Friday, January 30, 2009

The Reader

Movie: The Reader

I knew zip about this other than Kate Winslet was nominated for an Oscar. (I'm not sure why; she was good, but I didn't find her performance that remarkable.) The film surprised me. The sex is quite explicit, which I wasn't expecting, but the story was compelling. The story is set in Germany over a number of years beginning with the main male character when he's 15 and enters a love affair with an older woman. It's a very interesting romance, mostly physical, but then she has him read books to her, which takes their relationship to a different level. He falls in love, but it cannot last, of course, and when she moves away he's devastated. Years later he's in law school and as part of a class goes to see a trial of six Nazi women for war crimes. (This is in the late sixties; I had not realized they were still prosecuting Nazis that long after the war.) One of the woman turns out to be Hannah, the woman he'd had the love affair with. The boy is torn between love and horror of Hannah's crime. It seems that after she left him she joined the SS and committed horrible crimes. But then the boy realizes he has knowledge that can exonerate her. Should he tell? Ah, that is the dilemma. The film continues on with their interaction over many years and it's a moving story. It's powerfully told, though I found certain aspects of the manipulation of time confusing: at one point I had characters mixed up because I assumed the wrong thing, and other times jumped around without warning or connection. Another flaw is that the film is somewhat predictable, at least for me. At first there was a lot of mystery but as I put the pieces together I said, "Ah, this is going to happen, and this, and this," and it happened exactly that way. Usually that annoys me, but in this case the film played out exactly the way it needed and it was all right. Despite those flaws, it's an excellent film. I loved the emphasize on performance, for many of the scenes contain minimal dialog, with characters simply exchanging wordless looks. The boy is incredible, changing from a convincing naive kid of 15 to a more mature law student. Though somewhat explicit, I'm not sure it's unnecessary -- in retrospect it felt like it was needed to set the tone for the relationship of the two characters. We basically saw their physical love, but as they connect throughout their lives, we see there was much more to it than that. Well done. Not for all tastes, but if you enjoy thinking and good acting, this is worth seeing.


Friday, January 30, 2009


Movie: Taken

I really liked this. What makes it work is Liam Neeson in the main role. He's former government security expert, a "preventer," and when his estranged daughter is kidnapped in Paris by white slavers, he hunts them down and kills them. In most such films they'd cast a bulky hunk like the Rock or Stalone and while the action would be fine, the dramatic scenes would be crap. But Neeson is terrific: we believe he's a sensitive guy who adores his daughter, and yet we can believe him to be a ruthless action hero, too. That's a rare feat and impressively done. Also, while the basic plot's predictable, the way it plays out is creative and interesting: all he's got to go on is a few seconds of cell phone conversation, but he manages to track down all the anonymous bad guys. Pretty cool. Great action (a la Bourne), but enough depth of character to make everything seem important.


Friday, January 23, 2009


Movie: Defiance

Yet Another WWII movie, but this one I wanted to see because it tells a story we haven't heard. This one is the true story of some Russian jews who set up camp in the forest to hide from the Nazi's. It's an incredible story, especially the stats at the end that reveal how many lives were saved by these men (the descendents of the survivors number in the tens of thousands). Much of the drama is predictable -- cold weather, starvation, betrayal, tragedy -- but it's well done with excellent performances and compelling characters. Unfortunately, it still seems a tad dry and long, but it's definitely worth seeing.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Movie: Slumdog Millionaire

I'd heard a review that game me a good understanding of this and I got just what I expected: a Hollywoodized feel-good film about a poor boy in India who wins on the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" game show. The question is, how can an uneducated boy know the answers? So we see his life in flashbacks and each story contains the answer to the question. But it's an interesting and amazing life, especially from a non-Indian perspective. One of the things I had heard about the film was a comment that if it had been set in America, it would be an ordinary film, and I agree: what makes this work is the setting in a foreign culture. It's very well done, somewhat predictable but the kind of feel-good predictable you like, and there are several shocking and unusual scenes. Recommended.


Friday, January 9, 2009

Gran Torino

Movie: Gran Torino

I had thought no film could compete with Doubt for best of the year, but if there is one, it's this one. What a fabulous film! This is why movies are made. Incredible performances, writing, directing, just perfect. I loved it. It's funny, unusual, interesting, and powerfully emotional. The ending is just right: I was weeping it was so beautifully sad. The story is elegant and simple: we have a grumpy old man, a Korean war vet, who is hard-core American and resents all the minorities moving into his neighborhood. The man is blatantly racist, doesn't like people, and even his own family avoid him. He's like the hermit grandfather in Heidi. But when a gang fight breaks out on his lawn and he scares them off with his rifle, the minorities think he saved them, and start bringing him gifts. Slowly, and I do mean slowly, the neighbor girl and boy next store change the man. The interaction between the intelligent girl and the old man is fabulous, him being grumpy and insulting, and her laughing it off and being cleverly self-effacing. I loved the clash of cultures as she tries to teach him the ways of her people (she is Mung), and the way food is a communication breakthrough (the old man pretty much lives on beer and jerky since his wife died so delicious Mung food is a way to his heart). The film is utterly realistic with the Mung people speaking in their own language (and it is not subtitled for us viewers) so we really get the feel of confusion and lack of communication. Yet at the same time, we are given glimpses of the true character of the people, from the way they treat each other as a family, to how they are helpful to a neighbor in need. The film pulls no punches and is blunt and direct; there is no sitcom-simple resolution. Instead, we're presented with a complex tragedy and dilemma and an amazing conclusion. I really can't say enough good things about this film. I just loved it. It's remarkable in nearly every aspect. About the only thing I would change would be the scene where Clint Eastwood drops the shot glass -- I would have had him crush it in his hand. It just seemed out of character for a strong man like him to drop it, no matter what the provocation (and crushing the glass in anger would have been perfect). Highly recommended: go see this film!


Tuesday, January 6, 2009


Movie: Doubt

There are some who might be put off by this film's topic, which deals with a priest who may have done something inappropriate, but you shouldn't worry: the topic-that-mustn't-be-named never is, as everything is discussed in the vaguest of terms, and that is where the film gains its power. Instead of being blatant and obvious, everything here is subtle: once some doubt about someone creeps in, the slightest thing can increase that suspicion. The film keeps you on a knife edge throughout: did he or didn't he, and who is wrong and who is right? Do we believe or not believe? Are having doubts a good thing or a bad thing? This is a wonderful film, with incredible acting (Meryl Streep is astonishingly convincing -- she is truly the greatest actress of all time), powerful and clever dialog (the film is based on a play), and a subtle but dramatic plot. In one sense very little happens in this: there are some suspicions, some confrontations, some questions asked -- but in another sense, earth-shattering things are happening, because underneath every polite smile, shake of the hand, pat on the back, etc., is lurking something ominous and heavy. Wow. What a film. The best film of year (2008). Amazing, amazing, amazing. This is a film you could watch over and over and still gain insight from, as there's so much going on there's plenty of meat left on the bone even after several meals. Highly recommended for people who have brains and aren't afraid of thinking.


Monday, January 5, 2009


Book: Blink
Writer(s): Malcolm Gladwell

Another terrific Gladwell book. This was his second, which I read third, but I think it's of more practical use than Outliers or The Tipping Point. This one deals with the topic of "thin-slicing," or the human ability to make snap judgements. Malcolm argues that this is an instinct and innate skill we all have and use regularly, but because the process is hidden within our subconscious, we aren't aware of what we are doing or how we do it. He demonstrates via entertaining stories, the benefits and dangers of thin-slicing, and shows that thin-slicing is a skill that can be taught and learned. The stories are for the most part, dramatic and interesting. For instance, we see how cops can use thin-slicing to instantly assess a situation and decide if a person is hostile or benign, and the bad things that happen when cops fail to thin-slice and over-react. There are also many prejudices that are exposed via thin-slicing, where stereotypes make us assume something that isn't correct -- that's the danger of thin-slicing indiscriminately. When thin-slicing is used correctly, it can be terrifically useful, ranging from sales people who can instantly assess a potential customer to military decisions, and including activities like dating and interviewing job candidates. Well worth the read.


Sunday, January 4, 2009

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead

Movie: I'll Sleep When I'm Dead

The description of this movie was something like "guy hunts down his brother's killer" which sounded like a fun revenge thriller. It stars Clive Owen in an early role and so I checked this out. Unfortunately, there isn't much action at all. It's an odd film, very talky, and I guess we're supposed to feel the existential angst of these killers and mobsters (I didn't). All in all, I thought it quite disappointing, but that probably had more to do with my expectations which weren't at all meant. There are also so distasteful scenes that come out of nowhere (the rape one being foremost). Lame.


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Run Ronnie Run!

Movie: Run Ronnie Run!

Rather distasteful but occasionally brilliantly funny story about a rural idiot who's always getting arrested and ends up in Hollywood on his own reality TV series (where each week he gets arrested in a different city). It's a mildly amusing idea, but the main character is such a doofus you really don't care about it or the story. What saves the movie (though only marginally) are all the little in-between gags, like the very-well-done reality TV scenes, and things like -- my favorite -- an outrageously awful music video interlude. The whole thing is more like a series of gags than a cohesive film and thus it doesn't really work, but it there are moments of hilarity that might make it good if you're bored.


Friday, January 2, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Movie: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

My original expectations were high, but they lowered when I heard some reviews and comments, and when I saw the nearly three hour running time. But you know what? I liked this. It is a little long, but it generally holds your interest and the characters are compelling enough you want to find out what is going to happen to them. I read the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story this is based on and the story's completely different. In the story the baby can talk right out of the womb, which is farfetched (not that living life in reverse is that realistic either, but that's a premise you buy for the sake of the story). In the film the baby is given away to a black nurse who raises Benjamin as her own, and I liked the way he's raised in an old folks home, which fits him well, as he doesn't even realize he's different from all the old people around him. Overall the story's somewhat tame and predictable in direction (not in specifics), but it still works. The special effects and acting are fabulous; the film's worth seeing just for that. I was a little disappointed that more creativity didn't go into more of a plot, per se; other than the "old-to-young" aging gimmick, there isn't much here, but it's still worth seeing just for the novelty. There was also a rather useless "framing" gimmick of a daughter visiting her dying mother in the hospital and reading Benjamin's story, and that was set in New Orleans just before hurricane Katrina hit. I felt this storyline added little to the overall story and just interrupted the flow far too often. It was also boring and though there was supposed drama with Katrina coming, it didn't have anything to do with anything, and just felt out of place and odd.


Thursday, January 1, 2009

Bedtime Stories

Movie: Bedtime Stories

I really enjoyed this. Yes, it's formulaic and somewhat predictable, but in a good way. It's a feel-good family film, safe for the kids, and will appeal to both adults and the young. The concept is terrific: good-loser-guy has to babysit his niece and nephew and discovers that the bedtime stories he tells them come true the next day, so he starts to try and manipulate the stories to help himself in real life, with comic results. Of course it all works out great in the end. The acting's over-the-top, the bedtime stories childish (which fits with his kid-like character), but like most of Adam Sandler's films, the movie has a gentle heart and a good soul that shines through in the happy ending. Fun.


Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Stupids

Movie: The Stupids

Strange old Tom Arnold film that I suspect might have a cult following. It's about a family of idiots who completely misinterpret reality and get into all sorts of crazy adventures involved in stopping an arms dealer plot. Many parts of this are pure genius, as Tom's character is like Inspector Clouseaux in his ability to inadvertently stop the bad guys, but the film's too uneven and strange for most people, I suspect. The best part for me was the hilarious song, "I'm My Own Grandpaw," which Tom sings when he accidentally ends up as a guest on a daytime talk show. It's a catchy tune with funny lyrics and he gets the entire stage audience to sing along with him! Worth catching if you're in the right mood.