Sunday, January 25, 2009
The View from the Tank: Still Life (2006), The Reader (2008), and Slap Shot (1977)
Still Life (2006; U.S. release 2008)
A quietly stunning film. Again and again, I caught myself marveling at the incredible cinematography in this movie -- despite that often the vistas were of crumbling demolition sites, shirtless workers eating in a hovel, or partially submerged neighborhoods. I don't know why the director, Jia Zhang-ke, felt the need to include the bizarre sci-fi elements throughout -- they seemed almost comical.
The film is an interesting book-end to the excellent 2006 documentary Up the Yangtze, which also focused on the massive displacement wrought by the Three Gorges Project. The film demands to be seen: it feels like one of the most relevant and realistic pictures to be had of the crumbling, exploding, confused, gigantic confusion of China today. Four tentacles (out of five).
The Reader (2008)
A confusing, but intriguing work, which seems to struggle between convention and something completely different. The movie is, in some sense, a Holocaust movie, and includes a visit to a preserved concentration camp, a review of cages holding thousands of victims's shoes, the protagonist's hands touching barbed wire ringing the camp, etc. The source of the film's controversy is that it focuses on a former SS camp guard, Hannah Schmidts (Kate Winslet), and her young lover, Michael (David Kross -- the older Michael is played by Ralph Fiennes, who is not that good here). Hannah is illiterate, which you inevitably know going into this film; in one of the weaker points in the film, the director tries to build a sense of revelation during Hannah's trial, when Michael "figures out" (via a cheesy montage) that Hannah is illiterate. This unfortunate piece is filmmaking catering to the lowest common denominator of the audience, and comes off as vaguely insulting to the viewer.
More to the point, the film, through Michael's point of view, puts the viewer in the impossible position of trying to decide how to feel about Hannah's past, as we watch her being put on trial two decades or so after the war. We're made to feel that Hannah was just signing up with the SS because she "heard there were jobs", though we also learn that she knew that the prisoners under her watch were being sent off to their deaths. The film offers us a lot of Hannah's present humanity, and only verbal testimony of her past inhumanity, so the emotional "evidence" is a bit stacked.
Winslet plays Hannah as a conflicted and haunted woman (and she is excellent, though I was probably more impressed with Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married), though we are never quite clear on what Hannah feels about the past. She seems to think of it as something completed and finished -- what is the point of contemplating it? she suggests. There are some interesting discussions of the purposes of punishment for individuals like Hannah -- can punishment, in the form of a life sentence, serve to make her "learn" something? What is the purpose of having her "learn" something? What does the film want us to feel for Hannah? Forgiveness? That seems impossible. Understanding? Again, we are tempted, given the humanity of present-day Hannah we are shown, but it is impossible to square that empathy with her SS duties. There seems to be a larger indictment of all of Europe -- and a suggestion that the singling out of individuals such as Hannah for education through punishment is somewhat misguided or a mere distraction -- lurking in the film, but it's not fully expressed.
Perhaps the sense of confusion I was left with was the very point of the film: recognizing evil, the evil in the otherwise humane, and the humanity in the otherwise evil. Is it better to complicate the picture of the Holocaust rather than simplify it? I'm not sure, but this film (and the underlying novel) have put a tremendous amount of thought into that question. It took some bravery to make a film with so clouded a message. Three and a half tentacles.
Slap Shot (1977)
I don't know why it took me so long to see this movie. I am not a huge hockey fan, and I don't really watch too many sports comedies these days, but I'm supremely happy that I did finally see this movie: it has to be the most hilarious movie about sports I've ever seen. It's certainly one of the funniest movies, period, I've seen in years.
Paul Newman is in great comic form here, but at the heart of the movie are the Hanson Brothers: the bespectacled, man-child goons who show up on player-coach Reggie Dunlop's (Newman) failing minor league hockey team in the failing mill town of Charlestown, West Virginia. The Hanson Brothers became such a hit through this movie that they apparently still go on tour throughout Canada, where fans of the film (and its two sequels) are legion.
The film features what has to be one of the more inspired endings in sports-film history. An all-time classic: four and a half tentacles.