12/30/2008

The Reader, Valkyrie, and other films

The long holiday break means I have a little extra time on my hands, and so I have been catching up on my movie watching, book reading, blogging, and other hobbies (also sorting and folding laundry, cleaning out closets, etc - I just spare you reports on those fascinating activities.) I've seen a raft of movies lately , and here I share some thoughts on some of them.
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The Reader is a film based on a novel my book club read a few years back; the author is Bernhard Schlink. It is a beautiful book, well written even in translation, and I have heard that it is widely read not only in America, but in its native Germany, as well. The Reader is the story of a young boy in post WWII Germany who befriends an older woman and has an affair with her . Through the course of this relationship the boy not only has wild passionate sex with the woman, played in the film version by Kate Winslet (is there anything she can't do well?) but as their relationship evolves, she eventually asks him to read to her, each time he visits her for a tryst. The list of books they read together runs the gamut from the classic to the mundane. Cut to years later. The boy is now older, in law school, and his law school class attends and observes some of the trials of war criminals currently taking place in Germany. Much to his surprise, the woman that the boy had been having the affair with, years before, is now on trial for her role as a guard at one of the concentration camps during the Third Reich. During the course of the trial, it becomes obvious to the boy (but not others) that the woman is illiterate, perhaps a bit low-functioning as well, and too proud to let anyone know about it. She eventually becomes a scapegoat for several of the other camp guards (it is clear she is guilty, but perhaps not as guilty as others, of heinous acts committed by them all). Eventually the woman goes to prison. The boy - now a man, re-friends her while she is there, and at this point the entire novel becomes an allegory for the relationship between the young post WWII generation and that of the older generation which was responsible for what happened in Germany in the 1930's and 1940's. Clearly the author is stating that everything the post-war generation achieved was in some part influenced, or as a result of, its relationship with the older pre-war generation. Subtle and nuanced, both the novel and film explore many shades of gray in this important historical equation. The story manages to make the reader feel empathy for all characters involved, without pandering to questions of exculpation or blame.
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I saw this movie with several members of my neighborhood book club. We agreed that the film, while slightly different from the novel, did a pretty good job of adapting this complex story from book to movie. The steamy sex scenes between the two leads make you quite forget that this is a story with a moral purpose. The young actor who played the central male character from ages 15 - 25 did an outstanding job -David Kross. I'll be looking for him in future cinematic roles with heft - he carried his part well in this one. Ralph Fiennes also had a nice star turn as the older version of the boy.
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I couldn't help but notice that, even as I am closing in on the mid-century mark in age, my companions (gen x-ers both of them, but still not spring chicks) and I were the youngest folk in the movie theater by a factor of about 20. Afterwards, I started thinking,"Why so many old folk there ? Why no one of the younger generations ?" More on those thoughts, below.......


Valkyrie - I confess to having mixed feelings on films about Nazi's. On the one hand, my first ex-husband had a lurid and unyielding fascination with them; he wrote his senior thesis in college on the economics of the Third Reich, and I once spent a summer with my ex , somewhat reluctantly, touring every single place of any import in the life of Adolph Hitler. (East Germany, West Germany, Bavaria, Austria- I've been there.) On the other hand, WWII was the last war that I can think of where "good" vs "evil" ( at least from our Allied point of view ) was clearly delineated. And let's face it, Nazi's just make great bad guys - think of Indiana Jones, The Odessa File, Marathon Man, Boys From Brazil, or The Sound of Music. I've been watching movies abut daring exploits from WWII ever since my parent took me to see Where Eagles Dare when I was around 6 years old. What a great film that is ! One of the best ever ! Richard Burton was such a hottie. I even went , voluntarily, to see WWII movies such as A Bridge Too Far as a teenager, b/c the topic was interesting to me.
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And yet.....I could convince no one to go see the movie Valkyrie with me. The topic -members of the German high command who try to overthrow Hitler - is different, mildly interesting, and one I have a little familiarity with - wrote a research paper on this subject at some point in h.s., probably for an A.P. history class. In the end, I had to bribe the hubster to go with me. In spite of the fact that Valkyrie garnered fairly decent reviews, I think most folks are simply tired of Tom Cruise at this point. I, too am tired of his personal life antics, but no matter how bizarre the man is in his private life, most of his movies are ok. Not brilliant, but not hideous either. An Officer and Gentleman isn't the great thrill for me that it is for some women, but I've always enjoyed Risky Business, Rain Man, and the Mission Impossible franchise. I confess I prefer his earlier stuff, but as far as Tom Cruise movies go, Valkyrie was ok. Suspenseful, interesting. T.C. didn't annoy me in his role here as Colonel Stauffenberg, a member of the German armed forces who tried to overthrow Hitler. His portrayal of the guy who wants to kill Hitler was not particularly revealing, or thoughtful, but what Tom Cruise film ever is ? All personal idiosyncrasies aside, T.C. does manage to look good in an eye patch - lord knows not everyone can pull that off. Hubster enjoyed the nice cinematography of various locales in Germany. Some nice supporting roles by various actors here, including one of my faves, Bill Nighy. Kenneth Branaugh also had a small role in this film which was largely forgettable.
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Once again, however, I enjoyed "people watching" the audience for Valkyrie almost as much as the film itself. I noticed hubby and I were among the younger ones in the theater. I have a theory about this, as with the audience for The Reader. I am not sure if I am correct in this, and welcome discussion on this topic: Is it that the older audiences are interested in WWII movies b/c they lived through it, or had parents who did ? (My former f-i-l was 17 years old right after Pearl Harbor, large for his age, ran off and lied when he enlisted; served several years in the South Pacific. ) Or is it that the younger folk are all home playing with their Wii Fit or Worlds of Warcraft on PlayStation, instead of watching movies about it ? I wonder what will happen when the generation that had some personal connection to WWII ( lived through it, had parent who did ) die out. Are there any other wars to take its place in our collective unconsciousness ?
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I also saw Four Christmases with Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn. If you go to this movie expecting it to be funny - skip it. All the jokes are in the commercials/trailers. It is actually a deeply sad, serious movie about relationships which reminded me waaaaay too much of my marriage to husband No. #1. I almost couldn't sit there and watch it, the scenarios were so familiar to me. Except that my relationship had no happy ending.

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