Prestiege Period Piece Pontifications: DOUBT, VALKYRIE, and THE READER

Awards season is officially upon us so I’ve been trying to catch up with all the heavy hitters. Its difficult because a few films haven’t even come to my area yet (REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, THE WRESTLER). Thats why a best of 2008 list will have to wait for those whove emailed me asking where it is. In the meantime though, here’s 3 much talked about movies that I have caught up with:

DOUBT (Dir. John Patrick Shanley, 2008)

“Where’s your compassion?” an exasperated Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) bellows at Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep). “Nowhere you can get at it” she sternly and coldly responds. The unflinching Principal at St. Nicholas in the Bronx is dead certain that the Priest, new to the Parrish, is guilty of an inappropriate relationship with an alter boy (Joseph Foster) who is the school’s only African American. Hoffman’s Father Flynn is accessible, easy-going, and feels the church should be “friendlier” which is all in direct opposition to Streep’s ball busting Beauvier who states: “Every easy choice today will have its consequence tomorrow.” Hoffman exhaustingly maintains that he is innocent and refuses to go into detail claiming it was a private matter he discussed with the boy in the rectory, but Streep, based on the snooping reports of Sister James (Amy Adams), will not back down.

Set in 1964, DOUBT is a fairly small scale film. It has a small cast and spare locations with most scenes featuring one-on-one confrontations. What’s big here is the performances. A showdown between great actors is center stage which is fitting because it is based on Shanley’s Tony Award winning off-Broadway play. Though it’s mostly Streep and Hoffman’s show, Viola Davis as the boy in question’s mother has a heartbreaking scene with Streep that undoubtedly should get her nominated for an Oscar. That she appears for only a few minutes should not disqualify – Beatrice Straight took home the award for an equally short amount of valuable screen-time in NETWORK (1976). The amicable Adams has third billing but she does not emotionally stir up the proceedings like Davis does.

There are no shocking revelations or twists in DOUBT and no formulaic liberties are taken. It is simply the no-frills straight telling of a disturbing dilemma with a spotlight on oppressive Mother Superiority. Hoffman, having made no sketchy career choices of late (following the superb BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOUR DEAD with the wondrous SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK and then this), confirms he’s one of the top actors working today while Streep adds another notable notch to her distinguished filmography. Shanley’s screenplay serves them well although the brisk summing-up ending left me more than a little dry. Small quibble though, DOUBT delivers a sharp showcase of ace acting chops and while I doubt (sorry) it’ll take home much gold in the current competition it’ll still win over many fans of powerful performances.

VALKYRIE (Dir. Bryan Singer, 2008)

Recalling THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER in its opening translation transition, VALKRIE begins in German but the titles and Tom Cruise’s voice-over reciting of a letter he’s writing slowly but fluidly morph into English. In this mini-epic (that is compared to the scale of Singer’s X-MEN or SUPERMAN RETURNS) based on true events from 1945, Cruise portrays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg who joins a group of Generals and Counselors in a plot to assassinate Hitler (played by British stage actor David Bramber) and restore Germany’s world standing. Among the plotters are such talented thespians as Kenneth Branaugh, Kevin McNally, Christian Berkel, David Schofield, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, and oddly enough quirky comedian Eddie Izzard. As a possible roadblock to their resistance is the always reliable Tom Wilkinson as Officer Fredrich Fromm.

The film takes its name from Operation Valkyrie, a plan that uses the Reserve Army to keep amongst the Germany country should Hitler’s communication be disrupted, or should Hitler be killed. Cruise as Stauffenberg, wears an eye patch and is missing his right hand from an Allied attack in Tunisia that opens the film, is fiercely focused and he exhibits none of his trademark glibness – at no point does he flash his blinding grin. I know those who despise the man for his couch jumping, Scientology spouting, and cringe-inducing cocky demeanor but only a stoic dedication to the role is on display here. He holds his own with the mostly male ensemble and shares a few nice moments with Carice von Hauten (who stared in another World War II drama – BLACK BOOK) as his wife.

It says a lot when a film can trigger tense suspense in a scene that involves getting the Fürer’s signature on a rewritten order and in several other key set-pieces just a step away from minutiae mundanity. It’s also noteworthy that the actors, instructed to talk in neutral accents by Singer, all work well together. The most precise performance I’ve witnessed yet from Nighy, while workhorse vets like Brannaugh and Wilkinson both make uneasiness an acting art form. Reportedly this is faithful to the historic record and that should come as a surprise to those who have a generalized overview of the era. While by no means a masterpiece, VALKYRIE is extremely engaging entertainment that highlights its humanity without using broad strokes. I only hope anti-Cruise folks will lose their bias and give it a chance. It would be a shame for such a solid story and production to be gratuitously overlooked.

THE READER (Dir. Stephen Daldry, 2008)

A few days ago Kate Winslet won Golden Globes for both this film and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. The second time up to the podium she was shocked in a Sally Fieldian way as she blubbered through a unprepared acceptance speech. As a presenter afterwards, Ricky Gervais called out to her: “I told you – do a Holocaust movie, the awards come, didn’t I?” Referring to her self satirical appearance on his show Extras. Of course that’s just a joke and it’s too cynical for this movie’s material but it still stings because I didn’t feel for this film and its characters like I wanted too. Winslet, bereft of the bouncy charm she brought to her roles in films like ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and THE HOLIDAY, plays Hanna Schmitz – a former guard at Auschwitz who has an affair (David Kross) with a boy half her age. The story is told from the point of view of the boy as he grows up into a weary troubled Ralph Fiennes.

The film proper begins in 1995, flashbacks to 1958 when the relationship began, then to 1966 with Kross finding Winslet on trial and onward to the late 80’s. Winslet, who had Kross read many classic books (“The Odyssey”, “Huckleberry Finn”, etc) in bed, bath but not beyond to her, is illiterate and conceals this even though it jeopardizes her freedom. This is an intriguing premise but unfortunately there is too little chemistry between Winslet and Kross and later Fiennes for the strong emotional pull the film severely needs. The narrative craft and chops are there but the urgency and sense of purpose seems, at best, muted. The context of the horrors of World War II do not need to be re-stated but here the trappings and effect on millions are absent leaving only the concerns of these 2 fairly dull people. And that, like the man once said in a far more worthy effort, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

More later…

A Couple Of British Flicks And Idi Amin Too!

“I thought it was hysterical.”
– Jack Valenti talking about THIS FILM HAS NOT BEEN RATED – the doc that was highly critical of Valenti and his ratings board tactics. That is – according to the commentary for said film.

OKAY! I got some reviewing to be doing. Got some British flicks to cover both on the big screen and DVD so here goes –

HOT FUZZ (Dir. Edgar Wright, 2007) Actor-writer Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright’s follow-up to the cult classic in waiting SHAWN OF THE DEAD trades the zombies and relationship squabbles for cop action movie cliches and we all should so be thankful. Especially when the recent state of American film satire comes in the form of EPIC MOVIE that is. Pegg turns the tables on his stoner slacker character from SHAWN (actually more Spaced – the BBC TV show that is not available yet on DVD but you can find Youtube clips here) and portays Nicholas Angel – a straight-laced hero policemen transferred to a small British country town named Sandford. A town so old fashioned and idyllic that the Kinks “Village Green Preservation Society” plays on the soundtrack.

Before he’s even settled in, he finds a strangely suspect death toll, a drunken over-fed on pastries police force (sorry, “service”), and a evil supermarket mogul played by 2-timer James Bond Timothy Dalton (THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, LICENSE TO KILL) who puts in a wickedly confident performance. Fellow policeman-officer Nick Frost (also from SPACED and SHAWN…) schools Pegg in old-school action cimema like BAD BOYSPOINT BREAK while Pegg schools Frost in sober law enforcement procedre. Though the first hour lagged and dragged a bit eliciting only mild chuckles and giggles, the last act pulls out the hilarious over-the-top stops. HOT FUZZ may be awfully titled, but that like all the cringe inducing fake-out endings and the over abundance of wired wit that makes ones eyes roll repeatedly while smirking is precisely the point.

I never made a “Best of 2006” list because there were many notable movies I didn’t see. Here’s a few I finally caught up with because of their recent release on the popular DVD format :

NOTES ON A SCANDAL (Dir. Richard Eyre, 2006) I deliberately avoided reading or listening to any plot description of this film since it was released late last year and I’m so glad I did. So juicy is each development in this story that I’ll try to refrain from spoilers as well. In a career-best performance Judi Dench sears in every scene as an almost retired strict-as-sin schoolteacher – Barbara Covett who immediately takes a shine to new art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett – who funnily enough cameos in HOT FUZZ).

Sheba appears at first as an oblivious babe in the woods or “the arctic wilderness”as Barbara would say in the lengthy acidic comments she makes in her journals. A shattering secret (see – no spoiler) brings them close in a sort of manipulative bond. That’s all you’ll get from me plot-wise. Otherwise the script is tight and sharp and remarkably convincing. “Oh, Jesus wept. The specter at the feast” – and that line was spoken by Sheba’s 16-year old daughter Polly (Juno Temple) too! Blanchett and Dench (also the always spot-on Bill Nighy * must be mentioned) put in flawless performances and there’s not a wasted moment leaving me with the same self-satisfied smile that Barbara has when she believes things are finally going her wicked way.

* Who also cameos in HOT FUZZ

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (Dir. Kevin MacDonald, 2006)

Sometimes when already established actors play real-life historical figures they become so absorbed in the role with all the aestitics and recreations that it’s hard for me to separate them one from the other – they are forever linked. When I think of Jackson Pollack I think of Ed Harris. Randomly mention Gandhi and an image of a fully decked out in draping Indian duds Ben Kingsley pops into my noggin. Capote = Phillip Seymour Hoffman and so on. So now adding itself to my cerebral hard-drive is Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin. This ain’t a biopic – it’s a fictional tale told around real events in 70’s Uganda. A Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) who’s part idealist part party animal in disguise befriends Amin and an odd but weirdly touching friendship is started.

Amin appoints Garrigan his personal physician and even refers to him at times as his “closest advisor.” The first half of the film is pure drama set up for the second half which is tension thiller time. The last half hour is pretty hard to watch – there’s a torture scene that made me look away repeatedely. I mean I’m pretty de-sensitized to the violence and gore in flicks like HOT FUZZ and GRINDHOUSE but in the context and tone of this film the last bit was hard to stomach. Anyway it’s nice to see Gillian Anderson return to A-list cinema and I liked McAvoy much better than his cheeky performance in STARTER FOR 10 but of course the obvious real reason to watch this movie is Whitaker’s powerful and scary portrayal of Amin. He definitely deserves every molecule of the gold-plated brittannium in that best actor Oscar he won for it.

This post is dedicated to Jack Valenti (1921-2007) – long time president of the Motion Picture Association of America. That’s him crouching behind the flowers on the left in that phenomenally famous photograph of LBJ getting sworn after the Kennedy assassination. Farewell Mr. Valenti – if anybody can charm Satan’s pants off it’s you.

More later…