Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Reader: No Easy Answers

From time to time, a movie refuses, either through ambiguity or complexity, to allow the viewer to make easy choices: Stephen Daldry's The Reader is one of them. The "easy choice" seems rather obvious, given the film's plot--an older woman seduces a teenager, later abandons him without a word, and is eventually put on trial and convicted for her crimes as an SS guard during WWII. Pretty simple, right? She's a terrible person and should be punished, which is in fact the response most characters in the film express. The trouble is that David Hare's screenplay, based on the book by Bernhard Schlink, invests the character of Hanna Schmitz (played by Kate Winslet) with too much humanity to allow her to be easily written off.

The "reader" of the film is Michael Berg (played by David Kross and Ralph Fiennes), the young man whose life is turned upside down by his affair with Hanna. After she rescues him in the streets of postwar Berlin when he comes down with scarlet fever, the two begin a torrid affair based on physical passion and reading. Michael begins to read aloud to the illiterate Hanna, providing some of the most touching and provocative scenes in the film, and underscoring the differences between the generation that came of age during the reign of Hitler and the generation that came of age in a progressive postwar Germany. During the first hour of the film, the audience has no clue about Hanna's past, simply that she is an irascible and cranky street car conductor. In fact, when we see her on a cycling holiday with Michael, she appears quite happy and carefree--a nice contrast for the downturn her life will soon take.

The moments of crisis come when Hanna is put on trial for the murder of hundreds of Jewish prisoners during an air raid in 1944. Although accused by the court of writing the order allowing the group to be killed, she makes no attempt to vindicate herself by mentioning her illiteracy, and is sentenced to life in prison. Michael, who attends the trial as a law student, refuses to come forward with the knowledge that would allow Hanna to go free. The refusal of Schlink's novel and Hare's screenplay to make either of these characters seem exceptional or out of the ordinary--both were caught in the machinery of history and forced to make impossibly difficult decisions --reveals the fact that history, both public and personal, is always more complicated than it seems on the surface.

Kate Winslet is marvelous as Hanna, somehow making a character who should be despicable and hateful come off as deeply human (though deeply flawed). Her range and versatility is comparable to that of Meryl Streep or Jodie Foster, and it's clear that she has matured as an actress and will be a major Hollywood player for the foreseeable future. David Kross is also excellent as the young Michael, alternating between impish boyishness (think of a somewhat serious Ferris Bueller) and brooding antiheroism (a la James Dean or Brando). Ralph Fiennes, playing the older Michael, never seems to age! Though, I feel that if there is a weak link in the cast, it's him--his delivery and range of motion often seem forced. Karoline Herfurth is also great as Michael's sexy and liberated fellow law student.

Don't expect The Reader to be your typical "all Germans in WWII were evil" type of film. It explores the inner lives of people caught in extraordinary circumstances and their tendencies to stay secretive, even when opening up might set them free.

The Reader is rated R for nudity and adult language.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Fanboys: Inconceivable!

Anyone aware of the mild-mannered secret identity of Bongo (or Bingo and Bango) knows that I am in fact genetically engineered to love this movie,but even I was surprised of the extent to which I loved it: this is my cinematic soulmate, thus a brief review to get you fine readers to the theater soon:

Having followed the long circuitous route this movie has taken to theaters, I was quite relieved when the film finally got released in Cambridge (our fair city). This truly is the love letter to Star Wars and all things Lucas-ian (or in many cases, all things late 90s...mmmm tub-thumping). The dialog is littered with constant references to the holy trilogy and the types of trivia contests and debates that have acted as geek handshakes for 30 years now (What is Chewbacca's home planet? How didn't Luke know that Leia's his sister?) that put even the richest Kevin Smith movies to shame. 

The movie's ostensible plot is the road trip of four geektastic friends on a cross country journey to steal an early cut of the Phantom Menace in the Fall of 1998. The journey, in the hands of uberfan director Kyle Newman, becomes a wonderous odyssey of self-discovery and friendship not entirely different from other mainstays of 80s childhood like The Goonies or Stand By Me.  While the comedy is not flawless, the jokes are so rapidfire that the rough ones disappear under the funny ones and even the funny ones pale beside the hilarious ones. Throw in a huge number of cameos (Star Wars and not), some good down-home Trekkie bashing and Kristen Bell as the cutest fangirl ever (gold bikini: check) and you'll never believe how far the ride takes you in a mere 90 minutes. 

It may not be a brilliant film, and it probably won't ever even see wide release, but if you have the oppoortunity to throw yourself back to the moment when you saw Star Wars back on the marquee for the first time in 20 years and have a damned good laugh, absolutely do not let it pass you by. Bongo, Out. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: The Mumbai Limited

Since winning the Golden Globe for best drama, Slumdog Millionaire has become the presumptive Best Picture of the year. While I can certainly say that the film was fun and engaging, I can't escape the feeling that this just isn't the best picture I've seen this year. 

The Good:
The film utilizes a clear nonlinear narrative wrapped around the protagonist's participation on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and his interaction with the police investigating allegations of cheating. Through this device, the movie explores the young boys history growing up in the slums of Bombay/Mumbai and the rich history the city has experienced in its rapid modernization over the last 10 years or so. This history, and the way the film celebrates the culture generated in Bollywood (Note my clear sidestepping of the issues surrounding the British Director) are the most interesting parts of the movie, and deserve attention from a wider American audience. 

Beyond this, the acting and music of the film earn their recognition, with acting better than the majority of child stars, and excellent frenetic rhythms that capture the spirit of the action. Also: Don't miss the Bollywood dance routine over the credits that will certainly have you leave the theater smiling.

The Not So Good:
Beyond the cultural aspects, the main plot of the film is very weak. There's a touch of sappy romance and some good brotherly drama, but nothing in the plot is innovative. With a basic knowledge of the game show, I was quite sure of the ending (including what the final question would be) within the first half hour. While this is not terrible in itself, the movie does little to make the trip to that end point particularly diverting. 

Walking out of the theater, despite my Bollywood smile (although, why are they dancing to a song in Spanish?) I wasn't left with anything to contemplate or discuss with Mrs. Bongo. We both were generally pleased, but there was no lingering thoughts that needed exploration.

So, while I enjoyed the movie, color me unimpressed at this as the frontrunner for the Oscar. While I have yet to get to all the Best Picture nominees, this field seems littered with such "safe" picks. Particularly, Benjamin Button (a renamed Forrest Gump with disturbing effects) is typical unappealing studio junk. I think the Oscars got scared about ratings after last years group of edgier nominees and thus are back to old tricks for a show. Hence the Academy passsing on the hilarious Ricky Gervais for the completely boring Hugh Jackman. As a Fanboy I will lament Dark Knight getting passed over and still hold out hope for Ben Burtt and Wall-E.


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Maybe more mediocre shows should get canceled prematurely...

As I huge fan of the Stargate television franchise, I've always loyally watched the Stargate SG-1 spin-off, Stargate Atlantis, but always acknowledged that it is very much a second (and less delicious) banana. But since the show got canned by the SciFi Channel at the top of its fifth season (for a Stargate series, this is extremely premature - SG-1 lasted 10 seasons), it has exhibited signs of, with nothing to lose, being liberated and, albeit for a limited time only, ready to break the bonds of mediocrity.

A recent episode titled "Vegas" prompted me to form this opinion. At first it seemed like the usual episode that does not follow the normal narrative arc of the season by a.) taking place on earth and b.) taking place in a parallel version of the universe we usually inhabit on a weekly basis. Our primary hero, Col. John Shepard, appears to us without explanation as a destitute detective in Las Vegas who has no knowledge of the Stargate program.

But then it became very clear, with highly stylized and extra sleek camera work, that this episode actually serves as a parody of procedural dramas such as CSI (actually, I would even go so far as to say that the show is specifically poking fun at CSI...they even managed to cast a minor character with an actor who looks just like the red-headed guy on CSI Miami). Random freeze frames, sudden shifts to black and white, and steely acting all point towards something distinctly other than Stargate. And there are desert action scenes that are simply striking (and therefore surprising - why am I always writing reviews in which I'm pleasantly surprised on this blog?). Oh, and there's good use of Johnny Cash in this episode as well. Can't say no to the Cash.

What other shows right now might benefit from news of premature cancellation? More cynical viewers of Lost may offer it up for the slaughter, but I personally am still holding on. I've also heard complaints about The Office starting to get into a rut or plateauing in its novelty.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Tom Cruise: German soldier, eye-patch wearer

This sounds like a recipe for hilarity, right? Well, it turns out that Valkyrie, a rather somber retelling of an attempted coup of the Third Reich, does not suffer as much from Tom Cruise being Tom Cruise as one would think.

The film makes the unprecedented move of letting its actors use their native accents instead of poorly imitating German ones. Now, to the well-conditioned American movie-goer's ear, hearing Tom Cruise speak as a German soldier the same way he would as Maverick from Top Gun is a bit jarring and absurd at first, but think of it this way: if Germans in a film are already speaking English to each other instead of German, why would they have to speak English with German accents? Authenticity at that point has already gone to lunch, splurged on dessert, gone home, and taken a siesta, frankly. (Exhibit A: Harrison Ford in K-19: The Widowmaker.) The film in general deals with this issue nicely, particularly in its opening scenes, and really positions the American and British accents we hear as part of a translation for our benefit from German to English.

Cruise, in spite of a couple moments of overacting (I would remind him that this is an historical film, not an action flick), remains fairly inoffensive. The story of the coup itself is compelling enough such that whatever ridiculousness he as a Hollywood icon might bring to the part can't really do much damage. Perhaps after considering this performance combined with this past summer's Tropic Thunder, we can declare him on the road to redemption? Cautiously, my mind wanders down that path.

This film, however, is not without its moments that will make you laugh when you shouldn't be laughing (Nazis, after all, are NOT funny, right? Well, unless they're singing "Springtime for Hitler," maybe.). The interactions between Cruise's character and his wife, for example, do not tug at any genuine heart strings. And oftentimes pointed stares between characters are ambiguous and frequent enough to either confuse the viewer or act as arbitrary filler.

If anything, you should take a look at Valkyrie just to see all your favorite actors over the age of 50 wearing military uniforms (I had to ask myself, "Who ISN'T in this movie?"). In the end, though, I'd say Defiance starring Daniel Craig (a personal favorite of mine, so I may be biased) looks like a much more promising slice of WWII filmmaking.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Monster Quest: Here Be (No) Dragons!

Back in college, when I was slightly younger and considerably more impressionable, I looked forward to one thing more than anything else. After slogging through my morning classes, I would sit down with a nice cup of afternoon coffee and turn on History Channel reruns of In Search Of, Leonard Nimoy's 1970s pseudo-scientific look at all things alien, cryptozoological, monstrous, and downright bizarre. Leonard, immaculate in his blue serge blazer and wooly turtleneck, held forth in each episode with lectures on the Patterson-Gimlin film of Bigfoot, the undersea Bimini Road , the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, alleged alien architects of the pyramids, and a whole Are 51 hanger-ful of other weird and wonderful stories and half-legends. It didn't hurt that he was Spock--after all, he was a scientist in the 23rd century, and his methods were always forthright and honest. His calm, measured voice, coupled with the show's eerie soundtrack, made for an enjoyable half-hour trip into the surreal.

Fast forward a few years to Monster Quest, The History Channel's recent iteration of the venerable "the truth is out there" genre. During the show's opening montage of scary beasts, a deep voice-over informs us that "witnesses around the world have reported seeing monsters." Pausing a moment to consider whether these monsters might be real or imaginary, the voice-over continues, assuring viewers that the Monster Quest team will use science to find out the truth. At this point, I always feel as if I am the butt of some cryptozoological joke, that somehow Monster Quest has peeked inside my mind and glimpsed the seething conflict there between an earnest belief in cold analytical scientific inquiry and a penchant for wild speculation and thrill-seeking. To be perfectly fair, there's nothing at all about the show that suggests hoax or put-on--the investigations are always done by well-respected scientists and researchers who submit their findings to colleagues for testing and verification--but some part of me always imagines Leonard Nimoy, waxing speculative about the Lake Champlain monster on a poorly-constructed sound stage some time in the late 1970s. Why? I have no clue.

A recent episode of MQ focused on the yeren, the "wildman" of central China. Dr. Jeff Meldrum, a professor of anatomy and paleontology at Idaho State University, traveled to a nature reserve in China with a team of experienced trackers to search for evidence of the elusive creature. Dr. Meldrum and his team examined plaster casts of supposed yeren footprints, set motion-capture cameras to attempt to photograph the creature, interviewed experts and eyewitnesses, undertaking a difficult and often dangerous task with unbiased scientific objectivity (This is the standard drill for every episode). Despite the team's hard work, they returned with no clear evidence to support the yeren's existence, though Dr. Meldrum expressed satisfaction that the investigation had yielded new ideas that pointed in exciting new directions. The episode ended with a shot of Dr. Meldrum and the team sauntering off (despondently?) into the woods, eyes still peeled for any sign of the Chinese wildman.

And, herein, at least for me, lies the rub: Monster Quest never finds anything, yet people like me tune in every week in the hopes of catching a glimpse of a chupacabra in the woods or giant squid lurking in some dark underwater place. I have thought and thought about why a show, dedicated to rational scientific inquiry into creatures that it never finds, would have any appeal at all to me (or to anyone for that matter). Perhaps part of the fascination is due to my interest in mythology and folklore--all cultures have fabricated monsters to explain terrifying aspects of their worlds and life experiences--and my continuing hope to discover connections between the real and the imagined. Perhaps part is my long-standing interest in science, though I really understand very little of its methods or practical applications. Another part is perhaps a secret inner desire to have cryptids (undiscovered animals) proven to be fakes or hoaxes, and to be there in order to say "I told you so!" Whatever it is, every time I watch MQ, I remember Nimoy narrating In Search Of, attempting in a half hour to discover and explain all the secrets of Vlad Dracula, the Loch Ness Monster, or the supposedly alien-construced earth lines in Nazca, Peru. Maybe Monster Quest should go in search of Leonard...

Monster Quest airs on the History Channel on Wednesdays at 9pm Eastern

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Cereal: it's not just for breakfast anymore

Back in the 90s, during one of the many strange interludes of empty free time I enjoyed in those heady days, I decided to undertake a most unusual experiment. I wanted to determine, somewhat scientifically, the best breakfast cereals in terms of taste, texture, and overall healthiness in order to get the full benefit from my bowl. Now, mind you, this was before Seinfeld was a household name, before we knew that his kitchen cupboards were crammed with little nuggets of fruity/oaty/grainy goodness. I was sure that nothing like this had ever been tried--I mean, why would Consumer Reports waste their time on something as insignificant as cereal? So, I sat down each morning for about one week with a new cereal in my bowl, testing each flake, puff, and O for the ideal combination of wholesome goodness and dynamite taste. Now, I can't remember with any accuracy just exactly what cereals I pitted against others, but I can say that after a period of intense taste-testing, I concluded that Apple Jacks was the winner. Yes, Apple Jacks. It beat out all the other competitors in pure taste and palatal enjoyment, but also beat out bran and oat cereals in terms of vitamin and mineral content. What would John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of Corn Flakes, say if he knew that I rated Apple Jacks higher than his precious creation in every category? Would he spew milk through his nose? Apple Jacks was/is a Kellogg's product, so I think that old John Harvey might be somewhat proud, but also maybe a little shocked that his 19th century program of health, exercise, laughter therapy, colonic irrigation and Corn Flakes (See the great book The Road to Wellville by T. Coraghesian Boyle and the BAD film version starring Matthew Broderick) had evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry with a circular sugar-coated apple-flavored O as the apex of its labors. Well, John Harvey, I grew up on Apple Jacks and other Kellogg's sugar bombs, and I am happy to say I am still alive and in fairly decent health.

Now, I am not about to say that cereal is any healthier than, say, waffles or eggs and bacon--I am as doubtful about the motives of cereal producers as I am about any corporate product. Nevertheless, I've never heard of anyone falling face first into his bowl of cereal and breathing his last, along with a healthy amount of milky syrup. Besides, there's something a bit nostalgic about pouring cereal into a bowl, hearing that unmistakable clatter, immersing the nuggets of joy in cow juice, and sitting down--well, anywhere-- to consume the nearly instant repast. It reminds me of a thousand Saturday mornings back in the 70s, watching the Bugs Bunny Road Runner Show, Sigmund and the Seamonsters, The Groovy Ghoulies, and Land of the Lost while chowing down on heaping spoonfuls of cereal. And, it wasn't just Saturday mornings--it was any morning that my mom had no time to cook, and afternoon snacks, and midnight snacks, and...well, all the time, really.

Back then, my favorites were what you might expect--Cap'n Crunch, Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops (before the "corn" was added), Lucky Charms, Boo and Franken Berries, and Cookie Crisp (when Cookie Jarvis was the mascot). Nowadays...well, nowadays I still love those brands, but my tastes have matured a bit. And, I still love eating cereal at all hours. In the interest of all those who might be wondering, "Is it OK for me to have cereal for every meal? Will people think I'm a kook? Will they assume I can't cook just because I prefer the quick fix of the cereal bowl?" I offer the following suggestions.

Best Cereals for Breakfast: I've found that, personally, I am partial to fruit-flavored and peculiarly sugary cereals in the morning--Fruit Loops, Apple Jacks, Frosted Flakes and the like. Contrary to popular belief, most of these cereals contain moderate amounts of sugar, generous servings of fiber, and healthy doses of vitamins and minerals. Besides, there's nothing like breaking your fast with a blast of sweetness.

Best Lunch/Snack Cereals: For lunch or a snack, I like a hearty cereal, such as Cheerios, Corn Flakes or Bran Flakes. These are lower in fats and sugars, and don't produce the kinds of afternoon sugar comas that sweeter cereals can undoubtedly cause. If you have teeth of steel, Grape Nuts are also good in the afternoon.

Best Dinner Cereals: For dinner, you want something with a variety of ingredients that might pair well with toast or some other side dish. Raisin Bran, Honey Bunches of Oats, Just Bunches, or granola-based cereals are excellent choices. Even the haughtiest gourmand will find that these cereals provide satisfaction for the belly as well as the palate.

Obviously, this list is not comprehensive, and I invite you to develop your own cereal menu. When time is an issue, when you want something that will stick to your ribs, something that won't break your budget, something that is better for you than most everything else on the shelf, why not try cereal? You could institute a cereal night in your household, offer your kids wholesome cereal snacks in lieu of unhealthy candies and sticky sweets, start a whole cereal revolution. Cereal--it's grrrrrrrrrrrrrrreat!!!