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Review: “Pleasantville” (1998)

Humankind has an annoying tendency, on occasion, to regard the past with a sense of reverence. The 1950s, with all its poodle skirts and Buddy Holly toe-tappers, would seem innocent enough to deserve some nostalgia. But director Gary Ross is not interested in nostalgia for its own sake. So Ross’ stunningly lensed and frequently daring “Pleasantville”  is no love letter to this bygone time of dinner on the table at 5 p.m. “Pleasantville” is more a case for the 1990s as progress, a time when the world became much larger than Main Street, U.S.A.

If “Pleasantville” argues that the ’90s, for all the problems, point to improvement, then David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are the poster children. Ross’ extraordinarily creative script takes these two modern teens and drops them — through a time travel incident involving Don Knotts as an odd TV repairman — in an episode of David’s favorite black-and-white ’50s sitcom, “Pleasantville.” It’s a refreshing take on the fish-out-of-water scenario, since David and Jennifer aren’t just out of their element, they’re out of their era. The siblings find themselves in a very foreign world, where they are known as Bud and Mary Sue, the straight-laced children of Pleasantville, Ill., residents George (William H. Macy) and Betty Parker (Joan Allen). David urges Jennifer to play along to keep Pleasantville’s universe in kilter, but playing by ’50’s rules proves harder than they imagined.

The real fun and substance of “Pleasantville” comes from David and Jennifer’s upheaval of Pleasantville. Ross uses the characters to poke fun at what he perceives as the naiveté of the 1958 suburban life. Jennifer, not the least bit demure, takes studly Skip (Paul Walker) for a backseat tumble at Lover’s Lane and gives the timid, unhappy Betty a lesson in the joys of masturbation. David encourages his boss at the soda shop, Bill (Jeff Daniels), to explore his love of painting and tells his fellow students about life outside of Pleasantville. He has them devouring “scandalous” books like “Huckleberry Finn” and “Catcher in the Rye” in no time. As more Pleasantville’s citizens open their minds, things turn technicolor — literally. The juxtaposition of black-and-white and color makes for some gorgeous scenery, but it infuriates Mayor Bob (J.T. Walsh). He forms a posse of like-minded traditionalists, including George, who’s reeling from his wife’s distant behavior, and declares Pleasantville’s answer to marshal law. The town’s “coloreds” become outcasts. Individuality is squashed, not with outright violence, but with a more underhanded Cold War approach.

Once techicolor invades this mild world of pleasantness, “Pleasantville” moves from comedy to commentary. The town’s separation of “coloreds” and those left in black-and-white is a clear allusion to the Civil Rights Movement. On another level, the struggle between the two groups represents the clash of ignorance and knowledge, or the receptiveness to new ideas. What’s truly impressive is the way Ross manages to juggle all these elements so well: the light-hearted comedy, the moving drama (Allen and Daniels shine brightest in this area), the pointed social commentary. All the elements come together brilliantly, especially in David and Bill’s climactic courtroom scene. These elements are helped along by the great set design and John Lindley’s superb cinematography. Apart from David’s comical meta-asides (“Oh my God … are we in that episode?” he muses), there’s scarcely a moment where “Pleasantville” doesn’t feel like an authentic window into the world in 1958. Ross has recreated an era long gone in amazing detail.

The actors take equal care in their performances. Maguire hits all the right notes as David, a high school nobody back home who seizes an opportunity to reinvent himself. Walsh possesses a singular gift for radiating quiet menace. And actors don’t come more talented and nuanced that Allen, Macy or Daniels. Macy and Daniels milk their lines for maximum comedy, but they don’t shy away from drama. The simmering sexual tension between Allen and Daniels is a nice counterpoint to Macy’s cluelessness; George has no idea why his wife would be discontent with sleeping in separate beds. Allen, though not the central focus of “Pleasantville,” commands the most attention. Betty’s slow, deliberate transformation from smiling unhappiness to freedom is a great triumph in a move filled with them.   

Grade: A

Oscar snubs its nose at you, Matt Damon (et. al)

"What do you mean I didn't get an Oscar nomination? I gained 40 POUNDS!"

Every year begins with the same blasted vow: I won’t wear my heart on my sleeve. I won’t get sucked in. I’ll be strong and aloof. In short, I swear I won’t let myself get emotionally involved in the Oscar race.

PFFFFFFT. Go on. Now pull the other one.

Yeah, so that never happens. Never comes close to happening. It’s all gibberish. Maybe my real resolution should be that one of these days I might flush all these delusions of keeping my heart out of the Oscar race down le porcelain bowl … but it won’t be this year! Especially not this year, when the Best Picture race got expanded to 10 (what a nice, big, fat round number, no?), a sure signal that the Academy had opened its ranks to deserving films that, before, never would have had a chance.

While that may be true (say what you want about “Avatar,” but rare is the blockbuster that crashes the Best Picture ball), in true Academy fashion these snobbish cats have doled out some fairly glaring and some just-plain-wrong snubs. They are as follows:

Best Picture / “Star Trek,” “Two Lovers” — Mental gymnastics are required to reason out why “Avatar,” with its amazing visuals and so-so storyline, merited an Oscar nod while “Star Trek” did not. J.J. Abrams’ energetic, heartfelt summer blockbuster is nothing short of a total reinvention. Thrilling action, special effects, wit, verve, inside jokes, great acting — “Star Trek” has them all in spades. James Gray’s “Two Lovers takes what could have been a Lifetime TV movie — an aimless, emotionally damaged man (Joaquin Phoenix) torn between two women — and turns it into a nuanced character study with almost no melodrama, and a very fine motion picture deserving of some statues.

Best Actor / Damon, Maguire, Phoenix — Oh, the triple negligence the Academy has perpetrated in this, its 82nd awards season. First is their thoughtless brush-aside of Matt Damon, who comically and painfully captured the disordered mind of whistleblower Mark Whitacre in Stephen Soderbergh’s deceptively jaunty “The Informant!” (His acting there was better than “Invictus.”) Second was the blatant disregard of Tobey Maguire’s blistering portrayal of a POW so ruined by war that he cannot reclaim his family and life in “Brothers.” Last but for certainly not least is the absence of Joaquin Phoenix’s name, which is a travesty considering his troubled Leonard Kraditor in “Two Lovers” may be the most haunting, commendable piece of acting he’s ever done.

Best Actress / Abbie Cornish — In the Focus Features 2006 film “Candy,” Abbie Cornish gave us a glimpse of her blossoming talent, but in “Bright Star,”* about Romantic poet John Keat’s short-lived, passionate romance with Fanny Brawne, she emerges fully formed. She gives beaming vitality, spirit and life to one of poetry’s greatest-known muses, and for that she deserves much, much acclaim. Why, Academy, do you insist on withholding the love?

Best Supporting Actress / Laurent, Rossellini — Considering the hot, exhilarating mess of a spectacle that is “Inglourious Basterds”, perhaps it’s inevitable that someone would get lost in the mix. That someone, however, should not be Parisian actress Mélanie Laurent, for her Shosanna is the emotional center of the film; her outstanding one-on-one with Waltz in the cafe should have cemented that award. Isabella Rossellini, who plays Leonard’s worried mother in “Two Lovers,” is no less subtle or devastating. Her quiet performance is a thing of beauty, and it’s the crowning achievement of a career that hasn’t had that many. 

Best Original Screenplay / “The Brothers Bloom” — Rian Johnson is the man who gave us “Brick,” that outrageously stylish mix of gumshoe talk and teen hormones. And now this, a wildly twisty dramedy about two conmen brothers — one wants out; the other turns long cons into art — and the rich, innocent mark they’re about to bilk out of millions. Is it arty, maybe a bit too arch and complex? Maybe. Does it possess the kind of fiendish cleverness and originality Hollywood sorely lacks? Abso-damn-lutely.

Best Original Song / “Stu’s Song” — I’m not about to argue that “Stu’s Song,” hilariously performed by Ed Helms in “The Hangover,” is overflowing with the emotional depth of, say, “The Weary Kind” or has the glitter-and-sequins of “Take It All.” But it’s still an tremendously funny tune that manages to be clever and neatly sum up what “The Hangover” is all about. And that last line is PRICELESS.

*Review forthcoming

Subtle “Brothers” tackles hellish aftereffects of war

War cripples the life a Marine (Tobey Maguire) shares with his wife (Natalie Portman) in "Brothers."

There’s a line from Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” that’s always haunted me, and watching Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers” I couldn’t shake the feeling I was watching the poem’s story come to life. Trudging the trenches in World War I, the poet sums up his reality in five words: “All went lame; all blind.” Press on the soldiers do, but not as men; war has taken their souls. There’s nothing left.

Though times have changed, the sentiment has not. Months spent in an Afghanistan prison camp have turned Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) from a young, fiercely dedicated Marine into a blank shell. War has made him strange to his wife and two daughters, his father and his younger brother. More than that, war has made Sam strange to himself. Maguire, so deliberate in his expressions and awkward movements, gives us a man who doesn’t know who he is. Fear has him cornered, and in violently clawing to get free he terrifies his family.

A remake of Susanne Bier’s 2005 Danish film, “Brothers” touches on the ways Sam’s experience changes his family dynamic. Before leaving for his fourth tour overseas, his life is stable: He is married to his high school sweetheart Grace (Natalie Portman) and has two daughters, Isabel (the phenomenally talented Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare). He has the respect of his father Hank (Sam Shepard), also a military man, and a promising career in the service. Even his relationship with his aimless younger brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), recently released from prison after doing a stint for armed robbery, is solid. But after deployment, Sam’s helicopter is shot down and he’s presumed dead. Grace struggles to hold it together, and she gets help from an unlikely source: Tommy, who’s trying ineptly but earnestly to be a better person. 

Here “Brothers” diverges into two storylines: that of Sam and Private Willis (Patrick Flueger), captured and tortured by the Afghani resistance, and Grace and Tommy, attempting to adjust to life without Sam. These stories share a commonality: They are about survival. Sam does things he believes to be unforgivable to get back to his daughters and Grace, while she and Tommy form a bond out of the necessity to stay afloat. Sexual tension develops that becomes more complicated when Sam is rescued. Broken though he is, Sam notices their bond, observing that Tommy and Grace look like “two teen-agers in love.” His observation turns into an obsession, and one Sam clings to in order to give his life focus.

The quiet performances keep “Brothers” from spilling into histrionics. Shepard communicates Hank’s anguish with precious few words; his guilt is wrenching. Portman plays Grace not as a sobbing mess but a damaged woman rebuilding her life, then coming to grips with what’s left of her husband. Gyllenhaal is affecting as Tommy, who wants to make a life for himself. He confronts his past, though not without fear; watch his face change as he sees the woman he robbed. Madison, only 10, nearly matches him in subtlety. She’s a true find, an actress with remarkable timing. (Note how her eyes scan Maguire’s face; she manifests a connection with the actor that feels real.) And much praise has been heaped upon Maguire for this role, but he deserves every word. His part requires both restraint and wildness; war split Sam down the middle. And when Maguire lets loose, his rage is frightening and heart-breaking. This is the performance of his career.

Though “Brothers” examines the aftereffects of war, it is more than a war film. This, too, is a look at guilt, regret and how they trickle down. Haunted by his time Vietnam, Hank assigns Sam and Tommy the roles he expects them to play. He tries to drink away that guilt, but the drink stops working. The time Tommy spends with Grace makes him regret the years he wasted drunk and drifting. Sam bears the heaviest load, the twin burdens of work vs. family and the guilt attached to what he did as a prisoner in Afghanistan. In essence, everyone here asks: Is redemption possible? The fact that they muster the courage to ask makes “Brothers” one of the most challenging and gripping films of 2009.

 Grade: A