Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"Do you love me?"

The Reader is a very well-made film with excellent performances by its extraordinarily talented cast. Stephen Daldry once again proves that he's well on his way to becoming one of the finest directors of his generation. The film is also eager--a little too eager, I might add--to ask hard-hitting moral questions to a point that it feels like it's spoon feeding the audience with its questions instead of telling an emotionally satisfying story.

Unlike more impressive films that questions and tests its characters and audiences' morals, such as Letters From Iwo Jima and Schindler's List, The Reader lacks a warm, approachable core. Daldry, who is capable of directing intense, brutally honest scenes that showcase a wide range of character development, constantly keeps his audience at a cold, uncomfortable distance. Daldry's approach nearly works until I began to feel too little for the characters in the very final moments of the film. Then I realize that I've been on a long, hard journey with these characters--I do care for them, but not without difficulty. Daldry wants us to feel like we're eavesdropping but rarely do we go beyond film-watching. I was constantly part of an audience, but never a witness.

Based on a German novel by Bernhard Schlink, The Reader begins with a torrid, secret affair between a fifteen year old boy and a thirty six year old woman. In 1958, a fever-stricken Michael Berg (David Kross) fatefully encounters Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor. Hanna takes pity on the boy and helps him home. A few months later, Michael recovers and finds Hanna to thank her for her kindness. Michael, with his innocent, schoolboy crush on Hanna, is immediately seduced by her. Hanna takes advantage of Michael's obvious trust and infatuation to get sex and, strangely enough, literature. Michael eagerly agrees to this; he is simply teenage boy in love. Erotic sex scenes follow, but under Daldry's direction, they never feel too gratuitous.

When Hanna receives a promotion to work in the office due to excellent reviews, she leaves her tiny apartment and disappears.

Several years later, Michael is a law student, with the opportunity to observe a war-crime trial that was a result of a popular book written by one of the survivors. To Michael's complete and utter shock, Hanna is the star defendent of the trial. Hanna, along with several other middle-aged women, is charged with locking up a group of Jewish women in a church when the church was being bombed.

But Michael possesses a secret about Hanna that will change the outcome of the case. I will not reveal the secret since it seems to be central to the film's advertising, but it is a secret that Hannah is so ashamed of that she would rather die than have it revealed to the masses.

Like Hanna, Michael is ashamed too, but for something entirely different: He feels guilt for ever loving Hanna--a guard of a Nazi prison, a criminal.

Many years later, an unhappy, recently divorced, and middle-aged Michael (Ralph Fiennes) begins to come to terms with his relationship with Hanna. He still feels the lingering guilt for never summoning up the courage to help Hanna, so he begins to help Hanna in a way that he hopes can benefit her, even in prison.

But the fact that Michael never tries to persuade Hanna to reveal her secret--which would have definitely changed the outcome of her sentence--frustrates me to no end. I haven't been more angry with a film character since Rolf in The Sound of Music. This is where the spoon feeding starts: Would you convince a criminal to reveal her secret if it could help change the outcome of his or her sentence, even though you feel shame for sharing an inappropriate relationship with him or her many years ago? Michael chooses the easy path, the cowardly path. But wouldn't most people in Michael's position do the same thing? Perhaps. We never know what we'd really do in a situation until we're really in that particular situation. But whatever we decide, we have to face the consequences--whether it's guilt, shame, or regret.

A film as thought-provoking as The Reader should immediately considered a worthy film, right?

I'm honestly torn between whether I like this film or not. As I said before, The Reader is a well-made film. The cinematography by Chris Menges and Roger Deakins is superb. The score by Nico Mulhay is wonderfully effective and provides intensity and tension when needed. Daldry does a great job showing character development and even in the midst of the film's rather cold surface, there are several moving scenes but those scenes aren't enough to provide a lasting impact. But they do make me think.

I tend to exaggerate when it comes to good performances (at the moment, I'm rather ashamed to bring up any examples) but Winslet and Kross deliver spectacular performances. I don't think I've been more impressed by Winslet before, which actually makes me wonder where I've been for the past ten years. (I haven't seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind...yet.)

Hanna is unquestionably a flawed and despicable character, but when Michael finally discovers her secret, my heart broke for her, even though I knew it all along. When Hanna finds a way to cure her shame (with Michael's help), I cheered for her. No one can ever forgive her for her terrible crimes, but redemption is always a second option. What I feel for Hanna is all due to Winslet's complex performance--a performance that is deservingly one of the frontrunners for this year's supporting actress line-up at the Oscars. Winslet sinks into all those layers of aging make-up, but she never loses touch with her character.

Fiennes gives a fine performance here as the older Michael, but it is Kross who steals his thunder. Kross is a promising newcomer who can go head-to-head with a master like Winslet; he has endless potential. Kross makes me care for Michael when it matters most, especially when I see how he sacrifices his adolescent social life just to maintain an affair with the woman he loves. Kross makes Michael whiny and naive, wishy-washy and cowardly, like many teenage boys, I'd imagine. In the same way I eventually sympathize for Hanna, I sympathize for Michael too, all due to the foundation Kross successfully builds in the first part of the film.

David Hare's screenplay is too bare to provide any grand emotional impact, but the performances and the direction do help. There is plenty to admire in the film; the positives outweigh the negatvies. The tough questions the film asks, which can feel forced and manipulativs, are rightfully asked. As much as I pondered, comfortable answer is nowhere in sight. The Reader features a guilt-ridden atmosphere of post-WWII Germany that ponders for easy answers but finds none. At its heart, The Reader is a haunting coming-of-age story. While a nation gradually heals in the shadow of its atrocious crimes, a man begins to mend his shameful past and a woman realizes that there is a cure for her secret shame. In the case of The Reader, redemption may be key.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Endings Blog-a-Thon: ROMAN HOLIDAY

When J.D. announced his Endings Blog-a-Thon over at Valley Dreamin', one film instantly came to mind...

William Wyler's 1953 romantic comedy, Roman Holiday

Nothing even came remotely close. Roman Holiday has by far one of the greatest cinematic endings I have ever witnessed.

The ending is altogether unpredictable, bittersweet, and eloquently done. It is an ending that I didn't quite see coming but also appeared to be completely inevitable. It is a genre at its most honest and heartbreaking.

Roman Holiday may have transformed Audrey Hepburn into a bonafide star, but it is Gregory Peck (along with that beautiful Roman scenery) who inhabits the film's heart and soul. The ending cements this: As Peck's character, Joe Bradley, leaves the press conference hall, he looks back with the memory of his short-lived holiday where he found joy and romance in his bland reporter's lifestyle. And Peck communicates every single feeling that I just described with zero dialogue. The music swells up, and Joe bids farewell to what could have been a lovely dream.

Since my write-up has been somewhat inadequate in describing the wonders of the greatest film ending ever, thank goodness for video and all its glory...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays!

...and I present you with this fabulous scene from the modern holiday classic, Elf.

I love Zooey Deschanel, but Will Ferrell is slowly growing on me. Ferrell's bursts of versatility in films like Stranger Than Fiction and The Producers continue to shock me. And he is completely charming in Elf.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ten Women I Admire In Film

I was tagged by Shawn back in November to do this meme. This entry has been a month in the making. I'll try not to disappoint. Anyone who wants to join in all the fun is welcome to do so.

This can be a character, actor, director, really anyone working on films. The only thing is, they must be a personality. You have to really know something about them. This rules out most producers, cinematographers, etc.

If you are a man, these man crushes [or men that you admire], obviously must be men. If you are a woman than I say they have to be a woman. They must be the same sex as the writer making their list.

You can choose anyone living or dead. They must be chosen due to their film content. If you choose Michael J. Fox and the only thing you like about him is his role in Family Ties then he doesn't work. But if you choose Michael J. Fox because you love Marty McFly, and you want to mention that you also love Family Ties, that is acceptable.
10. Amy Adams
At this rate, Adams is destined to be the future of Hollywood. After her scene-stealing performance as a smitten candy striper in Catch Me If You Can, Adams went on to an Oscar nomination for her spectacular performance as a young southern naivete in Junebug. Recently, Adams embarked on the challenge of playing a cartoon princess placed in the tough luck world of New York City in Enchanted and her performance was nothing short of excellent. I may or may not be shot for saying this, but I actually thought that Adams was better than both Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose and Ellen Page in Juno. As much as I enjoy watching Adams playing the naivete she plays best, I would love to see her play very different characters in the future.

9. Faye Wong
Wong has one of the most heavenly singing voice I have ever heard. Wong, as an actress, is nearly as heavenly. Rarely do I see an actress that is so natural, so unforced in her movements and speech. Wong's performances in Chungking Express and 2046 are just that. Her gift as an actress is her lack of self-consciousness and concerns for her role. She just steps into a scene and comfortably inhabits her environment.

8. Cate Blanchett
I've always felt indifferent about Blanchett's filmography. I don't care for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I hate Bandits. The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou may be the most disappointing film in Wes Anderson's filmography. Elizabeth is good, but not great. But I love Blanchett in all those films. The film themselves aren't extraordinary, but Blanchett usually is. The funny thing is, as much as I like The Aviator, I'm not absolutely crazy about Blanchett's Oscar-winning performance as Katharine Hepburn. But then again, I do like I'm Not There quite a bit, and absolutely adore Blanchett's performance. So yeah, she's definitely a mixed bag on some levels, but she's an unconventional beauty with a magnetic presence. I can't bear to look away whenever she's on-screen.

7. Audrey Hepburn
Hepburn was truly an original. Her natural grace, charisma, and elegance made her the bonafide star of classic Hollywood. My first Hepburn film was My Fair Lady, which is also my favorite Hepburn performance ever. Hepburn had a rare quality about her that made her instantly likable to the audience. She never had to prove anything. Even when Hepburn played a character as flawed as Holly Golightly, the audience sympathized with her. Hepburn knew how to create a character that stuck, with little apparent effort. Off-screen, Hepburn was almost just as fascinating. She had two failed marriages and one torrid love affair with William Holden (I'm completely fascinated by their relationship, by the way), but in her last years, found comfort in serving UNICEF.

6. Meryl Streep
Streep may not be the most beautiful woman in the room, but she has to be the most striking. Her grand exit from obscurity was in The Deer Hunter, but it was that powerful courthouse moment between her and Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer that made her a supreme Oscar-winner. And Streep has proven time and time again that she can play absolutely anything. From Woody Allen's lesbian ex-wife in Manhattan to Anne Hathaway's boss from hell in The Devil Wears Prada, Streep gives the audience a reason to love her and the Oscars a reason to nominate her whenever possible.

5. Elizabeth Taylor
Taylor's personal life has been almost as dramatic as the lives of her on-screen counterparts. But there is no denying that Taylor is a resilient soul. I love that about her. Taylor was a child star before she became the lady worth dying for. It took years before it was widely accepted that Taylor could be more than a cute child star. After she starred in the beautifully tragic A Place in the Sun, there was no question about it: Taylor was a grown-up actress. Like her contemporaries, Taylor could hold the screen by simply being on-screen. Her gorgeous looks and elegant movements simply made her and everything around her come to life. Taylor also has had the most electrifying chemistry with her male co-stars, from her then-husband Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

4. Diane Keaton
Fine, Keaton was undeniably half the genius that went into the creation of Annie Hall, but sometimes I like to be the devil's advocate and argue that Annie Hall is simply not Woody Allen's best movie or Keaton's greatest performance. To elaborate on the latter, Keaton's moments of sheer greatness was as Kay Adams in The Godfather trilogy. There are many different perspectives about Keaton as Kay and very few are overwhelmingly positive. But in Keaton's hands, Kay is more than a nagging wife--she represents all of Michael Corleone's lost hopes. In a pivotal scene in The Godfather: Part II, Kay confesses to Michael that she has received an abortion and in that particular scene, Keaton explodes in front of our very eyes. It's unfortunate that even with such a spectacular scene, she couldn't garner any awards attention. It's a shame, really. But I'm glad Keaton found work and plenty of awards in her career soon afterward. Her performance as Kay definitely helped.

3. Grace Kelly
Kelly is one of the most interesting and iconic figures of the twentieth century. She was an ice blonde and emulated classic glamour. No wonder Alfred Hitchcock was completely smitten with her. Despite Kelly's short filmography, she has sustained her status as a legendary Hollywood starlet, made even more legendary by her surprising marriage to the Prince of Monaco. Kelly often took roles that required her to do more than just look pretty for the camera. She wanted to prove to the world that she could act--and act she did. Kelly received an Oscar for her amazing portrayal of the wife of an alcoholic actor in The Country Girl. It has often been debated the Kelly didn't deserve the Oscar that year and Judy Garland did for A Star Is Born. Unfortunately, I can't join this debate since I haven't seen A Star Is Born, but I can say that The Country Girl does show Kelly as a talented actress with endless potential; she easily went toe-to-toe with the likes of Bing Crosby and William Holden.

2. Zooey Deschanel
Many things has happened in Deschanel's career since I first discovered her in her scene-stealing performance in Almost Famous. For one, she has found success in both independent and mainstream films. Secondly, she became the "she" in the indie rock band, She & Him and recently released an album entitled Volume One. Deschanel has a likable and adorable presence, albeit quirky and offbeat; she is the typical indie boy's crush. Since 2004, I have been following Deschanel's career quite closely (or more closely than any other actress) and is continuously impressed by her success. Her luminous performance in All the Real Girls has permanently cemented my positive opinion of her.

1. Katharine Hepburn
I love this woman. Ever since I read Hepburn's autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life, I have been charmed by this incredibly strong and fiesty force of nature. Hepburn epitomized sophistication, class, and confidence. She also embodied the values of early twentieth century feminism and everything Hepburn believed in simply became a part of each of her performances. By appearance, Hepburn was certainly not a great beauty, but she possessed everything else that made a woman attractive, intelligent, and interesting. As an actress, Hepburn exhibited passion and energy that led to four Oscar-winning performances. Her personal life, however turbulent, was a blessing that Hepburn ultimately acknowledged.

Lookalikes: Thomas Paine and Martin Scorsese

Of course I pay attention during history class!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

"That's the way it should be"

This post's primary goal is to make up for the recent blogging drought. And to flaunt one of my favorite scenes in any movie musical ever.

So, who else loves Bye Bye Birdie (the 1963 movie musical) as much as I do? I watched the film during Thanksgiving Break and thought it was an absolutely hilarious satire. ("Ed Sullivan?! He's my favorite human being!")

But it is also, surprisingly, an exceptionally sweet film. The scene I posted exhibits all the charm and humor of the film. I love how Ann-Margret and Bobby Rydell have such innocent, adorable chemistry. Plus, Janet Leigh constantly amazes me. And "One Boy" is just such a swell song.