Monthly Archives: January 2009

Sophie’s Choice (1982) v. The Reader (2008)


These two films share so much in common that it is surprising strong parallels have not been drawn before. Both films highlight strong female performances (coincidentally both include German accents), the holocaust, a difficult decision to be made that changes the protagonist for the rest of her life, tragic endings, younger men falling for older women and holocaust victims that move to the United States.

If we go one step further in analyzing Meryl Streep v. Kate Winslet, the similarities get more eerie. Both were 33 years old when their respective films came out. Streep gave the performance of her lifetime in a flawless Polish accent and won an Oscar. Winslet has been evolving ever since her debut in the mid-90s and many agree she has peaked in 2008 and expect her to win this year’s Oscar. Her performance was in a natural German accent. Both actresses were double nominated at the Golden Globes. Both actresses are versatile in both drama and comedy. Both hold records when it comes to Oscar nominations: Meryl Streep has the most Oscar nominations of any actor in history and Kate Winslet is the youngest actor to reach six Oscar nominations. And of course, both are nominated against each other for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

The characters themselves were fundamentally different, as one was a prisoner in the concentration camp while the other was a guard. Yet, the trauma in the camps tore both sides apart. Both Streep’s Sophie and Winslet’s Hanna shrouded their pasts in mystery to cover up the decisions they made in the camps. Sophie was more conscious of her wrongdoing than Hanna, but both lives were irreparably damaged in the end, precluding them from leading normal lives once they had reached “freedom.” Their decisions destroyed not only their own lives, but impacted those of the men around them. While Nathan was a paranoid schizophrenic in Sophie’s Choice, his suspicions of how Sophie managed to survive the concentration camp fed his paranoia. Furthermore, Sophie’s story dashed the optimistic naivete Stingo embodied. In The Reader, Michael Berg was never able to have another successful relationship after Hanna. It seems that anyone that went through the camps, either prisonder or guard, emerged as only a shell of who they were before. After they are let back into society, their emptiness acts as a black hole, sucking the life from everyone around them and exponentially magnifying the emptiness.

Neither film attempts to answer which decisions or which actions were right nor do they place blame on their protagonists. At one point while on trial, Hanna says “What would have you have done?” and the same question can be applied to Sophie. Both women had to make decisions that fractured their humanity, but they were placed in situations that none of us could fathom being in. None of us can know what we would have done and we should pray every day that we will never have to know. And thus, we cannot judge either of these women for what they had done. We should not judge these women for making impossible decisions in situations that never should have existed.

As Good As It Gets (1997)

As Good As It Gets is my second favorite movie of all time. I have prolonged writing this review for years because I fear that I cannot put into words how this film continues to entertain me every time I watch it; how it makes me smile with its lightness and liveliness; and how I am still shocked/taken aback/mesmerized by the words coming out of Melvin Udall’s (Jack Nicholson) mouth, even though I know exactly what he is going to say.

I love the pacing of the plot as it flows from one event to the next with no evidence of predetermination. The first time we see Melvin go into Carol’s (Helen Hunt) restaurant for breakfast, we never think that by the end of the movie, they will both go on a trip to Baltimore. Yet, they both accompany Melvin’s gay neighbor and victim of a robbery, Simon (Greg Kinnear), as he goes to Baltimore to ask his estranged parents for money. The fact that the two leads reach the climax of their storyline as they are on a plot diversion for the storyline of the supporting character seems so random, but it truly embodies the way that life is. Life is rarely a series of linear events that happen in a logical and predictable order. There is always a bit of chaos in it, such as not knowing if the woman you depend on to bring you eggs in the morning will call in sick or if you will suddenly have to get up in the middle of the night to take a train across town and walk through the pouring rain to tell a man you will not sleep with him.

A story about life should not have only one protagonist since life is all about interpersonal connections. Arguable, Melvin is our protagonist as he does interact with the two other principal actors, but the movie exists in parts without him. By the time the trio gets back from Baltimore, Carol and Simon are as chummy as if they had been longtime friends. It is true that Melvin’s insensitivities were the catalyst that brought these two together, but they managed to form a relationship built on nude sketching and independent of Melvin. Ironically, a far more iconic relationship built on nude sketching came out in the same year, obscuring this one behind its titanic shadow.

The screenplay was smooth, witty and rife with memorable quotes, most of them belonging to Melvin. In response to being asked how he writes women so well, he says “I think of a man and I take away reason and accountability.” When asking Carol her age, he says “Judging by your eyes, I’d say you were 50.” When introducing Carol to Simon, he says “Carol the waitress, [meet] Simon the fag.” But one quote, and really the entire scene, trumps every ridiculous thing Melvin has said throughout the movie. After insulting Carol’s dress, Melvin offers up a circuitous compliment and then delivers the most heart-melting line of the entire movie: “You make me want to be a better man.” Jack Nicholson’s voice gets deeper and the gravity of the statement slowly sinks into Carol’s mind. She gets up and moves to the chair closer to him and the camera stays fixed on her face as it pans around the table. For the first time in the entire movie, Carol has let down her defenses and allowed a man to impress her and you can see it in her face. Finally, Carol says “Why did you bring me here?” and after some stuttering from Melvin, she says “If you ask, I’ll say yes.” This scene is undeniably the literary climax of the movie, but the denouement is rapid, as good situations with Melvin usually are.

I have seen this movie at least ten times and the characters get more nuanced each time. This is one of those few films that actually gets better and better with repeated viewings since it is not immediately showy, but emotionally rich.

Worst Supporting Actress 2008: Mary-Kate Olsen

In a time when everyone is focusing on the “best” accolades, I would like to present an FYC for the Worst Supporting Actress of 2008. This will surprise everyone that knows me, as I am an ardent fan of Full House, but Mary-Kate Olsen gave the worst performance of her career in The Wackness and yes, I have seen New York Minute. This award is deserved 50% because her role was a paucity of substance and 50% because she spent her two scenes doing this:

Somewhere along her misguided career, some agent told her that it would be awesome if she just put on oversized clothes and waved her arms around in a fluid-like motion. Mary-Kate must have taken this advice to heart since her life emulates art or her art is just an extension of her life or perhaps she did not even know she was on a movie set. The girl is a billionaire and her hair looks like it has not been washed since 2004 when her and Ashley got their stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Also, I do not think she has learned a new facial expression since 2004.

Mary-Kate on the left with her patented duck face.

Back on topic… supporting actresses have made do with far less in a script than Mary-Kate was given here as a druggie New York vagabond (art imitating life again). Her portrayal of the character Union was one-note, unbelievable, and completely evident that she did not even try to see if there were any layers to her character. Show me that your character has a purpose; show me a reason for her existence. Show me that even though your character is in a constant altered mental status, she is still a human being underneath. In the same movie, Jane Adams was given an equally eccentric role and only marginally more screen time, yet she made me CARE about her. On the other hand, I cannot even remember a single line Mary-Kate delivered and I was PAYING ATTENTION especially for her. As an outsider watching the movie, it is quite possible that the only role for her character was to make out with Ben Kingsley, but as an actress, Mary-Kate needed to step into her character, however small the role. Within the cosmos of The Wackness, there is no way that Union could know that she was fated to tongue wrestle with Dr. Squires, so she has to exist outside of the occurrence of that event, a fact which Mary-Kate Olsen fails to recognize. To make matters worse, in the infamous make-out scene, all I could see was a cross between a tiny troll and a wood nymph climbing all over a great British actor with bad facial hair.

A word of advice to Mary-Kate because I still love her: you are only young in Hollywood once. Choose your roles carefully and do something that is not a shallow one-note “free spirit” character. Pick a character with emotion and real problems to which your audience can relate. Somewhere underneath the baggy sweaters and dark red lipstick, there is still a decent looking girl who could clean up and star in a romantic comedy. If you don’t want to be an actress and want to focus on fashion, start wearing clothes that fit. And for the love of God, start washing your hair!

This post is a part of the Supporting Actress Class of 2008 Blogathon hosted by Stinkylulu.

The Wackness (2008)

The WacknessThere were several things that ran through my head as I watched this surprisingly charming movie about the foibles of a New York City pot dealer as comes to age during the summer of 1994.

First and foremost, how is it possible that 1994 looks ancient in this movie? Incredibly, The Wackness’ costume director probably had to do research as the styles seem completely antiquated and the vernacular is laughable. However, I was not a teenager in the mid-90s and so I have no idea if someone would actually say “I just look at the dopeness, but you just look at the wackness.” I do remember the word dope being thrown around quite a bit by kids that had probably never even heard of a neurotransmitter before. At least mix tapes are still a nice thing to make for someone. I mean, they are, right?

Secondly, Mary-Kate Olsen needs to get her life back in order. Admittedly, she was the reason I watched this movie (I have an unhealthy obsession with Full House). However, Olsen gave the worst performance in the entire movie and maybe of her entire career and yes, I have seen New York Minute. Part of the problem was that her character served no purpose other than to make out with Ben Kingsley and even that scene looked staged. SIDEBAR: Somewhere along the line, Mary-Kate decided it would be a good idea to drop out of school and be a rich brat who would just wear a long button-down men’s shirt and no pants outside every day (even in the subzero temperatures of New York) and think that was fashionable. Maybe that same logic led her to believe that speaking in airy tones and waving her arms around like she was at Woodstock and dressing in clothes that are two sizes too big could be construed as acting, but I am here to tell her it is not. She needs to stop picking roles that encourage her penchant for dressing and acting like a wood nymph and do something that will actually stretch her acting boundaries. Also, for the love of God, you are worth a billion dollars; wash your hair! END SIDEBAR

Third, I was thinking of how much of a disaster this movie would have been had Josh Peck not been as good of a lead actor as he was. He hit every note right as an outsider who gets to spend a few glorious months with someone that makes him feel included. The best part is that Peck makes Luke Shapiro into a dynamic character who visibly changes from the beginning of the movie as he sits on the rooftop ledge watching his classmates’ graduation party to the final scene with Stephanie in the elevator. Shapiro was surrounded by a world full of assholes, and it was refreshing to watch him refrain from joining the list. SIDEBAR #2: Each character a critic comments on is a window into the critic’s own personality, because every opinion he has on every movie is influenced by whether he can find something that identifies with the experiences in his personal repetoire. Thus, every review is like revealing a little part of the soul. Read into that however you desire. END SIDEBAR

And my last point before wrapping up: Ben Kingsley is very versatile. One needs only to take a look at a map of the roles he has played to see that he can morph into any nationality and any accent with ease. Certainly, as evidenced by this movie, he can morph into Harvey Keitel, which begs the question…if you are going to do his hair like Harvey Keitel and make him act like Harvey Keitel, why not just get Harvey Keitel?

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

ATTENTION: MINOR SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

Benjamin Button tells the story of a man born with the body of someone 80 years old, but then ages backwards. I appreciated this movie for its technical achievements and the unique concept, but not much more. David Fincher’s direction certainly took ingenuity and vision, but much of it was flawed. The pacing was excruciatingly slow and a healthy proportion of the theater was getting restless in their seats as the movie progressed along its 80 year journey. Secondly, I take issues with the logistics of Benjamin’s aging. I realize that this movie is built on fantasy, but even fantasy should have some rules. For example, Benjamin is born the size of a normal baby looking like an old man and continues to grow in size (height and weight) throughout his life. Thus, it stands to reason that when he dies, he should be the size of an old man with the face and skin tone of a baby. He is born with calcified valves and arthritic joints, physiological findings in the elderly. He learns to walk by throwing off his crutches. Thus, it stands to reason that as he grows younger, his body should get physiologically younger. Yet, when he dies, he shows signs of dementia, something that should not be seen in someone so young. Eric Roth, the screenwriter, should have set the parameters of Benjamin’s life before he began writing the screenplay.

The major comparison that is made between this film is that it follows the same trajectory as Forrest Gump. This is partially true in that both movies tell life stories where the protagonist undergoes defining events and meets unique people. Gump, however, moved faster as it covered more events and served as a whirlwind journey through history. Benjamin Button had fewer events and fewer people that the protagonist met, but Fincher took his time with each episode of Benjamin’s life. Benjamin Button was certainly more of a character drama than Forrest Gump, but the only problem is that very few people have the patience to watch a 2.5 hour character drama. One episode that showed a particularly captivating character development was the one involving Tilda Swinton as a married woman with whom Benjamin had an affair. Swinton herself is such an enigma and a shapeshifter that any role she takes becomes an engaging performance.

The acting in general is phenomenal, particularly Brad Pitt as Benjamin. The role is not showy, yet Pitt gives Benjamin a personality just by smiling and body positioning. Oftentimes, the roles that win Oscars are the ones that get to deliver memorable lines or accents or a physical transformation that is the opposite of what the actor normally is. Recent performances that fit these criteria include Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich’s sassy, push-up bra wearing zingers), Philip Seymour Hoffman (losing weight and keeping a high pitched accent as Truman Capote), Nicole Kidman (prosthetic nose) and Charlize Theron (transformed into Aileen Wournos, yet still the prettiest ugly girl I have ever seen). Brad Pitt had CGI and make-up on his side, but at all points throughout the movie, he was still Brad Pitt, just at different time points. The strength in Pitt’s acting was nothing physical, but entirely emotional and the ambience he brought to each scene which is much harder than simply delivering a line.

The devil must be a photographer, because Cate Blanchett sold her soul to him ages ago. The camera undeniably loves her and her dancing scenes are lovely. The vibrancy she shows in her 20s contrasts starkly with her portrayal of a dying woman. These two portrayals plus the fact that she was a Russian spy earlier in the year proves Blanchett can do anything. Taraji P. Henson also gives an adorable performance as Benjamin’s mother although it did seem rather one-note after the first hour.

From a philosophical standpoint, the movie is beautiful as it emphasizes how paralell our childhoods are with old age. The best line in the entire movie was delivered by Blanchett: “Benjamin, in the end, we all end up in diapers.” The film also emphasizes how universal the aging process is, whether it is forward or backward. In short, Benjamin Button was a fine character essay that could benefit from some better editing and some more though put into its screenplay.