The Reader – Film Review

readerposterThe Reader is a grave, intellectual odyssey of shame and awakening set in post WWII Berlin. At the outset is the story of a young boy, Michael Berg (David Kross) who has a chance meeting with a much older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). Michael is ill and Hanna comforts him and sees to it he gets home safely. After a long recovery period Michael returns to her flat to thank her. They become romantically involved over the next several months, which causes Michael to rebuff his school friends and hurry back to spend hours with Hannah. She seems fascinated with his studies and compels him to read to her before they make love. His obsession is her, her obsession is with the printed word. One day, without any advance notice, Hannah packs her bags and leaves.

Another story emerges while Michael is in law school and attends a Holocaust trial as part of a seminar. It’s in this part of the narrative that the big themes are explored by the author of The Reader, Bernhard Schlink. Mr. Schlink is a law professor and mystery writer from Berlin. The filmmakers’ production notes call the book a semi-autobiographical novel, and it was critically acclaimed and reached the top of the bestseller lists in dozens of countries. The second act is where the emotional torture takes place. Michael represents an innocent post-Holocaust German generation. The parents of these kids are trying to reconcile what they knew about the camps and reassess why they didn’t do more to stop it. The banter between the seminar students and their learned professor provides clues to the debate Germany had with it’s conscious, but in the end there are no satisfying answers.

Kate Winslet as Hannah Schmitz and Ralph Fiennes as Michael Berg

Everyone in the picture is torn over something or someone. And when Michael gets the opportunity later in life to bring some form of closure, he tries, but his heart, which was mortally wounded 30 years prior, is not fully up to the task. He does call on his voice to do the work of his heart, and in the end is able to finally tell someone, his teenage daughter, of his encounter with Hannah in his youth.

Ms. Winslet is excellent at providing the empty shell where Hannah’s character resides. But for me that’s one of the challenges of the film. We know virtually nothing of Hannah’s past. There is no warmth, only a misguided sense of duty and flawed logic offered as motivation. “It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t matter what I feel. The dead are still dead.” The supporting performances are top notch and the narrative cross-cutting is particularly effective at advancing the older Michael character (Ralph Fiennes). It’s this device that finally gives us something hold on to.

The film was produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, who are masters at translating literature to the screen (The English Patient, Out of Africa). The Reader unfolds like a book; thoughtfully staged and artfully paced. Unfortunately we lost both Mr. Minghella and Mr. Pollack in 2008.

The Reader is nominated for five Academy Awards, including Ms. Winslet for Best Actress and the film for Best Picture. Director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours) also gets an Oscar nod. It is his vision and command of the medium that makes The Reader compelling viewing.

You can visit the official Reader web site here. Photo credits: The Weinstein Co.

No Country For Old Men – You Can’t Stop What’s Coming

A brief forewarning.

Some people may find this post to be a little on the dark side. Just remember, I’m writing about the movies. None of these things really happened.

On screen killings are nothing new. How many times have you seen someone get rubbed out in a movie? Probably too many to count. The methods employed to dispense with characters are vast and varied. There are many masters of the celluloid capital crime; Hitchcock, Scorsese, Kubrick and Lynch to name a few. Is there any major filmmaker that hasn’t staged a killing in one of their films? If you know one who hasn’t, please post it. Also, if anyone out there knows what movie was first to show a murder on screen, post that as well.

My study film these days is No Country for Old Men. Academy Award Winner for best picture, director, adapted screenplay and supporting actor. Fantastic. Pure Coen brothers. Murders are a staple in the film world of the Coens. These guys are top notch. Not only do they deliver on body count, but add twists to each one.

Ethan and Joel Coen on the set – Released by Miramax

The choices are carefully crafted and painstakingly staged to keep the viewer off balance, which more effectively builds the trademark Coen suspense. Nothing is ever certain, except that Anton Chigruh is a certifiable psychopathic killer. Anton is driven. He has to do these things. We get the sense he’s been programmed; think Terminator. He sees the obvious and acts.

In No Country characters can vanish without regard to their importance or standing in the story. No one is safe. We’re all rooting for Llewelyn to get away cleanly. And even though he was a main player, his death takes place off screen, and in an unexpected manner. It wasn’t even Anton that pulled the trigger.

Naturally there are always nagging questions. Was it the flirting woman’s body floating face down in the Desert Sands pool? Did Llewelyn consider her offer for beer and get distracted? Did Anton really kill Carla Jean? Of course he did. But in those final moments with her we see a tiny crack in Anton’s method, connecting with his victims (potential victims). The gas station owner, Carson, Llewelyn… Carla Jean. The psychology is complex. But by stopping to explain his twisted mission of fate to Carla Jean, Anton takes himself out of the “the flow.” If he skips the lengthy talk with Carla Jean, there is no car crash. Her attempt to reason with him extracts a small bit of revenge.

No Country for Old Men has six main kill categories. I have compiled a list of the causalities and plotted them in their appropriate category (excluding animals). You are probably asking, why is he writing about this? Why take this time? The Coens put so much thought and care in their craft, one has to study it on every level to fully appreciate. Oh yeah, and it’s fun.

Impressive body count wouldn’t you say? And the winner is… Anton Chigruh with 14 kills. If you include the driver of the car that ran the red light and crashed into him, it goes to 15. After all it was Anton’s fault, a variation on the coin toss game of fate. Read my review of No Country for Old Men in a previous post.

Javier Bardem as Anton Chigruh

What’s next for the Coens?

The Mike Zoss Production Company has a number of projects in various stages of planning and production. The next film to be released is most likely a comedy/drama (go figure) called Burn After Reading. From Working Title Films and Mark Zoss Productions, to be distributed by Focus Features. Picture is currently in post production, and stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand. Plot synopsis: A disk containing the memoirs of CIA agent Ozzie Cox (Malkovich) ends up in the hands of two unscrupulous gym employees who attempt to sell it. McDormand plays Cox’s philandering wife and Clooney an assassin. Hopefully it will be released in fall of 2008.

Other projects include, Suburbicon, Hail Caesar and Gambit. Pipeline is good. Get out your body count matrix and sharpen your pencils!