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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Reader (The)

I know I’ve slowed down in my commentaries lately and I apologize. I’ve been falling apart bit by bit and it sucks, you know? I haven’t written about it here because it doesn’t have anything to do with my Adventures in the Dark or the movies I see, though I suppose 90% of the stuff I blather on about before I actually talk about the movie itself has little or nothing to do with the subject of the film at hand, so why worry now? Somehow though, it’s a lot easier to share with you the kind of personal information like my Uncle Schlomo getting arrested three times for sniffing bicycle seats at the Passaic, New Jersey YMCA than it is to tell you that I’ve been limping along (literally) with Parkinson’s Disease for the past few years.

Hold the Michael J. Fox references, please. I’ve heard them all, and I even keep up to date with information from the Michael J. Fox Foundation as well as a myriad of other online resources. Right now, my biggest problem is occasionally falling down, well, actually, it is more like a falling over. Picture that fine old country activity called “cow tipping.” In my world, I am the cow, and God or Fate or Whoever is the tipper. It could be a gentle breeze or the dust bunny I’ve stepped on or even the tiniest change in height between the carpet and the hardwood floor between rooms in my home, but whatever it is, I seem to find myself suddenly and inexplicably obtaining a 45⁰ right angle and rapidly looking at what I’m about to hit on the floor or ground in front of me. Mostly, I just hope there isn’t a cat under me because one wrecked pussy in the family is enough. So far, so good. I’ve pretty much avoided hitting anything but a couple of table legs and the footboard on my bed. My doctor says I should get a cane, but I’m not quite ready for that. I picture that moment as the threshold to old lady-dom. And to me, I imagine myself immediately turning into that old cranky crone from countless Playboy® cartoons, with sagging boobs, no teeth, my hair pulled back into a bun, and my feet snuggly wedged in black corrective footwear. That’s just not me. I’ll never wear my hair in a bun.

Kate Winslet (Revolutionary Road), however, is much braver than me. In The Reader her hair is tied up in a braided bun throughout most of the film, but it is a good reflection of her character’s inner feelings, which are also bound into a complicated knot of many emotions and experiences, most left unsaid.

One of the best movies of the year so far (and, in my opinion, far more thought-provoking than its rival ~ and winner ~ for the Academy Award for Best Film, Slumdog Millionaire), The Reader is a coup de grace for Winslet, who did win as Best Actress. Her role as Hanna Schmitz, a forlorn ticket attendant on the local trolley system in post-World War II Berlin, is a fascinating study from an acting perspective as well as an observation on the character herself.

Hanna’s story begins long before we first meet her, but when she is first introduced in the movie she crosses paths with teenager Michael Berg (David Kross; Krabat), a student who happens to pause long enough to vomit in the entry of her apartment building as she is returning home after work. It is an odd beginning to be sure, but Hanna helps get the fifteen year old home since he is obviously seriously ill, and after that she never expects to see him again.

Michael remains bedridden with Scarlet Fever for the next three months, but once he recovers he seeks out the woman who had been kind to him when he needed it most. Despite the fact that she is more than twice his age, they quickly develop a sexual relationship that is wildly passionate, and, for Michael, his first love affair.

One afternoon, following their usual tryst, Hanna looks over a pile of Michael’s schoolbooks and asks him to read to her; his enthusiastic take on The Odyssey begins a series of encounters that entwine sex, pleasure and literature all into a common experience, and then suddenly it is all over when Hanna packs up one day and disappears, leaving Michael bewildered and heartbroken. It’s probably just as well the sexy times have ended too because these scenes have to be the steamiest I’ve seen that didn’t require my dropping quarters into a machine while watching in a little booth the back end of an adult bookstore, not that I’d actually know anything about that, but I’m just guessing you understand. Yowza! Winslet has said in interviews since the film’s release that she felt awkward performing the extremely nude, extremely graphic and extremely coital scenes with the extremely young Kross. I can’t blame her. I’d be embarrassed too, but that’s because my nipples are like an Australian compass ~ they are pointing due south, but that’s sort of off-topic at this point.

And the point is that this is only the beginning of the movie. There is so much more to this story, which picks up eight years later when Michael is a law student and he and several of his classmates are debating the culpability of their parents’ generation in the crimes of the Nazi regime. To enhance their deliberations, their professor (Bruno Ganz; Stairway to Nowhere) takes his class to a trial of six war criminals, former S.S. concentration camp guards, so that the students can observe the guards’ testimony as well as survey the legal process involved. Imagine Michael’s shock when he discovers that one of the accused is none other than his long-lost but still beloved Hanna. Even more stunning to the young man (and the audience) is the unexpected revelation that as Michael listens to the testimony he puts together several pieces of his experiences with Hanna to come up with a bit of vital information which could well influence the outcome of the trial, or at least save her from a life sentence in prison, a fate she seems unwilling to save herself from by disclosing this same information Michael has figured out. Now the question for him is a personal one ~ how far does he compromise his own ethical view of justice when it concerns a matter of the heart?

That’s a question you’ll have to go to the movie to find the answer to because I’m not telling you any more except to say that when you come to understand what Michael does you will be able to realize that it has shaped every decision and move Hanna has made throughout her entire life, for better or worse, mostly worse.

The Reader is the type of movie that doesn’t pose or answer questions for its audience but leaves both to the discretion of its viewers. As such, it is one of a very few films I can recall in the past year or longer that I’ve actually continued to think about after walking out of the theater. As a matter of fact, it is memorable enough that even though it has been several days now since I saw The Reader at my favorite haunt, the Essex Cinemas, I still find myself marveling at how well-crafted it has been by screenwriter David Hare (The Hours), based on the book by Bernhard Schlink (Der Tod kam als Freund), and director Stephen Daldry (also of The Hours and Billy Elliot fame).

Oh, and in case you are skittish about the idea that this is a “Holocaust” movie and that turns you off, let me assure you that while the Holocaust may play a role, this is definitely not what The Reader is about. That’s like saying Titanic was a movie about Icebergs, and if you actually think that then you probably wouldn’t understand The Reader anyway, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy the naked parts for what that’s worth, but I’d discourage you from going until you learn to breathe through your nose and can stand upright without dragging your knuckles on the ground. Go see Paul Blart: Mall Cop instead.

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