Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"The Reader" Needs Better Writing


directed by Stephen Daldry
starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Bruno Ganz, others
based on the novel by Bernard Schlink

Ok, I have to admit upfront: I did not like "The Reader" - almost from the very beginning. I know it's based on a critically acclaimed novel, but whether something got lost in the translation to film or I'm better off not reading the book, the movie for the most part totally failed to resonate with me. I found the plot annoyingly overdetermined, the characterization weighed down by shallow psychologizing, the dialogue flatly schematic - you could see the underlining of every comment meant to convey !! the burden of guilt!! the transfer of that guilt to the post-Nazi generation!! sins of the fathers (or mothers)!!! mentally effing up the sons!!! Worst of all, I didn't buy the character of Hanna Schmitz at all throughout the entire first half of the movie, despite Kate Winslet's best efforts. I laughed at the montage of her being read to and reacting emotionally. I also laughed at her semi-German, semi-British accent, though I suppose she was just trying to sound like the German actors.

It did get better in the second half, but then any time you invoke the Holocaust, you automatically have a leg up on engaging your audience's emotions. Other good points? Well...Lena Olin has a great scene near the end. David Kross is excellent as the jailbait reader-lover - I actually believed his character much more readily than I did Hanna's. And Ralph Fiennes, as the older version of the kid, has an awesome moment where he smiles in a way that looks exactly like Kross's smile. (Hardly surprising, since Fiennes can convey more with the merest flicker of his eyes than most actors can do with their entire faces.) And, hmm, let's see...well, there are some beautiful shots of the German countryside.

Otherwise, the film doesn't have much in the way of distinguishing features. Too often it feels like it's trying hard to say something really significant about aforesaid burden of guilt without succeeding in making me feel like it's either real or significant. "The Reader" may be Kate's ticket to that much-coveted golden man, but there's little other reason it will (or should) endure in our short collective memory.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Oscar Nominations Are In

...and "The Dark Knight" fans are hopping MAD...Lots of nods, including one for Heath Ledger, but none for Picture or Director. (Full list of nominations here.)

While I'm a bit surprised, I can't say I'm at all disappointed, let alone outraged. I know I'm in the tiny, tiny minority that dares to say this, but peeps, "The Dark Knight" just wasn't all that good. (I've given my reasons why, and I stand by them.) The amount of passionate adoration that movie elicits - IMO out of all proportion to its merits - beats anything I've seen since, well, "Titanic," though "Slumdog Millionaire" is giving it a real run for its money.

I'm already seeing the usual media and internet chatter about the Academy being culturally irrelevant and hopelessly out of touch with the times and moviegoer tastes. Also many dire predictions (which may well be accurate) of record-low TV ratings for this year's ceremony. To all of which I say: So be it. I'm certainly not one to praise Hollywood for artistic integrity, but I respect the fact that the Oscars represent their one attempt to honor filmmaking merit beyond commercial appeal. Even if they do so often get it wrong.

And at first glance, I don't think they got it too terribly wrong this time. While I haven't seen "The Reader," I think the rest of the Best Picture nominees constitute a perfectly respectable lineup for a weak year in movies. "Rachel Getting Married" should have been there, but I knew that wasn't going to happen. As it is, I'll be rooting for "Milk" - by far the strongest film among the four contenders I've seen - though there's no way it will prevail over "Slumdog."

As for the other awards, a few random observations:

-Very glad to see Frank Langella get the Best Actor nod for "Frost/Nixon" (though he really deserved it last year for his beautiful performance in the little-seen "Starting Out in the Evening"). However, unless I'm much mistaken, Best Actor this year is going to be a two-man race between Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke. Both of whom were superb in their films, so I'd be fine with either of them winning.

-Brad Pitt, though? He was serviceable, and nothing more, in "Benjamin Button." WTF, Academy?

-Kate Winslet will win Best Actress. Finally. And Ricky Gervais will demand a commission.

-In the bag: Heath Ledger for Best Supporting Actor. The other guys don't even need to show up.

-Rosemarie Dewitt ("Rachel Getting Married") was robbed for Best Supporting Actress. She definitely deserved it more than Amy Adams, and I love Amy Adams. "Rachel Getting Married" generally deserved a lot more Oscar love than it got.

-Hurrah for "Encounters at the End of the World" getting a Best Documentary nomination!

For more astute analysis of the nominations, check out the always-reliable Film Experience. Several spirited discussions going on there that miraculously haven't been hijacked by the pro-Batman militia.

That's all for now...tune in closer to February 22 for my final predictions!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inauguration Day 2009: I have just three words

About. damn. time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A "Wrestler" Who Pins Himself in the Past, and Us in Our Seats


directed by Darren Aronofsky
starring Mickey Rourke, Marissa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

We all want a talent that distinguishes us from the pack. But what if you had such a talent, and the act of pursuing it, immersing yourself in it, developing it to its logical extreme, ended up divorcing you from the rest of your surrounding reality?

That question’s arisen a number of times in movies about artists, musicians, writers, mathematical and scientific prodigies, spies, even assassins; and perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the rare movie that doesn’t romanticize their self-alienation to at least some degree. As if to avoid this trap, “The Wrestler” focuses the question on an unlikely subject—an aging pro wrestler played by Mickey Rourke—and deliberately strips his world of all flash and glamour, at least in the here and now. The glory days of Randy “the Ram” Robinson are long gone: as we learn right at the very outset, he peaked professionally circa 1987-88 and never really moved on to anything else.

So the film picks up with Randy 20 years later, still devoted to his art even as he’s all but washed up, his face and body beat up by decades of punishing self-abuse, his personal life practically nonexistent. After a health crisis forces him to reassess his lifestyle, he sets about trying to find a new job, reconnect with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood, quite good in an underwritten part), and build a relationship with Cassidy (Marissa Tomei, also quite good if you aren’t distracted by the frequent glimpses of her boobs and butt), a stripper he likes but who refuses to date her customers. The rest of the movie follows his struggle to carve out a new path for himself even as he keeps one foot planted wistfully in the past that’s defined his entire identity.

It’s not giving anything away to say that the odds are heavily stacked against him. Randy’s like a man brought out of a 20-year cryogenic freeze; his trailer, indeed his whole life, resembles a time capsule buried in the late ’80s, complete with cassette tapes, Polaroids, a Nintendo 64, and newspaper clippings and VHS tapes of his greatest fights, and free of cell phones, DVDs, Internet, and any music post-dating 1990. Curiously (or perhaps not, given that the film is mainly from his perspective), even the outside world through which he moves—a succession of seedy bars, nondescript stores, and sterile public spaces in wintry New Jersey—contains very few reminders that times have changed.

Shot with a gritty, grainy home video feel, “The Wrestler” is at once compelling and painful to watch. The fights and “cleanup” scenes afterwards are decidedly not for the squeamish, while Randy’s awkward efforts to reach out to the few people he hopes will care for him are at once squirm-inducing and heart-wrenching. Still, the film remains fundamentally compassionate towards its central character, in no small part because of Mickey Rourke’s performance. Given Rourke’s own career history of flash, crash, burn, and fizzle, it’s no wonder director Darren Aronofsky fought so hard to cast him as Randy. In fact Rourke’s almost too perfect for the part, to the point that it’s easy to underestimate the quality of his acting and assume (unfairly) he’s just playing a version of himself. Be that as it may, what emerges is one of the most palpable, believable, three-dimensional characters I’ve seen on screen all year. Randy has the profile of a sad sack, a loser, or what one character, in a moment of anger, calls a “living, breathing fuck-up,” yet as portrayed by Rourke, he somehow manages to retain a certain quiet dignity throughout it all. Perhaps it’s because he’s so dedicated to the one thing he does well—put on a hell of a show as the Ram—even if it means he can’t do anything else right.

There’s a moment near the end, just before he commits to a crucial decision, in which Randy delivers a speech to his fans that summarizes why he’s led the life that he has. In many ways, it’s a deeply saddening speech, yet it’s so heartfelt it elicits neither pity nor contempt. Rather, it’s the speech of a man who’s chosen his own way and accepted the consequences. As such, it’s entitled to respect—and that’s all “The Wrestler,” both man and movie, ultimately needs.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Golden Globes: zzzzzz...Kate Winslet! zzzzzz... OMG Kate Winslet! zzzzzz

Well, that wasn't one of the more entertaining Globes ceremonies I've seen. The highlights were definitely watching Kate Winslet almost lose her shit on stage with her TWO wins (I haven't seen either "Revolutionary Road" or "The Reader" so I can't opine on the merits of either victory). Also liked seeing Mickey Rourke win and deliver a surprisingly gracious (though still quirky) acceptance speech for Best Actor. Loved the shout-out to his dogs. Oh yeah, and the "Mad Men" victory was pretty sweet, too.

Meanwhile, the juggernaut aka "Slumdog Millionaire" continues to roll on...To which all I have to say is a big fat YAWN. Alas, the love thrown its way looks like a pretty good preview of the Oscars this year.

Tina Fey was a hoot, though she's generally teetering on the edge of overexposure these days...and I'm not talking about her decolletage. No one else was really very funny that I can recall, though Ricky Gervais did crack me up when he swigged his booze onstage and referred to Kate Winslet's hilarious turn on "Extras." In general, the best speeches were the short, classy ones, like Chris Nolan's acceptance on behalf of Heath Ledger. And I continue to worship slavishly at the altar of the lovely Laura Linney.

Fashion scene was rather dull, as most people dressed tastefully and disappointingly tamely - lots of neutral colors and graceful flowing lines. Except for Renee Zellweger, who looked like a fright - hair, dress, expression, everything was just...wrong. Whatever happened to that adorable girl next door from "Jerry Maguire"?

Several presenters did not seem to know how to deal with the teleprompter, which just made them look like idiots. Also, the choice and pairing of presenters was frequently random and not particularly well conceived, IMO. Whose idea was it to invite the Jonas Brothers, anyway?

But no major mishaps or "WTF" moments that I noticed. Too bad, really. Tonight's show could have used some.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Top Five Movies of 2008

Whereas last year there were so many films from 2007 that I liked I was hard pressed to pick ten favorites, this year I find myself in precisely the opposite situation. First, I didn't see nearly enough movies last year (less than 30 total new theatrical releases) for my "top 10" to mean anything. Second, of those I saw, only a handful really impressed me in any way; even the best of the rest stirred nowhere near the level of enthusiasm that, say, my *20th* favorite movie of 2007 did. Third, the insane "December rush" once again made it impossible for me to see all the likely contenders for my top ten. For example, I have yet to see "The Wrestler," "The Class," "A Christmas Tale," "Waltz With Bashir," "Revolutionary Road," or "The Reader." I also missed movies earlier this year like "Reprise" and "Man On Wire" that I wanted very much to see.

For these reasons, I'm only naming my top five movies for 2008; list subject to expansion if I see more Christmas-release movies in the near future.




(big gap)

4. MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS (yes, I know I am probably the only person in the world who's listing this *very* flawed film so high, but Wong Kar-Wai on an off day still has more artistry in his little finger than most directors have in their entire being)
Edited 1/19/09: I have to let the movie gel a little more in my own mind, but I think THE WRESTLER may take the #4 spot and push everything else down.

5. Tie between FROST/NIXON, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, and I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG - all movies I enjoyed but didn't quite live up to their full potential

And if I absolutely *had* to make a top ten, the next tier would probably consist of some combination of the following, though I'm not sure which or in what order:

Worthy but flawed and overrated: WALL-E; SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE


From Stage to Screen: "Frost/Nixon" Does What "Doubt" Can't


directed by Ron Howard
starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Matthew McFayden, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall
adapted from the play by Peter Morgan


directed by John Patrick Shanley, based on his play
starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

There’s a particular, and peculiar, difficulty that accompanies the transfer of plays to film. Too often, what carried effectively from the stage to a live audience ends up feeling airless, artificial, and mannered on screen. (See Exhibit A: every movie ever based on anything by David Mamet.) By a quirk of scheduling coincidence, we have this winter two high-powered, high-prestige productions of two high-powered, high-prestige Broadway plays—Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon and John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt—that inadvertently illustrate How to Do It and How Not To Do It, respectively.

The success of the transfer has very little to do with the faithfulness of the adaptation: both Morgan and Shanley adapted their own plays and, from what I can tell (I didn’t see Frost/Nixon on stage), both stick pretty close to their originals. Yet while “Frost/Nixon” gives the impression that it could have been conceived as a film from the start, “Doubt” never escapes its stagebound feel. To be fair, the two plays are different beasts. Morgan’s has the weight of history to anchor it even if, as with “The Queen,” he slyly injects a good deal of his own imagination of the inner life of his characters and passes it off as the reality. Shanley’s, by contrast, is very much a play of Ideas with a capital “I,” and its power lies in letting those ideas unfold, conflict, and unravel with as little external distraction as possible. In a sense it’s almost impossible to imagine how “Doubt”—which I loved on stage—could ever be as compelling on film.

That said, the cinematic quality of “Frost/Nixon” may owe as much, if not more, to Ron Howard as it does to Peter Morgan, though not many may admit it. Howard frankly doesn’t garner much respect among cinephiles. Regarded as hopelessly pedestrian, hopelessly middlebrow, and hopelessly Hollywood, he’s totally lacking in the kind of hipster cachet that surrounds the likes of, oh, say, Wes Anderson or Charlie Kaufman. Personally, I think he deserves more credit than he gets, and here he hits his marks dead on. “Frost/Nixon” is shrewdly structured like a documentary, and a briskly paced one at that, cutting fluidly back and forth between David Frost’s famous 1977 television interviews of ex-President Nixon—in which Nixon ultimately admitted his culpability in Watergate—and clips of present-day interviews with all the supporting players who helped make those interviews happen.

Only occasionally do we feel the bones of the play poking through, most glaringly in one scene where a drunk Nixon calls Frost the night before their last interview and unleashes all his psychological hang-ups and pent-up bitterness about Watergate. That telephone call is completely fictitious and quite stagey; it’s also an excellent showcase for Frank Langella, who reprises the role of Nixon that he played on Broadway. If there’s anything that even the most hostile critic can’t deny Howard, it’s that he does get good performances from his actors, and Langella’s star turn will most likely, and deservingly, be nominated for an Oscar (though he really should have gotten the nod for last year’s “Starting Out in the Evening”). He makes Nixon startlingly human, with flashes of unexpected charm, yet manages to bring out both the ruthless tactical brilliance that fueled his rise and the chafing insecurities that led to his fall. Michael Sheen is equally good as the elfish, elusive Frost, whom he also played on Broadway. Indeed, Sheen arguably has the more difficult job of the two in portraying the British television “personality” whom everyone initially assumed would be in over his head. Sheen imbues the character with subtle depths, suggesting without overplaying that underneath the glib facade, Frost hungered not only for success on network TV but also for respect from those who were so quick to underestimate him.

The rest of the cast is reduced very much to the sidelines of this boxing match, but do well enough with what they’re given. Kevin Bacon hovers at Langella’s elbow as Nixon’s intensely loyal and humorless aide, while in Frost’s corner, Rebecca Hall makes the most of a nothing role as Frost’s girlfriend, Matthew MacFayden continues to sheer away from heartthrob typecasting (though we do get a fleeting glimpse of his bare butt) as Frost’s supportive producer, and Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell play off each other as the Nixon experts Frost hires to research and prep him for the interviews. As always, Platt is a hoot, while Rockwell (whose part was apparently substantially downsized from the play) is all keyed-up nervous energy—to the point that you might be forgiven for wanting to smack him and force-feed him a sedative. Ultimately, “Frost/Nixon” doesn’t go much for in-depth historical analysis of Nixon’s wrongs or wrongdoing, but it does succeed in drawing you into the duel of personalities underlying his last real appearance in the court of public opinion.

“Doubt,” too, features a great duel of personalities, this one enhanced by even starrier casting. Here the face-off is between Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep, taking over for Cherry Jones), the redoubtable, doctrinally conservative headmistress of a Catholic school in the 1960’s, and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the more liberal-minded parish priest whom she suspects, without proof, of molesting one of the students. Caught between these two formidable adversaries are young Sister James (Amy Adams), who doesn’t know what or whom to believe, and Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis), the student’s mother, who doesn’t want to know.

The performances are strong across the board, but they feel trapped in amber. Shanley, directing his own play, never really figures out how to open it up, and though the backdrop is supposed to be the Catholic Church at a time of cultural change, both within and without,—even as the hierarchy of the church’s patriarchal structure remains distressingly rigid—those changes are confined largely (as they were in the play) to dialogic references. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing; whenever Shanley attempts to translate his ideas and themes into visual motifs, the results are consistently, embarrassingly ham-handed. There’s a close-up of Father Flynn carving up a shank of rare meat, oozing blood, with relish, as he and his (male) peers of the Church roar with laughter, followed by a cut to the silent, austere table kept by the nuns; in another scene, a cat is dispatched to catch a mouse at the same time Sister Aloysius is laying out her campaign to ensnare the slippery Flynn; and throughout the film Streep ostentatiously wields a cross that's clearly meant to represent Sister Aloysius’s attachment to her faith, or what she calls her “certainty.”

Nevertheless, notwithstanding these creaky devices, it’s undeniably fun to watch two of our most accomplished actors circling and sparring with each other like seasoned gladiators. Some may be underwhelmed by Streep’s work here, but she’s actually very good as the bone-dry, coolly relentless, yet not inhuman Sister Aloysius. Hoffman, for his part, is solid as always as the priest, though I couldn’t help thinking the role would have been better served by someone more overtly charismatic and attractive and less, well, sketchy-looking. Still, his Father Flynn is forceful enough to sow the seeds of doubt that undercut the strength of his opponent’s convictions. And the structure and language of their conflict is so sharply etched it’s guaranteed to prompt lively discussion by audiences on leaving the theater, just as the play did. But that’s just it—the film doesn’t do anything that the play didn’t do and, come to that, do more compactly and incisively. The best argument to be made in favor of “Doubt” is that it may bring a smart, thought-provoking drama to a broader audience than the play would have achieved on its own. On its own aesthetic merits, however, there’s not much independent justification for its existence.

GRADES: "Frost/Nixon," B+; "Doubt," B-

Also saw:


directed by Philippe Claudel
starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, others

Kristin Scott Thomas is the main reason to see this film—and that’s reason enough. She stars as Juliette Fontaine, a woman who’s just finished serving a 15-year prison term for a crime that makes others shudder at the mere mention of it. Fortunately for her, she has a younger sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), who takes her in, despite the concerns of Lea’s husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius). At first, Juliette is like the walking dead—pale, grim, and silent as a ghost. In time she begins to re-acclimate to free society, slowly bonding with her sister’s two adorable adopted baby girls, Luc’s equally adorable, mute father, and Lea’s and Luc’s kindly, sociable friends, who know nothing of Juliette’s secret. She starts to be beautiful again and to take a renewed interest in life. The secret nonetheless hovers like an unseen presence; and eventually the question Lea won’t ask—why did you do it?—breaks to the surface.

I’ve just made the film sound like a mystery or thriller, and it really isn’t. At bottom it’s about Juliette’s rehabilitation, though how you view the meaning of that rehabilitation may change by the end, after certain revelations are made. The structuring of those revelations is, at best, clumsy and at worst, unconvincing. But by any measure, KST, who seems to be better appreciated as an actress in France than in England (let alone the U.S.), sails above these flaws. In the shadings of her expression, in the tones of her voice, she can shift in an instant from brittle reserve to a glimmer of charm that evokes the spirit of a past self, or to a flash of despairing rage too long repressed. She plays a woman slowly coming back to life, yes, but one also confronting the emotional fallout she kept at bay when she was behind bars. It’s a remarkable performance that one hopes will lead to many more, equally plummy roles – in English as well as in French.