Three stories of love, and a tale of wine for dessert

by Leonard Heldreth

The films this month provide three variations on love and a look at the way California wines beat French wines in the “Judgment of Paris” in 1976.

Two Lovers

51H9QU1jp0LTwo Lovers offers a love triangle in which one side of the triangle is cracked, another side is at least dinged, and the third, while smooth and straight, isn’t the most enticing side you ever saw. The cracked side is Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix), a young man who is unstable enough he previously has slashed his wrists and, as the film opens, leaps into the water, attempting to drown himself.
Under the water, he has second thoughts and, with help from some bystanders, climbs out and sets out for home, soaked and chilled. Leonard has been engaged, but his wife’s family broke off the engagement when genetic tests indicated that the couple would likely have children who would die as babies.
Because of his loss, or perhaps because of problems that pre-dated the engagement, Leonard has been in treatment and now lives with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov). His family runs a dry-cleaning business in Brighton Beach. Is he stable at this time? Even he doesn’t know.
Into Leonard’s life comes blond, non-Jewish Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow), a stylish young woman who lives in Leonard’s apartment house on the floor above and at an angle where they can see each other’s windows.
Leonard is captivated by her beauty, her lifestyle and the friendship she extends to him; only gradually does he find out she has an ongoing affair with Ronald Blatt (Elias Koteas), a man who keeps saying he will leave his wife for her, and that she has had (according to Blatt) a little drug problem in the past. Her behavior and her demands on Leonard indicate some emotional instability as well.
The third side of this love triangle, and the only stable one, is Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), a beautiful Jewish girl whose father is buying Leonard’s father’s dry-cleaning business and wants to groom Leonard to run the combined businesses. Sandra knows Leonard is damaged goods, but she loves him and says she wants to take care of him.
Perhaps because of that, and because she represents the comfortable middle-class life he sees in his parents, Leonard finds her much less interesting than the wilder Michelle, although he manages to seduce both of them.
Both sets of parents avoid being the trite parents (especially the trite Jewish parents) who constantly manipulate their children for their own ends. Both sets of parents clearly love their children and try to encourage them, even though the young people’s actions may not match what the parents hoped for. For example, in a scene near the end, Leonard’s mother embraces him and wishes him happiness as he prepares to leave, clearly against her wishes.
The film comes to an end, predictably according to some reviewers, inevitably according to others. Whether it is a happy ending or a sad ending also depends on the perspective of the viewer and perhaps on the time frame involved—the ending’s temporary happiness or sadness may change in ten years. This film refuses to give pat answers, which partially accounts for its richness.
Phoenix gives a fine, nuanced performance as the troubled young man trying to deal with a life that keeps coming apart on him; he can be annoying but he keeps the audience’s sympathy. Paltrow displays more dramatic range than usual in her portrait of a young woman in love with the wrong man and unable to break her fascination with him.
Shaw is the surprise in the triangle, making her well-adjusted young woman attractive without being dull. The supporting players are all excellent with Rossellini outstanding as Leonard’s mother.
The film is unconventional, but that makes it more interesting than the typical Hollywood romantic comedy. It captures the irrationality and exuberance of young love without denying that such Dionysic ecstasy has its dark side.
James Gray, the director and cowriter, says he based his script on Dostoevsky’s novella, “White Nights.” Gray’s previous films include Little Odessa, The Yards, and We Own the Night, the last two starring Phoenix and, like Two Lovers, set in New York. The photography is excellent, and New York City seldom has looked so attractive at night. Top

Revolutionary Road

519vG-uGMGLThe real question with Revolutionary Road is: Why anyone would subject himself to sitting through two hours of watching two mediocre people flail around at each other and their environment while they try to figure out why they are unhappy?
The film is based on Richard Yates’ 1961 novel, one of the first novels to describe the apparently mind-deadening effects of the suburbs on anyone unlucky enough to live there.
Set in 1957 in Connecticut, the novel apparently (I haven’t read it) shows the corrosive degeneration of a marriage until it ends in tragedy. The film seems to be a faithful adaptation of the novel, but, if so, then the major problems of the film are at least inherent in the novel.
First, the sociological problems of stultifying suburbia are now more than fifty years old and as stale as a dead fish. Some people are returning to the cities, some are remodeling the suburbs and others live their lives of quiet desperation wherever they happen to be without blaming it on their environment.
Second, like the apparent problems with the suburbs, the concept of “finding oneself” has been done to death; what if we try to find ourselves and discover nothing much is there?
The idea that we are all “special” is an inherent contradiction; perhaps the ’60s concept of existentialism finally has moved into the contemporary mind, and we accept that we are only what we make of ourselves. So enough of “finding ourselves.” Last, our founding fathers only guaranteed us the right to the “pursuit of happiness”—none of them said we were guaranteed to catch it.
In the film, Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) find life in the suburbs boring because each of them thinks he and she is special and better than the situation in which they live. Each day, Frank takes the commuter train into the city to work for the company where his father used to work, even taking the same train his father took.
Frank fiddles with papers at his desk, indulges in a multiple martini lunch and sometimes takes the afternoon off for a little hanky-panky with a girl from the steno pool whose name is Maureen Grube (Zoe Kazan).
April stays at home where she fixes breakfast, takes out the garbage, cleans the house, fixes lunch, visits with people who drop in and keeps an eye on their two children as she prepares to fix dinner. To take the edge off the horrors of their existence, they smoke a lot of cigarettes and drink a lot of liquor.
Both of them are unhappy—not only because they are living lives of conformity—but because they have unfulfilled yearnings. April seems to want to be an actress, but may not have the talent to do it, and Frank wants to be—well, he’s not sure just what, but something other than what he is.
In a flash of insight, April suggests they sell the house and move to Paris where she can get a job at an embassy (which clearly will be more exciting than cooking and cleaning) and Frank can sit around and think until he decides what he wants to be when he grows up. Surely, under these conditions they will be happy, and they delight in breaking the news to all their unhappy friends and watching reactions of amazement.
However, life is cruel in unusual ways, and their plans are upset by two awful events—Frank gets a promotion with a big raise and April gets pregnant. Naturally, they have to cancel the Paris plans and it’s all downhill—way downhill—from there on.
Winslet and DiCaprio throw their all into the dramatic interactions, and they do well, even if there is a whiff of drama-school-exercise around some of their exchanges. Kathy Bates is fine as the talkative real estate agent, and Michael Shannon does well with the thankless part of her mentally deranged son.
Director Sam Mendes (Winslet’s husband) provides the same steady hand and technical expertise he exhibited in his previous award-winning films, American Beauty, Road to Perdition and Jarhead. Roger Deakins, an Oscar-winning photographer, makes the settings suitably claustrophobic, and the musical score complements the visuals.
What then is the problem? First, you’ve heard it all before—the suburbia stuff, the rebellion-against-the-parents stuff and even the abortion stuff. Second, the individuals involved never really engaged my empathy; I wanted to say, “Get up, stop whining, blow your nose and get on with it.”
Maybe the actors, director and screenwriter deserve points for their often heroic efforts and good intentions, but the bottom line is there may have been a good reason why Yates’ novel sat on the shelf for fifty years.
Revolutionary Road was nominated for three Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Michael Shannon), Costume Design and Art Direction.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Curious_case_of_benjamin_button_ver3Eric Roth, who wrote Forest Gump, took the basic idea from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s twenty-page short story and developed it into a film that lasts nearly three hours. David Fincher, whose previous films include Aliens 3, Se7en and Fight Club, marshaled a remarkable array of tricks with make-up, digitalized images and other cinematic techniques to create an elegiac fantasy about a man who is born old and ages backward.
Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt and other actors) is born in 1918 in New Orleans as a baby with all the infirmities of age. As he grows up and ages chronologically, his body becomes younger until he physically is a kindergarten student in his seventies and finally becomes a baby who ceases to breathe.
His mother dies when Benjamin is born, and his father (Jason Flemyng) takes the child to a private nursing home where he abandons him on the steps. Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) finds the “baby” and raises him in the nursing home, where he fits right in with the geriatric patients.
Benjamin’s subsequent life is almost a tour of the twentieth century. He goes to sea and ends up in Russia where he has an affair with Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), the wife of a British diplomat.
The outbreak of World War II sees him battling German U-Boats and returning to New Orleans, where he finally meets his biological father and finds out his true identity, as well as the fact that he will inherit a large fortune.
He pursues Daisy (Cate Blanchett), the young girl he met many years ago and who now is a successful ballerina, but she is interested primarily in her career.
Over the years, they do develop a relationship for that brief period when she has aged and he has grown younger. The rest of this long but always interesting film tells the story of Benjamin and Daisy until the current time.
There is, by the way, a framing story of an old woman dying in a hospital as New Orleans braces for the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, as well as another semi-framing story of a clockmaker who created a clock that ran backward in memory of the son he lost in the First World War.
Fincher and his screenwriter have created an engaging film whose focus almost always is on the transient quality of life; as one character says, we only find out how much people really mean to us when we lose them. The film also emphasizes the value of caring for others especially those you love.
Queenie raises the young Benjamin after his father abandons him; Benjamin chooses loneliness and isolation rather than saddle his wife and daughter with a person growing ever younger and more irresponsible; Daisy cares for the helpless infant who once was her husband. The film also highlights the similarities between the beginning and the end of life, and Fincher manages to make the film moving without making it sentimental. This is a film that almost everyone will enjoy.
Benjamin Button is shot beautifully by Roger Deakins, and the special effects that create the multiple images of Benjamin, all of which look like Brad Pitt, are quite astonishing. Near the end, they take him back to the way he looked as the young hitchhiker in Thelma and Louise.
The sets, period costumes, make-up and special effects are all first-rate, as is the acting. The film was nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Pitt), Best Director (Fincher), Music Score, Film Editing, Sound Mixing, Cinematography, Costume Design, Writing (Adapted Screenplay) and Best Supporting Actress (Henson).
In the year when Slumdog Millionaire swept the awards, it won in only three categories—Visual Effects, Make-up and Art Direction.

Bottle Shock

posterIn 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial, Stephen Spurrier, a British wine merchant with a shop in Paris, needed some publicity to improve his faltering business. Saying that it was a way of educating himself on New World wines, he proposed a blind wine tasting by French experts that would pit French wines against American wines with, obviously, the French expecting to win.
Spurrier traveled to Napa Valley in California and purchased a number of the best wines he could find. In the subsequent competition, which occurred in France, the American wines took first place in both the red and white categories, a result that stunned the world of serious wine drinkers. Bottle Shock is the somewhat fictionalized account of that encounter (“based on a true event” is the way it’s usually described) that led to a bottle of each of the top wines on display at the Smithsonian.
Most of the major characters are based on real people, although the sweet young thing in mini-shorts who is supposed to be an intern seems to be an addition to complete a romantic triangle.
Bill Pullman plays Jim Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena vineyard, whose Chardonnay was the winning white wine, and Chris Pine plays Bo Barrett, his son, who settles his arguments with his father by fighting him in a boxing ring set up at the edge of the vineyard, and who subsequently takes over the winery from his father. Steven Spurrier is played by Alan Rickman, who, as usual, is excellent as the British snob who slowly comes round to appreciate the virtues of California wine.
Dennis Farina plays Maurice Cantavale, who runs the travel agency next to Spurrier’s shop and wears god-awful plaid suits. The part of Gustavo Brambila is played by Freddy Rodriguez; Brambila plays a minor role in the film but then went on to found his own wine company.
This is not an Academy Award-winning film, but rather an amusing one that has a few good laughs, a lot of chuckles and a fair amount of material that would have been at home in a typical situation comedy.
Throw in the numerous beautiful shots of Napa Valley, the discussions of wine (at least one of which is laughable), the American win over the French (which was repeated thirty years later) and it’s a movie to watch while sipping a glass of your favorite vintage. Bottle Shock is not up to the standards of Sideways, but it will carry you over until the next good film about wine comes along.

—Leonard G. Heldreth

Editor’s Note: All films reviewed are available on DVD or VHS from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited, except Sideways, can usually be found at http://www.marquettemonthly.org

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