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Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Movie to provide Kate Winslet her Oscar

The Reader (2008)

Last night I took in The Reader. It was actually the first book I had read in my book club when it started a couple years ago, and ever since I heard Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes would be starring in it, I have looked forward to its release.

Overall, I was definitely impressed with the adaptation. Most movie adaptations of acclaimed novels have to cut a lot out, but The Reader is a short book, so there actually seemed to be added material. The material that was added, however, flowed easily and made dramatic sense.

Let me put it out there that Kate Winslet is, by far, my favorite modern actress. I think she is terrific in everything she has ever done, and she should have at least a couple of Oscars by now (especially for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). She does not disappoint in this film. She is playing a supremely flawed character, but she manages to turn in a performance that humanizes Hannah without making her lovable or letting her off the hook. It's quite a different role than her usual free-spirited sort, but she is more than up to the challenge. Watching her performance, you can always see the many layers she is drawing upon to create this character. With a lesser actress in the role, the movie would not have been nearly as successful.

Thankfully, she has a good partner in David Kross, the actor playing young Michael (who grows up to be Ralph Fiennes). He is the protagonist of the film, and as an audience we are always in his head and seeing things from his perspective. He is up to the challenge of carrying us along for his emotional journey. I thought the film was strongest at the beginning (showing Michael and Hannah's relationship) and the end (especially two knockout scenes between Ralph Fiennes and an older Kate Winslet and another between Fiennes and Lena Olin as a Holocaust survivor). The courtroom scenes in the middle, while providing crucial information, seemed to drag a bit.

The movie is beautifully shot, has a memorable score, and leaves the viewer with plenty to think about. If it's missing something, it seems to be a certain amount of passion. Stephen Daldry directs everything with competence, but he doesn't take a lot of risks.

The Reader has been getting a lot of flack for taking The Dark Knight's assumed spot in the Best Picture race. While neither film is in my top 5 for the year, I hope the numerous strengths of The Reader are not lost in the bitter battles of Oscar season.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

SAG Winners

Sunday night was the Screen Actors Guild awards. Unfortunately I do not have cable, so I couldn't watch the stars. Here were the movie winners:

Ensemble: Slumdog Millionaire
Actor: Sean Penn, Milk
Actress: Meryl Streep, Doubt
Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Supporting Actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader

Well, there you have it folks. Aside from the Kate Winslet switcheroo (she was nominated in Best Actress instead of Supporting for The Reader), I think this will be your lineup. Kate will win Best Actress and Penelope Cruz will probably win supporting.

I thought Heath Ledger was terrific in The Dark Knight. Maybe not terrific enough to justify his steamrolling of just about every supporting actor award (I loved Josh Brolin in Milk and Bill Irwin in Rachel Getting Married perhaps slightly more), but brilliant. I do, however, think that by the time he wins for the umpteenth time at the Oscars, it won't feel all that emotional because so many other shows will have already had their poignant moments. Then again, maybe I'll still get a lump in my throat....

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Slums abroad and close to home: Chop Shop and Slumdog Millionaire

Chop Shop
(2008) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Well, I'm still sick and have still been sitting on my couch watching movies. I was very impressed with Chop Shop, a film from Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani. The movie is about a 12-year-old boy and his older sister living in Queens and making a living working at the local car shops and food carts. Almost no backstory is given as to how they ended up here, but the camera simply follows them for a few days of their life.

Many reviewers have said (and I absolutely concur) that this doesn't feel like an American film. It is very reminiscent of the classic neorealist films from Europe and the more recent films from Iran. If it weren't for Shea stadium and the subway train in the background, it would be very easy to forget that this story even takes place in America. Everyone who immediately thinks of Sex and the City or Woody Allen's Upper East Side when they think of New York should definitely see this film to get another version of life in the city. The only recent "American" movie I've seen that reminds me of this is Maria Full of Grace.

As I was watching this movie, I couldn't help but think of Slumdog Millionaire, another film about a young man who doesn't go to school and gets by on his wits. I saw Slumdog a few weeks ago. The filming style couldn't be more different, and neither could the overall feel of the movie. As you watch Slumdog, you are pulled up and down by its grand emotional gestures. Chop Shop includes moments no less heartbreaking moments than moments from Slumdog, yet they are simply observed rather than highlighted. I really liked both films, but there's little doubt in my mind that Chop Shop is more emotionally honest with the audience. Chop Shop also gets extra points for a beautiful and minimalist ending.

Since I've picked on Slumdog a bit, perhaps I should say what I really liked about it. I loved the cinematography, the score, the creative use of subtitles, and the textured and colorful version of life in India. Yes, the story is derivative of Dickens, but Dickens is still read for a reason, we all need some emotional catharsis sometimes. The ending of Slumdog was great, and I definitely walked out of the theater feeling energized.

So, all in all, Slumdog is perhaps a more enjoyable experience to watch, but Chop Shop certainly gets the points for realism.

Chop Shop: A-
Slumdog Millionaire: B+

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The King of Kong

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

I finally caught up with this much-praised documentary last year and was a little underwhelmed. It primarily concerns the battle between two men vying for the highest score on Donkey Kong. There are certainly lots of quirky characters in the story, and the community of competitive gamers was well framed, but I honestly got a little sick of shots of Donkey Kong by the time I got about halfway through the movie.

The best thing about the movie is probably the presence of the ordinary family-man hero and the sleazy, hot-sauce magnate, underhanded villian. It gives the movie kind of a fun real-life David vs. Goliath vibe to it. Take a look at his pic and tell me you can't tell he's skeezy the minute you see him.

Grade: B-

American Teen & Sullivan's Travels

I've come down with yet another bad cold (ah the pleasures of working everyday with children) so I've already had time to screen two movies since beginning my blog.

American Teen (2008)

Follows a group of 4 teenagers as they make it through their senior year in Warsaw, IN. Each of them is fairly interesting on their own, especially Hannah as the school's rebel. Unfortunately, the director decided to select participants and shoot the movie in a fairly conventional way. At times, it feels more like average reality TV than an excellent slice-of-life documentary (a la Spellbound). The director chose these teens out of many that she filmed, and it's clear she was going for certain archetypes: The Jock, The Princess, The Rebel, and The Nerd.

What I found most interesting about the movie was its exploration of the pressures parents put on their children. Of the four main characters, only "The Nerd" seems to have a parent with his best interests at heart. The jock's dad gives him a choice between winning a scholarship and going into the army, the princess' dad pushes her hard towards Notre Dame, and, worst of all, Hannah's bipolar mother (who she doesn't even live with) basically tells her she's stupid for trying to leave Indiana and is destined to follow the unhappy and depressing path of her parents.

Grade: B-

Sullivan's Travels (1941)

I had seen this Preston Sturges movie a long time ago, but I forgot how wonderful it really is. It follows a Hollywood director (Joel McCrea) who dresses up a hobo so that he can understand the working man and make a production of a book called O Brother, Where Art Thou? (yes the Coen brothers movie is an homage). Along the way, he meets an aspiring starlet played beautifully by Veronica Lake. Mixes slapstick, witty dialogue, and social commentary. I was also impressed by the non-verbal sequences. There are several montages with no dialogue that give tell a complete story. Yes, the movie comes with a clear message, but it's told in a delightful rather than heavy-handed way. Definitely one of the best comedies of the 1940s.

Grade: A

Friday, January 23, 2009

Oscar Thoughts

I haven't seen several of the big contendors yet (The Reader, Doubt, Frost/Nixon), so I don't have a whole lot to say so far. I was most happy to see Richard Jenkins sneak in. I loved him in Six Feet Under and thought he was terrific in The Visitor. I was surprised/saddened by the snub for Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky. She is definitely my favorite female performance of the year and it's too bad she didn't make the cut.

Looking at the nominations now, here's who I expect to win:

Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog
Actor: Sean Penn, Milk
Actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader
S. Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
S. Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Original Screenplay: Milk
Adapted Screenplay: Slumdog Millionaire

So far it's looking fairly predictable, but I think there will be a real race for Actor (Penn vs. Rourke) and possibly Supporting Actress (Viola Davis vs. Cruz).


This is my first post so I thought I'd introduce myself. I live in Washington, DC and am a third-grade teacher by day, but my dream alternate career has always been amateur movie critic. I'm not exactly sure what this blog will entail, but you will likely see some of the following: reviews (of movies in theaters and on my Netflix queue), "best of" lists, Oscar prognostication, and perhaps other random posts. I hope you enjoy!