Kate Winslet finally won her Oscar and her performance in The Reader is the best thing about the film. Adapted from Bernhard Schlink’s novel by playwright David Hare and directed by Stephen Daldry, the film has all the hallmarks for Oscar-bait: literary source, “serious” theme, a credentialed cast (Ralph Fiennes co-stars) and a director who values words over cinematic expression.
Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, a German woman, Hanna, who takes teenage boy Michael (David Kross) as a lover in late-fifties West Berlin. After a brief affair, she’s gone, only to reappear in a war crimes trial that law student Michael is attending, where she’s held accountable for her actions as a concentration camp guard directly responsible for the deaths of dozens of Jewish prisoners. Winslet plays the part as a hard, closed-in woman careful to shield her emotions even during the affair, but is so guileless as to recount her inhuman actions as a concentration camp guard with a blank, almost childlike matter-of-factness, as if unable to fathom any moral responsibility to “just following orders.” But while the performance is brave in its nakedness (both literally and emotionally), the film is less ambiguous in its attempt to explore cultural and personal guilt and complicity in the Holocaust. Director Stephen Daldry’s compassion for Hannah isn’t so much misplaced as unbalanced, so concerned with her personal shame that it too easily overlooks her human responsibility.
Frank Miller’s big screen incarnation of Will Eisner’s landmark comic superhero series The Spirit was not a hit in theaters and the visually dynamic but narratively sketchy comic book movie isn’t any better on DVD. The character is an icon among comic book aficionados but not well known to the general public, which may have hurt the film, but the problem lays more squarely with comic book artist/writer-turned-director Miller, whom makes his solo directing debut with this film.
Eisner’s Spirit was a boy scout of two-fisted crimefighter, sort of like The Batman with a sense of humor and a self-effacing quality. And while he was resilient, he was definitely mortal. In Miller’s hands, the self-deprecating, decidedly human Spirit (Gabriel Macht) has become superhuman and the story an odyssey to discover his origins, which are somehow tied in with supervillain The Octopus (an off-the-hook Samuel L. Jackson, more Grade A ham than Octopus). The visual milieu is strictly forties, from cars to fashions to city street architecture, with splashes of the modern world (The Spirit has a cell phone). The graphic style recalls the monochrome palette of Sin City, with a color scheme dialed down to only hints of fleshtones and key visual indicators – like his red tie – painted bright to jump out from the screen. It’s striking, but distracting. Miller plays to his own strengths here – the punch of bold, stripped-down graphic images and the self-conscious tribute-turned-parody of pulp fiction conventions – and delivers a flashy but visually static mess where our quasi-supernaturally-enhanced do-gooder is swamped by the flamboyant imagery and the shamelessly hammy overacting of the colorful cast (Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johanson, Paz Vega, and Louis Lombardi).
Under Full Sail: Silent Cinema On The High Seas, a single-disc anthology of maritime adventure films from the silent era from Flicker Alley, is anchored by the 1927 feature The Yankee Clipper, produced by Cecil B. DeMille and directed by Rupert Julian (of Phantom of the Opera fame). William Boyd, the man who would be Hopalong Cassidy, is the all-American schooner captain who puts American ingenuity and gumption against British experience and arrogance in a ship race from China to Boston. The story is equal parts Victorian chivalry, manifest destiny and nationalist machismo, less swashbuckler than melodrama grounded in the essential goodness of American morality, despite the fact that our hero essentially kidnaps the woman of his dreams and the corrupt dandy who is engaged to marry her (for her money, of course). It’s for her own good, you see, and thus we forgive the arrogance of the American adventurer. Eighty years later and the American character hasn’t really changed all that much.
“Goodness, Jane Austen would be very surprised to find she had written that!” Austen-philia meets the conventions of the time travel comedy in the British mini-series Lost in Austen, about a 21st century girl, Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper), who swaps places with Pride and Prejudice heroine Elizabeth Bennett (Gemma Arterton) through a secret passage that bridges time, space and reality between the Bennett family attic and the tiny bathroom in Price’s London flat. She brings a modern sense and sensibility to 18th century British society and makes a cock-up of her matchmaking until she throws caution to the wind and takes on society on its own terms with the help of the surprisingly sensitive Mr. Wickham. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, ask an Austen fan to explain the irony. No surprise: an American big-screen remake is in the works.
For the rest of the highlights (including Dark Matter with Meryl Streep and the Blu-ray releases of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series and 8 Mile), visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.