Joe's Movie Reviews

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Reader

Kate Winslet finally achieved her first Oscar after multiple nominations for this film (an excellent performance, though I don't think any performance of the last few years can equal Melissa Leo in "Frozen River", which was also nominated), the story of a young German teen in the late 1950's who becomes involved with an older woman who insists he spend seemingly as much time reading to her as involved in any "romantic" activities. Years later, as a young law student, he learns that she was seriously involved in Nazi war atrocities and has to face serious questions about guilt and forgiveness.

I have to admit up front that I had a few problems and questions about the incredible swiftness with which Winslet and the boy fall into their relationship after they've barely said more than a few words to each other. But then, it is possible that the fact that what I know and understand about relationships multiplied by ten would still be virtually nothing, has something to do with this. It does still seem, though, as if it happens the way it does simply because the story demands it, and at least on Winslet's side I don't know that I was ever totally convinced (do you really keep calling your beloved "kid", even after he's a full grown adult?). However, what results from this relationship is powerful and emotionally potent, so it's not difficult to let it slide.

Not to insult Winslet's performance... it's fine... but I was rather surprised that neither Ralph Fiennes or the young actor who plays his character as a youth were singled out for Oscar attention. It's their combined efforts in the role that make for a lot of the impact the film has. Fiennes completely convinces you that he's the man his younger version would have grown up to be after the devastating events that change his life... never really sure who he can trust or believe in, and hesitant to invest too many of his emotions in anyone for fear the past will be repeated. And let's just not mention the irony of the fact that the role that brought Fiennes his first fame was that of possibly the most thoroughly evil nazi in all of the movies in "Shindler's List" (yes, let's not mention that at all... I'm certainly not going to. What? Oh well, never mind.).

What really makes the film linger after you've seen it, though, is the questions it raises about what you would have done in his situation after finding out the truth. Until very, very late in the film Winslet is remarkably unapologetic about the atrocities she took part in, and yet reveals herself in little moments to be just as human and full of doubts, fears and pride as the rest of us, and with just as much need to find human connection. So.. can you relate to someone who has committed the crimes she has even if she DOES express regret and contrition? Can you, possibly, find it in you to forgive her yourself? And WHATEVER your answer may be, what does that say about both her and yourself? In "Dead Man Walking", Sean Penn (who SHOULD HAVE won an Oscar for the role) raised some powerful questions about whether it's possible to empathize with a murderer while never condoning his crimes, and if it's possible to forgive... indeed, whether it may be NECESSARY to do so, even if it seems impossible. In "The Reader", Winslet and Fiennes will also make you wonder about these imponderables.

This is obviously not a movie for the escapist crowd. I'd even say it's maybe the complete antithesis of that kind of film. But it is a reminder of how much more a movie can accomplish that just provide a couple hours of escapist fun (not that there's anything wrong with that). It would be difficult going if all movies demanded as much from their audiences as this one, but moviegoing would also be much less interesting if there were never any films like "The Reader".

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Warning: Two Good Ones

1. "The Wrestler". Okay, let's get this out of the way at the start: yes, the story of a broken-down, has-been wrestler trying for one last shot at glory has more than a few passing similarities to the career of star Mickey Rourke. So in a certain sense he is playing at least an aspect of his own life. But if that were all that were going on here, this wouldn't be nearly as potent a film as it is.

Randy "The Ram" has seen his his share of glory, but that's all in the very distant past as the movie begins. Not only does he now resort to wrestling in small-time matches in high school gyms on weekends to help make ends meet, but he's never managed to establish a meaningful relationship with a woman since his bitter divorce, though he deludes himself that he's formed something solid with Cassidy, a stripper at a bar he frequents... he either doesn't see or isn't allowing himself to see how much of that relationship is completely professional (and monetary). And what little connection he ever had with his daughter was dissolved in years of parental neglect. As little as his current wrestling bouts give him, it's mighty close to all he's got.

Now, I don't imagine that what I've just described is going to make very many people excited about seeing the feel good movie of the year. I've had problems in the past trying to convince people to see anything that doesn't sound like an on-your-feet-cheering-the-hero crowd pleaser (I couldn't begin to count the number of times my raves about "The Sweet Hereafter" were greeted with "Oh, that sounds DEPRESSING!"). But anyone who understands that a movie doesn't have to make you feel good in order to be a good movie will appreciate a lot of what "The Wrestler" has to offer.

A friend of mine who'd seen this movie before I finally caught up with it said he thought that the story itself had nothing new you hadn't seen in other movies, but that the acting had so much heart in it that you couldn't help but care about the characters. That seems to me to be hitting the nail right on the head. Imagine just about any underdog athletic saga, but with a great deal less feel-good triumph, and you've got "The Wrestler" (say, Rocky if his life had turned out very differently). But Rourke is amazing in this performance. Before seeing this movie I could still barely recall when I used to look at him as a real talent, almost a Brando for his generation... but those memories were getting more faded with time. "The Wrestler" brings them all back full force. He rarely raises his voice, and never takes the easy route of exaggerated gestures and acting, but you feel every single blow life is delivering to his fragile esteem, as well as his desperation to connect with another human being. That is really Randy's tragedy: that wrestling has become his life so totally that he doesn't know how to relate to anyone else in any way that can give his life meaning, and it might now be too late to change that. I've seen my share of movies with actors playing parts that mirror their lives, and generally speaking, they're a big snooze. Rourke delivers a performance as "The Ram" is the emotional equivalent of one of Randy's "Ram Jam"s, a physically devastating wrestling move.

His fellow Oscar nominee Marisa Tomei isn't given quite as much to work with, either in terms of screen time or of a character who is equally well established, but proves herself very capable of creating a memorable opposite of The Ram... unlike Randy, who has no world outside of his profession, Cassidy, a single mother, desperately wants OUT of hers... she has the connection Randy lacks and is working to try and keep it. The script isn't as clear establishing who Cassidy is and what her dreams are, but Tomei does impressive work filling in the gaps with her performance. And director Darren Aronovsky, who in the past has given us "Pi". "Requiem For A Dream" and "The Fountain" (all of them much more unorthodox, experimental type films) works well within a more conventional frame of reference here.

It always seems to be said that a movie about a sport "isn't REALLY about (fill in the name of the sport here)". Usually that's nonsense. But not this time: Randy happens to BE a wrestler, but the movie is about the distance between him and the people in his life, and his faltering attempts to bridge that distance, and to find meaning in something other than his work. And that's something that a lot of people should be able to identify with, and even learn something from... whether it makes them feel good or not.

2. "Coraline". And now, for something completely different.

Coraline is an apparently typical 12-year old: frustrated by the lack of attention from her distracted parents, wishing she had the parents she feels she deserves. One day she finds a hidden passage in the family home into an alternate world with alternate and seemingly perfect versions of everyone in the world she knows, including parents who indulge her every wish. Paradise, right? Well, maybe not: completely aside from the fact that they literally have buttons in place of eyes, the "other parents" have sinister designs for Coraline, and aren't about to let her leave. She has to find resources of cleverness and strength she never knew she had not only in order to get back to her own world, but to rescue her "real" parents from the designs of the imposters.

Neil Gaiman is one of the most imaginitive, creative writers of our time, and his works have provided the source material for films in the past, but never as effectively as with "Coraline". Director Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas") creates Coraline's world... or, more accurately, worlds... on screen with complete understanding in visual terms of what made them work on the page. The story could ALMOST have been his own creation, so concerned is he with achieving Gaiman's vision. But that doesn't mean he's not contributing anything: quite to the contrary, the people and... well, THINGS that interact with Coraline are unlike anything you've seen in any other movie, and more than anything else I was struck by Selick's inventiveness and imagination. You might wind up wishing a few more directors would use stop-motion animation instead of always going for Computer Generated.

There are those who might say that this inventiveness and imagination manifests itself in rather strange, creepy ways. To which I say: and your point is? You're saying that as if it's a bad thing? I maintain that many of the classics of so-called children's literature have a strong thread of creepyness and the eerie about them (if they didn't, the Brothers Grimm and Roald Dahl would never have had careers), and that children appreciate and can handle a good deal more of that kind of thing than many adults. And after all, Coraline is a brave, resourceful girl who is able to overcome any strange creature or person trying to stop her, and who is willing to go to whatever lengths she needs to in order to save her family. Is this the worst role model a child could have? Or do we really want a nation of kids to grow up to be Hannah Montana?

In the midst of all of the bizarre visuals and plot twists of Gaiman's story, Selick also takes care to include his depth of character... he's smart enough to know that if we didn't have real, sympathetic people (okay, so maybe they're not all exactly PEOPLE) at the heart of this story, then all of the imagination in the world would eventually become not much more than a distraction from a story that was empty at its core. And thankfully, he also has Gaiman's sense of fun... this is absolutely the most sheer FUN I've had at a movie in quite a while. By the way, the film is being shown in both 3-D and in more conventional 2-D. I saw the 2-D version and didn't think I was missing a thing: you feel so completely that you're right in the middle of the story that I don't see how 3-D could have helped. In fact, I think it would probably be a gimmicky distraction, constantly taking you out of the story and reminding you that you're really watching a movie.

Gaiman lives quite near the Twin Cities, and as a result often is seen around town (I've met him four times: three times at readings, and once when I simply dropped into Dreamhaven Books one day and happened to spot him standing at the counter talking to the staff). So odds are good that I'll be seeing him again eventually. I know he's getting all kinds of questions about the film now, but I still intend to ask what he thought of it. I expect that he was quite delighted. And anyone who appreciates a thoroughly unique story of people you can recognize in a world you can't, told in a visually dazzling style that almost demands more than one viewing in order to take all of it in, should have a similar response.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Vive La France

It's 1936 in Paris, and World War II is still several years away. But things are by no means paradise... political factions from both the far right and left are warring, violence is common, and in particular a faction of fascists whose policies are disturbing similar to those of the Nazis are beginning to have a great deal of power. In the midst of all of this, a group of entertainers who had been the talk of the town until the economy forced them to close down their old theatre home are understandably depressed and downbeat? What can they possibly do? How about making a kind of Faustian bargain with one of those aforementioned rising fascists and re-opening the old theatre?

From time to time you'll hear certain movies referred to as "The kind of movie they just don't make anymore". "Paris 36" does have a great deal of affection for the kind of American musicals of the 1930's that they REALLY don't make anymore (Busby Berkley in particular, as well as his imitators), but ultimately it's the kind of film that they NEVER really DID make in the U.S., and that they have never STOPPED making in Europe... the kind that blends both the charming fantasy world of the musical theatre with many of the grim realities of a troubled time, and doesn't hesitate to dwell on those grim realities at times. "Cabaret" probably comes the closest, but even that's not quite it.

Director/co-writer Christophe Barratier has made only one previous movie, "The Chorus" (which was nominated for a Foreign-Language Film Oscar), but "Paris 36" seems to be the work of a veteran film-maker with a lot more experience (I'm amazed to think what he might do when he really DOES have that much experience). Filled with snappy dialogue, memorable characters, moments of both hysterical comedy and meaningful drama, and a sheer love of musical theatre that is nearly unrivaled, this is a worthwhile movie on an amazing number of levels.

There's not a single weak performance in the film, but there are two true stand-outs. The first would have to be Gerard Jugnot as "Pigoil", the man who ran the theatre during its golden days but finds himself beginning to be squeezed out a bit after its re-opening (partially due to its new fascist owners), in a performance that sometimes verges on pathos but never becomes overbearingly sentimental. Then there's also the movie debut of the amazing Nora Arnezeder as "Douce", the very reluctant girlfriend of the theatre's fascist new owner, who the owner forces on the performers as one of their new stars, only to have her turn out to be astonishingly talented, with a voice to rival that of the legendary Edit Piaf. (Oh, yeah... she becomes very reluctant to continue the relationship that got her into the theatre when she falls in love with one of her co-stars.) There's also Jojo, Pigoil's young son... living with his divorced mother but longing to join his father in "the business". I don't know quite why, but it seems that only European film makers are able to handle children with such respect and a complete lack of condescension. This is a group of people you will definitely want to spend time with (yes, even the evil ones).

So, what we have is a story with a lot of political implications, both for its own time and for ours, some of the most memorable characters around, a range of emotional tone that goes from tragedy to farce while always remaining coherent and consistent, and a terrific string of songs, comedy routines and production numbers that fans of classic musicals will remember for a long time. I suppose that technically speaking that can't really be called "something for EVERYONE" (there certainly aren't any vampires lurking around, and there are no cowboys anywhere in sight, just for starters), but it's surprising how close it manages to come.

I saw "Paris 36" on Monday the 9th at a sneak preview at the Edina Theatre (at which both Christophe Barratier and Nora Arnezeder were present... talk about cool!), and I'm not sure when it's going to be opening either in the Twin Cities area (it doesn't open here THIS week) or in other cities. But it's definitely worth watching for it. I'd be very surprised if it ddoesn't amaze you as much as it did me.