Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Reviews pre-'09 Oscars--read 'em and weep

A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, a good book & thou
“The Reader” isn’t about the Holocaust, about Auschwitz, about German collective guilt or the guilt of complicit or evil individuals, even though it features a World War II war crimes trial. It is not about a love story, though there is a beautiful, sexy love story depicted in it.
It is about the transformative power of art, in particular, in this case, literature. And literature, a teacher at one point in the film says, is centrally about the control of information—the protecting, the withholding, the selective disclosing of information (whether by characters in the story or by its narrator). If we accept this thesis, literature is crucially about secrets, and “The Reader” is largely, primarily about the harm keeping secrets can do. When Michael (Ralph Fiennes) decides, after all, not to visit Hannah (Kate Winslet) during the trial he is observing as part of his training as a young law student, to press her to disclose to the court the information that would partially exculpate her from the worst, false accusation against her—which could lessen her sentence—it is hard to figure. But it makes sense if we understand, as above, what the film is about, and see that he has decided to let her harm herself with her pridefully protected secret just as she so deeply hurt him by her refusal to admit the same secret to him. That’s why he later doesn’t write to her along with sending the tapes. Why, when he asks whether she thinks about the past, he doesn’t mean their past, but her own guilty history. Why he is not more tender in that visit. In sending her the tapes, he thus clearly is not re-enacting a lover’s tender mercies. He is offering her an avenue to her own richer partaking in the kind of exploration of human moral experience, questioning of choices and, ultimately, self-examination that literature presents opportunity for. And, one surmises, it works—additionally prompted by the emotional distance evinced and moral query posed during his final visit to her—with the sad but perhaps just twist represented by her subsequent, final choice. He later unburdens himself to his daughter, as, earlier, the lifelong emotional distance he has held himself in in the protection of his own deep secret has been revealed to have harmed her (among others, we must assume), and his relationships with her and them.

‘Stepford Wives’—the prequel
“Revolutionary Road” is the other Kate Winslet vehicle of the season, based on an acclaimed novel by Richard Yates—whom I heard interviewed, drunkenly aggrandizing himself in an unearthed tape played on an NPR show. This one is clearly about something more focused than in all the broad hype: the hopeless, stultifying life that being a suburban housewife was in the ’50s and ’60s. Whether Winslet’s “April” had little talent as an actress or it was just wasted where it was exercised—pearls before and among swine—isn’t clear. (Though hubbie Frank, played by ol’ Leonardo DiCaprio, sure did go on about it in an annoying case of verbal diarrhea.) But, damn, I’d sure love the little woman to clasp me around the knees, and urge me to forsake gainful employment to “find myself” in Paris, where she’d support me—because I am just that wonderful thing: a man! But Frank only reluctantly buys in, and especially after he takes a mistress and is offered a promotion at the office, it’s clearer than ever that Paris is for April—it’s her only hope for an alternative to decades of Stepfordian drudgery. Michael Shannon provides great, dark comic relief, as the son of a neighbor on furlough from electroconvulsive therapy (shock treatments) at a mental hospital. Nominated for a best supporting actor award, clearly he’s intended as one of the few voices of sanity in conformo-land.

Exploring the female psyche. Watch out for the Minotaur
Is the idea in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" supposed to be that human love and sexuality burst the bounds, overflow the banks, transcend the categories we try to set? That planning and aiming at what we want, or, alternatively, staying open to impulse and passion are both (and neither) the preferred approach? Or is it that women, even if they knew what they wanted, couldn't have it, being perennially dissatisfied and frivolous and labile—volatile and fickle? (As men are, but at least we hardly agonize over it anywhere near as much, and the film explores the women's interiority much more than the men's. Speaking of which, is this narrated in voice-over by the same guy as in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"? I'll have to check.) This is the best film of Woody Allen's since "Match Point," which itself was a high point in a major, decades-long dry period. At least Scarlett Johansson's put to much better use here than in "Scoop." But this film goes back to the heyday of "Manhattan" and "Hannah and Her Sisters," as a much more complex and nuanced look at relationships than much in between. Consider it a "Hannah and Her Sisters" meets "How to Make an American Quilt" (the latter being a film a former girlfriend urged me to watch, but said I wouldn't "get." Dumb cunt. Of course I got it; as here, or more than here, it's about how women are in fact thoroughly programmed, largely by their own mothers, to be unable to have, or enjoy, or keep, what they want—or think they want.) And, man, that Penelope Cruz, what a crazy, psycho bitch! But it's not so expressive a portrayal of a role resonating with or transcending my intimate, personal experience of crazy, psycho bitches such as to, for that reason, deserve an Oscar.

Life is like box of buttons
The odd premise is well-realized, technically, and "The Strange Case of Benjamin Button's" acting and production values are fairly flawless. But in its loosely episodic narrative with its patina of well-polished, folky wisdom, it reminded both of us independently of “Forrest Gump”—and that was before we found out it was written by the same guy. Tell you what: You want to watch Brad Pitt age backwards? Go rent “Thelma and Louise” and “Kalifornia.” Otherwise, watching Kate Winslet in “The Reader” aging in the forward direction—though largely without accumulating much wisdom in the process—is much more satisfying.

Gaza, shmaza. Even when they're the oppressed, don't mess with most Jews
As I’ve said in these pages before, notwithstanding the unique straits of those who were rounded up in the Holocaust, we Jews have no particular innate streak of meek subservience, as this film amply proves. Even in the scene in "Defiance" where the weakened crowd subsisting in the forest to hide from the Nazis and their henchmen kick and beat the stray German soldier to death, I realized it was right and proper, even though your first impulse is to think Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), their leader, is going to step in and stop it. But he doesn’t, recognizing that their murderous, mob rage is a just revenge for the ruthless brutalization of their loved ones at the Germans’ hands. I must say, I disagreed with Roger Ebert’s view that Craig’s character is flat while his brother’s, played by Liev Schreiber, is nuanced and evolutionary—he has it exactly backwards. It is Craig who gets to play the role where the requirements of leadership impose the toughest choices—choices he often wrestles with and resists, growing more resolute and decisive only when forced to; sometimes not soon enough. Directed by Ed Zwick of “The Last Samurai,” “30something” and “My So-Called Life.”

And don't mess with Clint Eastwood, even when he gets troublesome moral qualms
Indeed a great performance by Eastwood in "Gran Torino," with a lot of nice, politically incorrect touches. And he takes his archetypal characters’ vengeance theme in a new direction, which I won’t spoil further except to say, note the final pose, akin to Pete Postlethwaite’s at a clicheed but “crucially” symbolic point in Jim Sheridan’s great “In the Name of the Father,” which also starred Emma Thompson and Daniel Day-Lewis earlier in their brilliant careers. (A film notably, newly relevant in this our era of contending with terrorism "vs." our precious civil rights and liberties.)

Rourke's always been a surprisingly low-key, affable fella
With realistic-verging-on-real wrestling scenes that are difficult to watch, and scenes of wrenching and tender emotional interactions from which you can’t look away, this latest Darren Aronofsky film is a worthy contender for best film. As transfixing Mickey Rourke is to watch in his more emotive moments, what also charms in this film is his character’s easy, gentle friendliness, his natural charm and likability. He has a casual way with kids that you also see in the scene, re-watching the classic thriller “Angel Heart,” where he first approaches Epiphany Proudfoot. (And in "The Pope of Greenwich Village," where the perennial "kid" refusing to take responsibility is the estimable Eric Roberts.) The scenes where he is waiting on customers in the deli are priceless, but his exit from that gig is tragic, as is the film. (I thought I’d cry more at the theme of the estrangement from an adult daughter, but if you’ve read the review in our December issue of Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, N.Y.” (which we were sorry to see did not even get a nod for best original screenplay or production design), you may realize we’ve already had our catharsis on that topic for the indefinite time being.) Noting that we heartily complimented Marisa Tomei’s protracted frontal nudity in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” last year, there’s more here, but even more in “Angel Heart,” which was kind of out there even for its time (featuring the boobs of Charlotte Rampling, Lisa Bonet and some other fetching babe). What’s also interesting is that this film was co-written by William Hjortsberg, we noticed upon re-screening it recently, based on his novel. He also wrote an interesting sci-fi tale published in an early Playboy formative of me in horny adolescence, about a future where we're all brains in vats being groomed for enlightenment and to then be deserving of a body to go live in paradise anew. But the first brain successfully kept alive, of a horny 12-year-old, finds his intellect aging backward as it consumes--depletes--his limited store of experiences while he is having hot virtual sex in an affair with an aging East European B-movie star. (Kind of like the "Ouroboros" theme in Kaufman's film "Adaptation," where the question is whether the screenwriter will ultimately overcannibalize his own life using self-referential material, and which may have gotten more awards than our predicted one for Chris Cooper for Best Supporting Actor.) Title of the Hjortsberg story: "Gray Matters." Kind of relevant to "Benjamin Button" ... "Benjamin Button" meets "Lawnmower Man" meets "The Matrix." Back to “The Wrestler,” it has an ending that disturbed Marci in a way similar to how the sudden blackout at the end of “No Country for Old Men” did. She wanted it to end up with Rourke’s character in the hospital bed again with Marisa Tomei there holding his hand, about to face their new life together taking care of his poor heart. But as I explained to her, he returned to the life he knew and probably fatal heart attack because, among other things, his heart had already been broken. "Trite," but true. (The daughter thing notwithstanding.)

(Not up for an Oscar this year. Or any year:)

It’s a mad mad mad mad mad mad dating world
I realized, watching "He's Just Not That Into You," the formula of its title isn’t quite right, requires some refinement. With so many new avenues for meeting potential romantic partners—and so many ways of juggling multiple prospects, for cheating, evading, dissing, blowing people off, putting them off, holding them off, keeping them in suspense, yet keeping them available—thinking they’re in the running, or are The One—it’s clearly more complicated than “Does he like me or not? Is he going to call or not? Is she into me or not?.” The real formula isn’t “He’s just not that into you”—it’s “He’s just not that into just you”! I should know. I’ve got a book in the works on my life dating, preying, dumping, loving and losing using the personals; in fact, I tried to interest Greg Behrendt’s literary agency in it, it being in somewhat the same vein as his original book the film is loosely derived from. That said, and as much as I’ve seen a fleeting write-off of the film as superficial, it’s not that bad. Ginnifer Goodwin, the ingenuous third wife in HBO’s polygamist “Big Love,” brings a similar energetic optimism to “Not Into You,” though it veers over into obsessive, self-deluded microscrutiny of every “signal” sent by potential partners, suitors, dates. A lot of the film is somewhat lightweight genre stuff, but it also offers characters who are in genuine non-farcical pain, such as Jennifers Connelly and Aniston. The film is admittedly full of false notes, with the monologue by Drew Barrymore about the number of tech channels through which you can hook up or be blown off being exactly as “exhausting” to hear in the film as it was when incessantly repeated in commercials and trailers. Justin Long as Alex is only believable in his jaded, insensitive, cynical-realist mode, as the vehicle for the disappointing clarity of insight Behrendt’s book purports to offer, and not in his transformation into the romantic lead. He wasn’t too likable in either mode, as much as I identified with him in the first one. (And Marci identified with Goodwin’s Gigi; and Long and Goodwin made improbable partners, just as—at least in others’ eyes—M and I do.) The set of dalliances in which Scarlett Johansson is the link displays some reprehensible activities, but worst of all ... what was up with Kevin Connolly’s hair? In one scene in particular, it looked like he had just been dipped upside-down in Grecian Formula and blow-dried on high. I kept expecting him to realize he was gay. You know, I guess this film was pretty bad, after all; it’s certainly not more than the sum of its often flimsy parts. Especially in that, at the end, it upholds the contra-premise: that it’s better in the end to be able to yearn, gaga- (Gigi-)like, eternally, hopefully, desperately wishing there is something there that may not be—and probably isn’t.

—David Tell

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