Friday, January 30, 2009

Stir in the Black Chicks

Is a pathetic gesture toward representation better than none at all? These seem to be the two options for women of colour in Michael Patrick King's limited, unfettered world view. Or at least, for Jennifer Hudson, who portrayed Carrie Bradshaw's assistant in that big-screen adaptation of Sex and the City last year.

In this article, King talks a little about his plans for the sequel (help us), and then touches on the issue of colour in the television show:
"It can't be called Sex and the City without a little color—it's just wrong. Women are very nice when they figure out who I am. And the only negative comment I ever got about the series was every now and then, some woman of color—whether it'd be Latina or an African-American—they'd stop and say, 'Where are the sisters?' in my ear, and I was like, 'Yeah, where are they?'
Playing assistants and enablers to spoiled egomaniacs, apparently. No thanks, Michael. If your lame inclusion of the Louise character is the best we can hope for, along with the same baggage of appalling power dynamics as in the first film, stop trying now. Your self-congratulatory pat on the back for choosing Hudson over Isla Fisher seems to be the extent of your progressiveness.

I'd rather you kept the universe of the series insular if this is what we have to look forward to ("a little color"). I'm happy that women find you "nice" and non-threatening once they meet you, but that doesn't mean they should celebrate the fact that a seemingly authoritative voice like yours finally decided to throw them a bone.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Last Minute Predix

Do I care? Should I care? Maybe I'm just grumpy. Barring a not-altogether-impossible-last-minute Wrestler shockeroo, I don't really care enough about the Best Picture frontrunners (my admiration for Milk and The Dark Knight aside). 

But I know I'll look back in a couple of months and kick myself for not having at least one set of predictions for the records. They're nice time capsules, and I always enjoy looking back on what was speculated versus what the Academy was actually feeling.

1. Slumdog Millionaire +
2. Slumdog Millionaire
3. Slumdog Millionaire
4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button +
5. Slumdog Millionaire 
6. The Dark Knight - 
7. Frost/Nixon +
8. Milk +
9. Wall-E
10. The Wrestler

Missed: The Reader

Okay, cheekiness aside, I think those "familiar five" films recycled throughout awards season are defo. our nominees. At the time votes were due, these were the only titles on everyone's minds (see the boring guilds' choices). I suppose Wall-E's entirely possible too, and I'd be excited to see such a development (I'm not crazy about the Stanton picture, but I can understand the love). Either way, if it does make the shortlist, I'm guessing that Milk surrenders its spot to the animated feature, not Frost/Nixon.

1. Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire +
2. David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button +
3. Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight -
4. Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon +
5. Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler -
6. Gus Van Sant, Milk +
7. Jonathan Demme, Rachel Getting Married

Missed: Stephen Daldry, The Reader (now 3/3 in this category. Damn.)

Again, I think Frost/Nixon is more of a player in this race than people imagine, and Van Sant is the DGA-nominated director who's in most danger of getting lost in the shuffle, not Howard. Wish it was the other way around, but I'd be thrilled to see Aronofsky get in either way.

1. Meryl Streep, Doubt +
2. Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married +
3. Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky -
4. Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road -
5. Angelina Jolie, Changeling +
6. Kate Winslet, The Reader +
7. Melissa Leo, Frozen River +

If I do badly in the female acting categories, I blame it on Kate Winslet and her loony category fraud this year. Just like how Leonardo DiCaprio ('07) and Scarlett Johansson ('04) screwed me over in their double-bill years. Anyways, standard five here too - I can't imagine them leaving out Sally Hawkins after LAFCA and NYFCC.

1. Sean Penn, Milk +
2. Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler +
3. Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon +
4. Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button +
5. Richard Jenkins, The Visitor +
6. Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
7. Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire

I just don't wanna see Gran Torino, kay?

1. Viola Davis, Doubt +
2. Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona +
3. Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler +
4. Kate Winslet, The Reader -
5. Amy Adams, Doubt +
6. Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button +
7. Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married

Go, go, go DeWitt!

1. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight +
2. Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire -
3. Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder +
4. Josh Brolin, Milk +
5. Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road +
6. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt +
7. James Franco, Milk

I may be (v. v.) stupid to exclude Hoffman, but I think Shannon's not entirely out of the race, and could surprise in manner of Djimon Hounsou in the year of In America. 

1. Woody Allen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona -
2. Dustin Lance Black, Milk +
3. Andrew Stanton, Wall-E +
4. Robert D. Siegel, The Wrestler -
5. Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky +
6. Jenny Lumet, Rachel Getting Married
7. Martin McDonaugh, In Bruges +

Missed: Courtney Hunt, Frozen River

They're probably off of the Coen Brothers for a while, WGA nod be damned.

1. Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire +
2. Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon +
3. Eric Roth, Robin Swicord, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button +
4. Jonathan Nolan, David S. Goyer, The Dark Knight -
5. David Hare, The Reader +
6. John Patrick Shanley, Doubt +
7. Justin Haythe, Revolutionary Road -


I will leave the tech races to people who are actually good at that stuff. Good luck to you all, and I'll catch up with you after the announcement tomorrow.

Happy Nomination Day!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Not interested

"That is such crap. How dare you be so fraudulently flirtatious, cowardly and dysfunctional? I am not interested in emotional fuckwittage. Goodbye."

- Bridget Jones, "Bridget Jones's Diary" by Helen Fielding

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Reader

I first encountered Bernard Schlink's novel The Reader in a first-year undergraduate seminar I took about five years ago when I was eighteen, entitled "Poets and Power: Art Under the Nazis". The course examined the artistic output of the Weimar Republic, including the shifts in aesthetic and thematic ideals that emerged with the rise of the Third Reich. Schlink's novel represented a distinct break in the novels and films we studied in class, because it deals very specifically with a post-war, post-Holocaust sensibility. That is, how did (and does) Germany come to terms with such a recent, unfathomable genocide? What reparations - if any - can be made to make sense of it? And can a court of law properly judge the actions of people rooted in such a particular time and context?

The Reader - more than any of the other great texts we looked at - drew me in immediately because of these themes, and I even led a class discussion on it (not very confidently, I must add). I was, and continue to be, fascinated by the notion of a collective guilt, and how the Holocaust is constantly grappled with through art and scholarship. Moreover, is this kind of production helpful, or does it lead to some sort of cathartic change? It was an especially timely book to read in the wake of Roman Polanski's The Pianist winning several Oscars earlier that year, which sparked a discussion about whether or not depicting the Holocaust on film is possible, or even morally sound. As well, I was taken in by the book's frank depiction of a trangressive, shocking physical relationship, as well as Schlink's description of a young boy exploring his budding sexuality. Ultimately, it is a book I feel rather protective of, so when I heard about the film adaptation by director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare, I knew it would have to rise to the occasion to impress.

Unfortunately, I am not sold. To be fair, Daldry has a reputation for ambitiously choosing "unfilmable novels" to bring to the screen, between this one and Michael Cunningham's The Hours. That film, despite its transparent parallelism between the lives of three women and uneven acting by an impressive ensemble, remains a film I am enraptured by, that keeps opening up with new surprises (good and bad). For better or for worse, The Hours sparks mutual adoration and dissent, even inside my own head. On the other hand, I can't see myself retuning to The Reader in the coming years, which (for the most part) coasts on the surface from beginning to end. Employing an Atonement-like narrative conceit, with Ralph Fiennes's character Michael looking back on the happenings of his youth, it goes through the motions without really leaving any lasting impressions. Despite the subject matter, it's terrified of getting its hands dirty (even the explicit sex scenes are oh-so-tastefully-rendered, and a wordless scene set inside the current Auschwitz museum rings hollow), and the result is a prestige picture that reassures rather than one that unsettles.

(Possible Spoilers ahead) If you've read enough about the film, you've probably already discerned that the Oscar-buzzed Kate Winslet plays Hana, a mysterious thirty-something woman who has a summer fling with a teenaged boy named Michael (a terrific David Kross, the film's unquestionable standout) in the late 1950s, in a small German city. Their secret relationship, which starts off as purely physical, is also informed by connecting over literature. Michael reads, out loud, his school-assigned texts to Hana, and she listens intently to his every word. The affair is brought to a sudden end when she unceremoniously disappears, and Michael is left crushed and confused. Years later, now a serious law student, Michael is horrified to cross paths with Hana once again: she is on trial for war crimes committed during the war. The film then shows, over a period of years, how Michael is both drawn to re-enacting his former role as reader to this listener, as well as fearful of the unavoidable psychic self-damage of doing so. Divided across several timelines (Michael's teenage years, the trial, the bulk of the eighties, and "current day" 1995), The Reader examines how these two individuals remain connected by this problematic, disturbing bond and a secret neither are willing to expose.

Fascinating, powerful stuff to be sure, but these emotions are irreparably reduced due to running time constraints and Hare's unfortunate, mannered writing choices. For example, the adult Michael's enduring trauma and emotional distance are given the shorthand: a briefly-seen lover of his ponders lamely what it takes to "get inside [his] head", and an awkward reconnecting with his adult daughter Julia is largely a wash (despite an earnest Hannah Herzsprung). The same critique extends to the handling of Michael's law seminar, in which his professor (Bruno Ganz) explicitly doles out the film's Major Themes about Guilt and Intent, instead of letting the tense court scenes speak for themselves. This may extend to a greater problem of the screenplay overstating its ideas, which plagues many challenging book-to-film adaptations. Everything is tasteful and agreeable to a fault: it's proficiently acted, looks pretty, and gets the point across, but in a wholly impersonal way.

This extends to the acting as well, which, aside from the aforementioned Kross, fails to really ignite. I love Kate Winslet, but she is miscast here; while she intuits rightly to underplay Hana and convey most of her action through using her face, the threat of violence and domination in her relationship with Michael never really convinces. This was much more palpable in the book - in reality, Winslet doesn't seem like she could hurt a fly, and one wonders what a Kidman (cast when Winslet couldn't initially fit it into her schedule), a Binoche (also once considered for the part), or even High Art's unpredictable and underrated Radha Mitchell would have brought to it. It certainly doesn't help that Winslet's old-age makeup - which she wears throughout the second half of the film - is utterly ridiculous and distracting, making her resemble Gollum from Lord of the Rings. Meanwhile, Ralph Fiennes does what he can with limited time onscreen to make Michael's wistful gazes and lapses into memory seem natural as opposed to demands of the script. Lena Olin has a memorable scene towards the end of the film with Michael, as a survivor once acquainted with Hana, appropriately discerning and formidable.

It seems almost easy to sum up a review with a "the book is better", but it best reflects my feelings about the film. I don't feel Daldry, Hare, and company lend much more to the proceedings than translating Schlink's text to the screen. It's a faithful adaptation, that's for sure, but not very exciting or lasting. I can't recommend it as anything beyond that. C