DiCaprio is heartbreaking.

The problems I have with the script is that too often Winselt and DiCaprio are left saying outlandish things that seem too written and like no normal person would ever say. There are Oscar bait scenes all over the film, and even though the actors more than do their share, they aren't really helped any by the bland direction of Mendes. I recommend the film because of some tremendous acting and a couple of scenes that elevate the picture from so-so to pretty good. I mentioned one of those scenes above, the other is when the Wheeler's invite their friends over for dinner and they bring their son John (Shannon) who's on leave from a mental institution. John is a person who can only speak the truth, and the observations he makes and the way he cuts through the Wheeler's facade like a scythe is one of the films most memorable scenes. It's just too bad that after Shannon and Winslet do their part, DiCaprio is left to yell and scream some more, since we haven't seen that before. The character of John is kind of a catch-22 for me because here the metaphor is clear: the "crazy" person is the only one who can speak the truth and pinpoint what's wrong with this 1950's suburban lifestyle. He is the voice of the beatniks before they made their impact on the domed world of 1950 American suburbs.

Winslet, DiCaprio, and Shannon are all superb here, it's just I didn't feel like the film offered anything new or worthwhile to subject matter that seemed all too familiar and predictable as I was watching it unfold. I appreciated the fact that Mendes didn't derail this film with sitcomy humor in this take on suburbia like he did with his first film American Beauty; I commend him for going all-serious all the way with Revolutionary Road, but he needed to omit the words and allow the viewer to watch and study the behaviors and facial expressions of these fine actors. This was supposed to be short, so I will quickly say two final thoughts: the cinematography by the great Roger Deakins is one of the highlights of an otherwise blandly directed film. And for a better take on this type of unsure-adult-dysfunctional-suburban family-drama (how's that for a genre!?) I recommend Ang Lee's excellent 1997 film The Ice Storm starring Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, and Sigourney Weaver.


  1. The Edge Of Heaven - I probably put it just the slightest notch below where you do as I felt a bit of contrivance at a couple parts. I still thought it was a very, very good movie though and miles above manipulative stuff like Crash. (And yet with those comments I liked Slumdog Millionaire as much as I did. Huh.)

    Let the Right One In - Interesting about the whole androgynous thing as I didn't quite get that until I read some stuff after viewing the film. It's not really that obvious (although central to the book, apparently), but, in retrospect, enough clues are laid out and it actually adds another layer to the film.

    Revolutionary Road - Tricia and I watched it the other night and we both couldn't agree more. Leo, Kate, Deakins -- all supurb. The story/direction -- from pedestrian to outright insulting. After just having finished the second season of "Mad Men" last weekend, it made me dislike the movie's needless exposition even more. Now THAT'S a show that gets the "show, don't tell" rule of good film/tv.

  2. Troy:

    I was pretty blown away with Let the Right One In's potential for a queer reading, if only because I knew nothing about the story other than its broad outlines and wasn't expecting it at all. I definitely picked up on it during the film, though, and a second viewing confirmed that I wasn't just seeing things that weren't there.

  3. Troy:

    It's amazing how bad at times Revolutionary Road can be. But I have to admit, I'm still thinking about it this morning. Roger Ebert's review has a final line that asks: "A lot of people believe their parents didn't understand them. What if they didn't understand themselves?"

    It's an interesting question and adds an extra weight of sadness to the Wheeler's life. But the film has sins I just can't forgive it for, like I mentioned in my short review Shannon's character is a breath of fresh, honest air, but it' kind of a catch-22 because even though I love what he says, how it's delivered, and the acting of others involved, did it really need to be said? Aren't his observations already blatantly obvious by that point of the film?

    Oh well. But man Kate Winslet was good.


    Thanks for commenting. I too picked up on the queer reading throughout Let the Right One In, but it was made all the more clearer for me after I went and read read your review, which helped add color to a lot of gray area the film has.

  4. Kevin:

    One thing I didn't notice even during my second time through the film until it was pointed out to me: Eli's protector / minder, Hakan, may have begun his relationship with Eli as a much younger man, perhaps even a boy like Oskar. The film thus echoes the gay relationship trope of the old queen (Eli) swapping his lover (Hakan) for a younger, prettier replacement (Oskar). It's a much more cynical take on the film's central romance, but still interesting.

  5. Andrew:

    Wow, I never even thought of that. Well, I do plan on revisiting a lot of these year-end films (I feel like I had to rush through from one film to the next just so I could cross them off the list) and Let the Right One In is definitely one of those movies I plan on revisiting. Thanks for the great comments.

  6. Revolutionary Road is indeed grievously flawed, in all sorts of ways, but I understand why you are still thinking about it. There are some moments that work, mainly because of the actors, and Shannon, despite playing the "author's voice" device, makes it resonate.

    While I completely agree that The Edge of Heaven is vastly superior to Crash and, yes, Babel, I still had some problems with it. It still had too much of a schematic bent for my tastes--but it was much stronger than the aforementioned attempts at "hyper-linking" as you say. Ha. Part of that was the across-the-board fine acting, and the authentic locations, which captured the gritty environs and exteriors so many films do these days, but also the beauty and warmth the world has to offer. Good thoughts here!

  7. Alexander:

    I'm almost wishing I would have waited to write something on Revolutionary Road, because as I've stated here and in your comment section, I'm still thinking about the film. Your essay on the film was a wonderful companion to the more basic and rudimentary critiques (like mine, hehe) that simply compare it to other films about dysfunctional families in suburbia. As you suggest there's more going on, and not in a good way.

    The Edge of Heaven resonated with me for reasons that I don't know if I can put into words. It was one of those movie experiences for me that just felt right and made me feel the warmth and excitement that a good film about humanity and the way we live our lives can make you feel -- and it wasn't contrived (like Crash and Babel).

    Thanks for stoppin' by.