Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Reader (2008)

Every year, five (soon to be ten) movies are nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and I always think I should try to see them. The problem is that so many of them look really unappealing. These nominees tend to be more than just art films (I LIKE art films.); they are Big Subject movies, and they tend to be preachy. These movies are about Race, Greed, Evil Republicans, or America’s Obsession with Violence. Then there’s the recurring favorite topic: The Holocaust. How many more movies about the Holocaust are we going to be subjected to? Well, I can’t believe I’m doing it, but I am here to recommend that you watch one more.

The Best Picture nominees for 2008 were “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Milk,” “Frost/Nixon,” and “The Reader.” I watched and liked the first two, and I’d be up for watching the second two on the list. As for “The Reader,” I had zero interest in watching, and I just got sucked into it because I truly had nothing better to do. It turns out the movie is way, way better than I expected!

“The Reader” tells the story of a young man, Michael (played young by David Kross and older by Ralph Fiennes), who, at the age of 15, has an affair with an older woman, Hanna (Kate Winslet.) They have some hot times, but Hanna has something of a wall around her, and seems to carry a deep sadness and loneliness. The two manage to make something of an emotional connection, however, and in a moment of playfulness, Hanna gets Michael to read one of his books to her. Soon they are working their way through Michael’s library, Hanna listening rapt as he reads the classics to her.

When Hanna abruptly vanishes from his life, Michael is, of course, devastated. A few years later, as a law student, Michael re-discovers Hanna when she is brought to trial for, of all things, having been a Nazi concentration camp guard. Michael’s handling of the situation as a young man and years later, when he forces himself to re-visit the issue, makes an amazing and heartbreaking story.

The reason I was able to get into yet another Holocaust movie is that “The Reader” is only peripherally about The Holocaust. It is really about the thorny issue of how modern Germany deals with the guilt of the Nazi era. As the last of those who lived through that time die off, this will become less and less of an issue, but for recent history it must have been quite an elephant in the room for Germans. Meanwhile, knowing this history doesn’t seem to stop people in the rest of the world from repeating it. It seems that 20, 30, or 40 years down the line we are always going to be dealing with this thorny question of how to pass modern-day judgments on past crimes.

Caught smack in the midst of this question is Hanna. “The Reader” does not excuse Hanna for her crimes, but it carefully raises the question of how much of her trial is just scapegoating. If almost all Germans knew something of what went on in the camps, and if most kept silent, and many approved, then how much of that guilt belongs to any one camp guard? This film doesn’t answer the question any more than I could, but it does a good job making us aware that the question exists.

None of this necessarily sounds like good entertainment, but somehow “The Reader” kept me on the edge of my seat. Hanna’s situation and Michael’s journey as he reaches out to her are somehow transfixing. This is the kind of movie that people tell you you should see, and you know what? You really should see it!

4.5 stars

Monday, August 03, 2009

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Everyone thinks that the best makeup job of 2008 was transforming Robert Downey, Jr. into a black guy in “Tropic Thunder,” and I have to admit that the effect is impressive. Honorable Mention, however, has to go to whomever turned Tom Cruise into the slightly bloated, bald, foul-mouthed movie producer Les Grossman. The movie was halfway over before I realized that was Tom Cruise. Maybe it’s just that I couldn’t see well through all the tears of laughter. “Tropic Thunder” is hilarious from the first shot, and your face WILL hurt from laughing by the end.

The movie is about the attempt to make a movie called “Tropic Thunder,” an effects-driven, blood-soaked cliché of a Vietnam movie. The would-be drama features an ensemble of self-absorbed actors: fading action star Tug Speedman (Ben Stiller), fart-joke comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon Jackson), unknown Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), and serious method-actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr. in incredibly convincing blackface.) The production is plagued with accidents and budget overruns, Apocalypse-Now-style, partly because of the diva behavior of its stars. Desperate to make a realistic movie, the director decides to plant his actors deep in the jungle with nothing but a map and blank-firing weapons, and film them guerilla-style. Unfortunately, the jungle is full of actual guerillas, heroin producers who add a great deal of realism to the experience.

Robert Downey, Jr. can’t possibly get enough credit for this role, playing Kirk Lazarus, a white guy who undergoes “a controversial skin-darkening procedure” in order to play a black character. He starts out extremely convincing, but the more he is ridiculed and challenged by Alpa Chino (actually black), the thinner his charade grows, until finally he is reduced to quoting the Jefferson’s theme song (“Movin’ on Up”) as a source of wisdom. He stubbornly stays in character even when it becomes apparent that they are no longer filming a movie and just need to get out of the jungle alive. As Lazarus puts it, “I don’t break character until the DVD commentary is done.” This was obviously a risky career move for Downey. I don’t think anyone has worn blackface since 1986, when C. Thomas Howell darkened up to get a Harvard scholarship in “Soul Man.” Downey plays the whole thing perfectly, giving Kirk Lazarus just enough of the ridiculous.

Speaking of ridiculous, Ben Stiller’s Tug is pitch-perfect as well. He is a Vin Diesel-esque action star with a fading franchise and a misplaced desire to be a serious actor. He wants to adopt a southeast Asian orphan, but says “It seems like all the good ones are taken.”

The best way to sum up “Tropic Thunder” is Over-The-Top, but in this case I mean that in a good way. The film starts out with a gargantuan level of hilarity and manages to maintain that level to the hilarious end. I strongly recommend it, and I strongly recommend emptying your bladder before watching.

4.5 stars