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The Reader

The Reader

(2008)
5 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

[img]http://img.timeinc.net/time/daily/2008/0812/the_reader_1209.jpg[/img]

After all the ink that has been spilled over [i]The Reader[/i] - whether or not it's faithful to it's literary source, the provocative subject matter of a middle-aged woman engaging in a sexual affair with a 15 year-old boy, its place in the "Holocaust movie" canon, Kate Winslet's Oscar win, and such - I was not quite sure what to expect from it. Director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare teamed up several years ago for [i]The Hours[/i], and, similarly and disappointingly, this is an adaptation of an acclaimed novel (written by Bernard Schlink) that has almost been smothered by prestige. Like [i]The Hours[/i], [i]The Reader[/i] is pretty, carefully composed, expertly acted, and somberly serious about its content to the point of sacrificing its cinematic juice to the gods of the Academy. Yet it would be too easy to condemn it simply as Oscar bait; when all is said and done, there is enough thought and emotion here to inspire serious discussion and even some serious tears. It is a genuinely complicated movie that is just good enough to make you wonder how much riskier and more complex its source material is, since the main fault seems to be an excessive desire to be faithful to it and conform to the standards of a "Best Picture."

The story, of course, is about the affair between the high school-aged boy, Michael (David Kross), and the working-class woman in her mid-thirties, Hanna Schmitz (Winslet), who came across him one day on the street as he fell ill and took care of him. After months of secretive meetings where he read to her from his books (the sex almost becomes an afterthought), she leaves without a word. Eight years later, he is in law school and attending the trials of former Nazi and S.S. officers, of which he discovers Hanna was one. She was a guard at Auschwitz, and watched as a church full of prisoners on the march burned to the ground, killing all of them but one. Later still, Michael (now played by Ralph Fiennes) sends Hanna, now serving a life sentence in prison, tapes of himself reading books. [b][i]possible spoiler alert![/i][/b] We learn she had been illiterate up until this point, and teaches herself to read by Michael's tapes and books borrowed from the prison library at the same time as she comes to terms with her involvement in the destruction of human life.

The metaphor is fairly obvious, almost annoyingly so: Hanna's illiteracy comes to represent the willful ignorance of the German people towards the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. But there is more going on beneath the surface of the film, largely propelled by the brutally honest performance of Winslet and the measured sincerity of Fiennes, as well as the youthful fire of Kross. It's a painful fact of human nature: most of the time, we tend to follow the herd and take the easy, rather than the right, path, even if that means purposefully inflicting harm on others. (Of course, there are greater harms than others.) How can we forgive others, or ourselves? Can morality really ever exist in the face of human nature, or only law? What is the nature of individual responsibility? [i]The Reader[/i], in its calm, composed, often invigorating way, ponders these questions and, to its credit, allows for no easy answers, just attempts to understand.

At the same time, in spite of the emotional intensity of the performances, it often chooses to view Hanna at a distance, never completely confronting the horrors in which she was complicit, despite token scenes from Daldry of law student Michael visiting the death camps and testimonies from some of the survivors. While doing an admirable job of presenting the big questions of the story, [i]The Reader[/i] loses something in terms of intimacy and immediacy in its portrayal of this woman's existence. The Holocaust remains an abstract concept, a mere example of the more philosophical questions the movie wants us to chew on.

The movie is sombre, beautifully constructed, thoughtful, searingly acted, carefully tackling the issues of the story with appropriate ambiguity, and, in its best moments, even emotionally gripping. Unfortunately, it has many elements (almost too many) of Oscar bait, to the point of blandness and intellectual distance. What [i]The Reader[/i] does accomplish, though, is lasting and important enough to take precedence over any typical shortcomings. [b]B[/b]

Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder

(2008)
5 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

[img]http://img2.timeinc.net/ew/dynamic/imgs/081216/tropic-thunder_l.jpg[/img]

Evidently, it takes a famously neurotic and narcissistic celebrity to make fun of neurotic, narcissistic celebrity culture (and the whole business of show) in all its splendid detail. [i]Tropic Thunder[/i], the best pop-culture satire ? hell, the best all-around comedy ? since [i]Borat[/i] has Ben Stiller, who directs, writes, produces, and stars, taking smart, fast-paced aim at Hollywood hubris and stereotype. From the fake trailers that open and with a game cast including such various stars as Robert Downey Jr. and Nick Nolte, the movie gleefully dismantles the moviemaking process from conception to Method acting to absurdly over-the-top special effects to actorial tantrum-throwing to advertising and awards-season preening. Meanwhile it entertains with the very stuff it pokes fun at ? its action-packed story of a group of disparate, typical movie stars (Jack Black as the junky comedian, Stiller as the washed-up action star, Downey Jr. as the dramatic, frighteningly committed Oscar darling) purportedly filming a Vietnam epic only to find themselves stranded in the real Vietnam surrounded by explosions and a camp of wild thugs is as silly as (and far more satisfying than) any other blockbuster released in the thick of summer.

The talent that Stiller marshalls together is key to the movie's success. Steve Coogan is glorious as the crackpot director who comes up with the idea to drop the actors in the midst of the real jungle; Nick Nolte is an eerily good fit as the strung-out Vietnam vet upon whose book the movie-within-the-movie is based; and the movie still has room outside of all that to do something quite funny with Matthew McConnaughey. Stiller himself is appropriately and humourously fussy, manic, and always just on the verge (seemingly) of bursting a blood vessel as washed-up action hero. A big draw of course is real, possibly washed-up action hero Cruise as the aforementioned vulgar Jewish producer, and he gallavants through the film with outrageous gusto. A bigger draw still is newly incarnated action star Downey Jr. (who earlier this year brightened up [i]Iron Man[/i] with his distinctive wit) as a Russell Crowe/Daniel Day-Lewis hybrid, who here dons blackface and a perfectly surly accent to portray the African-American squadron leader in the movie-within-the-movie; one of the most fascinating actors of recent years is easily the scene-stealer of the movie, and a smart and hilariously hyperbolic incarnation of an Oscar-hungry star. Unfortunately, this leaves little for Black to do, but even he is appropriately zany (if slightly overshadowed) as the zany, portly John Belushi-esque comedian looking to score some heroin in the real Vietnamese jungle.

Stiller has an eye for exuberant, unchecked human nuttiness and neurosis, as well as an eye for pop culture absurdity, and on that token, [i]Tropic Thunder[/i] proves his magnum opus. Of course, it drew complaints from minority rights groups for its portrayal of the mentally challenged (though, oddly, not much fuss was made regarding Downey Jr.'s use of blackface) - obviously missing the point that the movie is really mocking its own artifice, that of movies in general, and the actors who so exploitively co-opt their disabilities as entertainment. Of course, a movie that skates on such an admirably knife-thin edge as this one does is bound to do so. No matter - [i]Tropic Thunder[/i] is explosively hilarious, high-concept, high-energy, and ? dare I say ? downright meta entertainment. [b]A[/b]

Man on Wire

Man on Wire

(2008)
5 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

[img]http://www.wildaboutmovies.com/images_6/MilkMovie.jpg[/img]

Sean Penn gives a rousing, perfectly realized performance of stubborn wit and unabashed sweetness as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician in the U.S., in Gus Van Sant?s stirring, loving biographical drama. But Penn, spectacular as he is, is merely one part of [i]Milk[/i], a movie that is wonderfully more than the sum of its parts. Milk is seen here as an impassioned figurehead at the very crossroads of a movement trying to gain its moment in the sun; his struggle to obtain a voice for his community comes across as urgently relevant now as it was in his own time. Josh Brolin also turns in a mature and fascinatingly complex performance as Dan White, an emotionally frustrated fellow member of the San Francisco board of supervisors at odds with Milk?s revolutionary stance. James Franco, Emile Hirsch, and Diego Luna are sharp, humane, and gently humourous as Milk?s friends and lovers. Van Sant?s film is intelligent enough to avoid becoming a mere elegy or a sappy, simplistic rundown of Milk?s accomplishments; it?s a shrewd observation of the political process, and a gentle but firm encouragement to become involved in it, however we can. While it remains, for obvious reasons, a bit predictable or conventional, and not every strand of Milk's life comes into as much focus as we'd like (some of his romantic relationships are glossed over a bit), [i]Milk[/i] remains compelling. It?s the rare biographical drama that is moving without being sentimental, detailed without being muddled, earnest in its message without being preachy; in short, it is a buoyant triumph. [b]A-[/b]

[img]http://www.tiff07.ca/blogs/uploads/Doc%20Blog/My%20Winnipeg.jpg[/img]

Winnipegger director Guy Maddin has an innate sense of how place (with not only its geographical but also its spiritual implications) and history (personal, esoteric, or public) shape identity and each of our own individual dreams and beliefs. Maddin communicates this connection arrestingly in [i]My Winnipeg[/i], the most gloriously inventive and dreamy cinematic snow globe of the year. In his stylistically exhilarating ?docu-fantasia,? he manages to fashion a full, unique cityscape as impressive, in its minimalist, art-house way, as that of Christopher Nolan?s Bat-flick. He also shoots in vibrant black-and-white, using potent, hilarious title cards as punctuation for his ideas. He brings in bits of myth and shared history about his city (Winnipeg has an unusually high incidence of sleepwalkers; citizens rally together to save a tree in the middle of a road as vigorously as they do a department store or an old NHL arena). He even brings in actors (including former screen legend Ann Savage) to portray his family, all in an attempt to understand why he can never truly escape the mental clutches of family and hometown. [i]My Winnipeg[/i] is crazily detailed, unswervingly eclectic, alluringly shape-shifting as Maddin moves from one fancy or passion to the next, and completely hypnotic. Just when you thought you knew all you really cared to know about the snowy Canadian city, [i]My Winnipeg[/i], deeply personal and documentary informative, comes along to haunt your mind and tantalize your curiosity. [b]A[/b]

[img]http://trishutchinson.files.wordpress.com/2008/07/petit3a1.jpg[/img]

In the early ?70s, tightrope-walker and professional daredevil Philippe Petit strung a rope across the then-brand new World Trade Center towers to perform the most daring artistic crime of the century. James Marsh?s [i]Man on Wire[/i] is a sprightly, elegant, and all-around magical documentary about the planning and execution of Petit?s feat. The quiet joy of the film is that the filmmaking matches the personality of the real Petit, the slender-bodied dreamer of a Frenchman we see in extensive interviews here ? nothing is impossible and the riskier an idea was for Petit, the more elfin wonder he seemed to get out of it. Similarly, the film captures this sense of happiness and wonder and makes it downright inspiring and infectious for the audience. It?s a thrill to watch Petit finally put in motion what he had dreamed of doing since childhood, a nerve-racking experience to see him almost get caught just at the final moments, and awesomely exciting (the film makes exquisite use of Ralph Vaughan Williams' ''The Lark Ascending'', especially during the footage of the act) when he finally steps out onto that wire, walking and even dancing hundreds of meters above the air with impeccable grace. The appeal of the film is also nostalgic ? although Marsh never mentions those towers have since disappeared from the New York skyline, we know it in the back of our mind, but for the duration of the film, we?re invited to make them live again. [i]Man on Wire[/i] is breathtaking entertainment, and Marsh, in a feat of perhaps equal wonder, makes Petit?s ascension the audience?s own. [b]A[/b]

Milk

Milk

(2008)
5 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

[img]http://www.wildaboutmovies.com/images_6/MilkMovie.jpg[/img]

Sean Penn gives a rousing, perfectly realized performance of stubborn wit and unabashed sweetness as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician in the U.S., in Gus Van Sant?s stirring, loving biographical drama. But Penn, spectacular as he is, is merely one part of [i]Milk[/i], a movie that is wonderfully more than the sum of its parts. Milk is seen here as an impassioned figurehead at the very crossroads of a movement trying to gain its moment in the sun; his struggle to obtain a voice for his community comes across as urgently relevant now as it was in his own time. Josh Brolin also turns in a mature and fascinatingly complex performance as Dan White, an emotionally frustrated fellow member of the San Francisco board of supervisors at odds with Milk?s revolutionary stance. James Franco, Emile Hirsch, and Diego Luna are sharp, humane, and gently humourous as Milk?s friends and lovers. Van Sant?s film is intelligent enough to avoid becoming a mere elegy or a sappy, simplistic rundown of Milk?s accomplishments; it?s a shrewd observation of the political process, and a gentle but firm encouragement to become involved in it, however we can. While it remains, for obvious reasons, a bit predictable or conventional, and not every strand of Milk's life comes into as much focus as we'd like (some of his romantic relationships are glossed over a bit), [i]Milk[/i] remains compelling. It?s the rare biographical drama that is moving without being sentimental, detailed without being muddled, earnest in its message without being preachy; in short, it is a buoyant triumph. [b]A-[/b]

My Winnipeg

My Winnipeg

(2007)
5 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Winnipeg-based director Guy Maddin has an innate sense of how place (with not only its geographical but also its spiritual implications) and history (personal, esoteric, or public) shape identity and each of our own individual dreams and beliefs. Maddin communicates this connection arrestingly in [i]My Winnipeg[/i], the most gloriously inventive and dreamy cinematic snow globe of the year. In his stylistically exhilarating ?docu-fantasia,? he manages to fashion a full, unique cityscape as impressive, in its minimalist, art-house way, as that of Christopher Nolan?s Bat-flick. He also shoots in vibrant black-and-white, using potent, hilarious title cards as punctuation for his ideas. He brings in bits of myth and shared history about his city (Winnipeg has an unusually high incidence of sleepwalkers; citizens rally together to save a tree in the middle of a road as vigorously as they do a department store or an old NHL arena). He even brings in actors (including former screen legend Ann Savage) to portray his family, all in an attempt to understand why he can never truly escape the mental clutches of family and hometown. [i]My Winnipeg[/i] is crazily detailed, unswervingly eclectic, alluringly shape-shifting as Maddin moves from one fancy or passion to the next, and completely hypnotic. Just when you thought you knew all you really cared to know about the snowy Canadian city, [i]My Winnipeg[/i], deeply personal and documentary informative, comes along to haunt your mind and tantalize your curiosity. [b]A[/b]

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Intel Hollywood Star Program (July 2012 - December 2012)
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