HTF DVD Review: REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Michael Reuben, May 28, 2009.

  1. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

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    [​IMG]
    Revolutionary Road

    Studio: Paramount/Dreamworks
    Rated: R
    Film Length: 119 minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 (enhanced for 16:9)
    Audio: English DD 5.1; French DD 5.1; Spanish DD 5.1
    Subtitles: English; French; Spanish
    MSRP: $29.99
    Package: Keepcase
    Insert: None
    Theatrical Release Date: Dec. 26, 2008
    DVD Release Date: June 2, 2009


    Introduction:
    I'm among the few people I know who liked Revolutionary Road. It didn't do much box office, and
    the critical consensus, while generally favorable, seemed to give more credit to the actors and the
    source material than to the film as a whole. Director Sam Mendes must be used to it by now.
    Ever since he won the best director Oscar for his freshman film, American Beauty, his films have
    been viewed with suspicion, as if Mendes had somehow bribed his way into an exclusive club
    and everyone was clucking about the scandal. Whether in published reviews or online forums,
    subsequent Mendes efforts like Road to Perdition and Jarhead have been derided as "phony",
    "soulless", "superficial" and "made to win awards". Revolutionary Road received similar
    treatment.

    Which is a shame, because it's Mendes' best film to date. It's the first time he's had enough
    confidence as a filmmaker to dispense with "stylistic flourishes" (his own phrase), like the rose
    petals in American Beauty, and focus all the attention on the actors and the drama in the manner
    of classical masters like Sidney Lumet or Billy Wilder. The result is the most intimate and
    uncomfortable portrait of a marriage in crisis since Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?

    (Disclaimer: I haven't read the novel by Richard Yates from which the film was adapted. Mendes
    and screenwriter Justin Haythe are clearly satisfied that theirs is a faithful adaptation, but I can
    only judge the film on its own merits.)


    The Feature:

    April and Frank Wheeler (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) are a young couple who meet,
    fall in love and marry shortly after World War II. She wants to be an actress; he doesn't know
    what he wants to do, but aspires to lead a life that is "interesting". In a pair of bookended scenes
    opening the film, we see how Frank and April first spot each other at a party in New York and
    instantly sense a kindred yearning. Then we fast forward to 1955, when they are married with
    two children and living in what was then the brave new world of suburbia. April is making her
    debut with a community theater group, and the debut does not go well. As they drive home from
    the performance, long-simmering tensions boil over to such a degree that Frank pulls the car over
    and the couple get out and have a full-blown screaming argument.

    Welcome to Revolutionary Road.

    Brief flashbacks show us April and Frank in happier times before they moved to the suburbs, and
    we follow them on their first viewing of the house on Revolutionary Road, accompanied by a
    chirpy broker (now their friend and neighbor) ironically named Helen Givings (Kathy Bates,
    adding another memorable portrait to her seemingly inexhaustible supply of distinctive
    characters). Back in the present, Frank and April deal separately with the rift in their marriage.
    Frank, who, instead of finding an "interesting" life, now works in the marketing department of
    the same business machine company that employed his father for 20 years, seduces a young
    secretary (Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan). Meanwhile, April
    conceives a bold plan to save their marriage. They'll sell the house on Revolutionary Road and
    move the family to Paris, to which Frank has said he's always wanted to return. April will find a
    job doing secretarial work for one of the various international agencies. They'll be happier, the
    cost of living will be less, and Frank will finally have a chance to figure out what he really wants
    to do, without the pressure of supporting a family.

    Though initially taken aback by April's proposal, Frank acquiesces, and for a brief time, the
    Wheelers are close again, united against an uncomprehending chorus of friends and co-workers
    who can't fathom what's gotten into this nice young couple. (There is a pivotal conversation
    between Frank and April in their kitchen just after they've told their best friends Shep and Millie
    about the Paris plan. Listen carefully; the key to everything that follows is in that exchange.)

    The only one who approves is John Givings (Michael Shannon, in a volcanic, Oscar-nominated
    performance), the son of the Wheelers' friend and real estate broker. John currently resides in a
    mental institution where he has received numerous electroshock treatments for a condition that is
    never specified, although there are references to previous acts of threatened violence against his
    mother. Perhaps because she is afraid of her son, or perhaps for the stated reason that Frank and
    April are closer to John's age, Helen Givings asks them to entertain her family when John is
    allowed out for a visit. John is an unsettling presence, but he is also uninhibited; he asks direct
    questions and makes uncensored observations that would be considered rude from someone who
    couldn't be dismissed as being "sick" (his mother's preferred term). As a viewer, you're left to
    wonder what effect it has on April and Frank as each one realizes that the only person who seems
    to understand them is certifiable.

    Obstacles begin to appear. One is a lucrative promotion dangled before Frank by a senior
    company executive (Jay O. Sanders, a great character actor). Others must be left for viewers to
    discover for themselves. I do not consider it a spoiler to say that, although the Wheelers
    ultimately leave Revolutionary Road, they do not make it to Paris. Perhaps the saddest and yet
    most provocative moments in the film are the final scenes, in which their former friends smooth
    over the hole that the Wheelers have punched in the surface of daily normalcy. Shep and Millie
    agree not to talk about them anymore (Shep has his own private reasons). Helen Givings explains
    to her husband, in a shameless about-face, that there was always something wrong with that
    couple - the same nice young people she had previously praised to the skies. Meanwhile, her
    husband stares back at her and, with unchanging expression, turns down his hearing aide until her
    voice drops out completely. For him, apparently, the secret to a lasting marriage is knowing when
    to tune out.

    Revolutionary Road was widely anticipated as the first reunion of Winslet and DiCaprio since
    Titanic, but there is nothing romantic about this film. It's a sober and unsparing study of two
    young idealists who suddenly have to deal with the realization that they're ordinary - and who
    react to that realization differently because society and biology give them different options.
    Because Frank and April are portrayed by two actors who have a close, established working
    relationship and who are unsurpassed at conveying their characters' inner worlds, we as audience
    members get to experience their emotions with a force and intensity that those around Frank and
    April would never suspect. An iceberg may not sink a ship in this film (though production
    designer Kristi Zea did manage to smuggle an upended picture of the Titanic into the background
    of one scene), but the forces tearing at Frank and April register with a similar impact.

    This makes for a challenging film, but to me that's a recommendation. I've never understood
    how people can be so entertained watching bodies being mowed down by gunfire and explosions,
    then turn dainty over a little emotional violence. As the saying goes, it's only a movie.


    Video:

    The DVD image is adequate, though not without its problems. The production design utilized a
    muted color pallette, and the photography (by the incomparable Roger Deakins) used a softly lit
    look intended to evoke a sense of older times. The result is a challenge for the limits of NTSC
    video, and detail is frequently not as distinct as one might hope. (By contrast, Mad Men, which is
    set in roughly the same period, uses a photographic style derived from advertising in which every
    surface is brightly lit, which makes it easier to translate for DVD.) The limitations will be more
    apparent on larger screens, such as the 72" DLP set I use. On smaller screens, it should be less of
    an issue. Regardless of screen size, the delicate colors have been faithfully and accurately
    rendered, and this becomes particularly obvious in the occasional scene, of which there are only a
    few, when colors become more saturated to reflect a particular mood (I'm thinking of one
    particular sequence in a bar; you'll know it when you see it).

    There is occasional aliasing, but it's minor, and I also noticed a few edge halos, but nothing
    distracting. If any DNR was applied, it was not enough to make a visible impact at NTSC
    resolution.


    Audio:

    Sound effects are not important in Revolutionary Road, but dialogue editing is. This is a dramatic
    film where pauses, timber, shifts in intonation and modulations of volume can be freighted with
    significance, and the dialogue editing must be seamless. The DD 5.1 track reproduces the
    dialogue naturally and effectively, often painfully so. The other major component of the audio is
    Thomas Newman's moody, brooding score, which beautifully expands through all five channels
    to become a kind of spectral presence lifting the viewer up and slightly away from the raw
    emotions being exposed by the characters. (Disclaimer: The Lexicon processor I use is particular
    good at this kind of musical reproduction; so your mileage may vary.) At many moments in
    Revolutionary Road, Newman's score is the closest thing there is to an element of grace, because
    words just fail.


    Special Features:

    Except where noted, video material in the special features is enhanced for 16:9.

    Commentary by director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe. Mendes talks us
    through the film, explaining his intentions and directorial decisions, and discussing with Haythe
    what had to be changed from the novel. He also provides substantial information about editing
    changes between the initial cut of the film and the finished product. Haythe, who was present on
    set throughout shooting, is a more active and interesting contributor than writers usually are on
    commentary tracks, and it's obvious that he and Mendes shared a fruitful collaboration.

    Deleted scenes with optional commentary by Mendes and Haythe (9:50). There are five
    individual scenes, all but the last of which Mendes says he was sorry to lose. Each of them would
    have added something to the film, but pacing concerns ultimately had to govern.

    Lives of Quiet Desperation: The Making of Revolutionary Road (29:01). A reasonably
    informative making-of featurette combining interviews with on-set footage. Interviewees include
    Mendes, Winslet and DiCaprio, as well as Haythe, Shannon, Kazan and members of the
    production team. Mendes talks about the evolution of the project, and Winslet talks about
    persuading DiCaprio to take the part. Mendes and the production team talk about the rigors of
    shooting in real locations instead of soundstages, although the one person who would have
    suffered the most, cinematographer Roger Deakins, is nowhere to be found.

    Trailers. The film is preceded by non-enhanced trailers for The Curious Case of Benjamin
    Button, Defiance
    and There Will Be Blood. The trailers can be bypassed with the menu button
    and are also accessible from the special features menu.


    In Conclusion:

    Ironically, Revolutionary Road may have been exactly the wrong film for Mendes to decide to
    avoid all "stylistic flourishes". Since first seeing the film, I've started to catch up with Mad Men,
    and I'm struck by the fact that this hugely successful series, which depicts roughly the same time
    period and social milieu and mores as Revolutionary Road, takes the exact opposite approach by
    stylizing everything to the utmost, almost as if it were a period costume drama. Maybe the era is
    now far enough behind us that this is how it should be treated. Similar approaches were evident
    in the black-and-white photography that George Clooney used for Good Night and Good Luck or
    the lovingly recreated Sirkian tableaus that Todd Haynes conjured in Far From Heaven. Maybe
    this is how the American Fifties have to be presented now: as something so purely historical that
    they can only be imagined.

    Revolutionary Road treats the period as living memory, as something that still might be present
    in the mind of the viewer. The look is that of old photographs, and the people are portrayed as
    people we might have known (at one point, Mendes calls it "method" production design). This
    isn't a stretch if you grew up in Fifties suburbia, as I did, but the bulk of today's movie-going
    public did not. I suspect this leaves a lot of viewers without an obvious route into the film. Thus,
    by insisting on a naturalistic approach to storytelling, Mendes may have undermined his ability to
    connect to a larger audience.

    But only for the moment. Cinema being what it is, the narrative techniques of Revolutionary
    Road
    may some day look just as dated as the period it portrays. Maybe at that point the film's
    style and its substance will seem more in sync, and the film will be rediscovered and reevaluated.
    Period issues aside, I doubt that the challenges facing couples trying to build a life together will
    become any easier in the foreseeable future, and it'll be a long time before anyone makes a film
    that dramatizes them as forcefully as Revolutionary Road.


    Equipment used for this review:

    Denon 955 DVD player
    Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display
    Lexicon MC-8
    Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
    Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
    Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
    Velodyne HGS-10 sub
     
  2. TravisR

    TravisR Studio Mogul

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    We don't know each other but I liked Revolutionary Road quite a bit too and didn't understand the criticism it seemed to get hit with. And not that she isn't good in The Reader but I thought Kate Winslet was better in this movie.

    Thanks for the review!
     
  3. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

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    Sure we do! [​IMG] I consider HTF to be part of my circle of friends and acquaintances. And I'm delighted to find a fellow fan. I'll have to edit the opening line of the review.
     
  4. TravisR

    TravisR Studio Mogul

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    ^ I thought you meant knew in the 'real' world since I figured there had to some love for it in the Movies section when it first came out. Then I searched it and found that there was a review thread with 4 posts and a discussion thread with 10 posts. Of course, I was part of that problem because I didn't post in either of the threads. [​IMG]

    On a side note, if you dug this movie, you may enjoy Mad Men as well.
     
  5. Michael Elliott

    Michael Elliott Lead Actor

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    I'm not sure how others feel but I really thought the limited release of this thing just killed the movie. There seemed to be some good hype due to the TITANIC thing and it looks like the studio would have tried milking that. Instead, they just rolled this thing out in a limited release but by that time other movies (GRAN TORINO for one) came out and got all the attention and it seems like this one here was just forgotten.

    I've said it since 1993 but DiCaprio is one of the greatest actors out there right now and one of the few who I would respect. The same with Winslet. I really hope this movie gets more attention on DVD but I'm sure some will walk away unhappy because this isn't a pretty picture.


    Brilliant point.
     
  6. Mikael Soderholm

    Mikael Soderholm Supporting Actor

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    Thanks for an interesting review, it really makes me want to see this movie (even more, I was already convinced it was my type of movie).
    I haven't seen Jarhead, but American BEauty and Road to Perdition were great movies in my book.

    I didn't realize it was Thomas Newman handling the score again, listening to previews from Amazon.com as I type, great, as always. Where does he find the time to create so much, and so beautiful music?

    So again thanks, now I'm off to order the DVD and the soundtrack CD [​IMG]
     
  7. Yumbo

    Yumbo Cinematographer

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    Watched the BRD - agree on all points; Winslet better here than in Reader, Leonardo VERY good here; good score, and better movie all round.
     
  8. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

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    Regarding the parallels between Mad Men and Revolutionary Road, here's an interesting item from an article about Mad Men in the Aug. 9, 2009 "Arts and Leisure" section of the NYT:


    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/09/arts/television/09kapl.html?pagewanted=2
     

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