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Despite awards, Winslet continues downward spiral

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Posted: Friday, February 13, 2009 10:00 pm

The Oscars are next weekend, and my disgust with one of the major nominees has put a damper on my usual mild excitement and healthy skepticism; right now I'm just on the verge of rage at the manner in which "The Reader" wasted two hours of my increasingly valuable time. (Note: My review of that film contains what some would consider spoilers, and I would agree if the film hadn't explicitly telegraphed literally everything it was going to do within the first 20 minutes.) Maybe I'll comfort myself by watching "Ghostbusters" for the 21st time.

"The Reader"

(out of four)

2008, Stephen Daldry, U.K., R

First viewing.

Alright, what's going on with Kate Winslet? A few months ago, I was feeling bold enough to proclaim her as the best and brightest actress of her generation. Now, after bearing witness to the twin disasters of "Revolutionary Road" and "The Reader," I have to wonder if I wasn't a little hasty on the "brightest" part. Winslet has received the greatest acclaim of her career for her role here as a Nazi war criminal who refuses to defend herself against murder charges, and that praise isn't entirely undeserved; this is as sensitive a portrayal as we've come to expect from this immensely talented actress, but as in "Revolutionary Road," she just isn't given much to work with. The film is classic Oscar bait (and it worked, as the movie is up for five Academy Awards), but its attempts at profundity are utterly transparent. The filmmakers think they have something revealing to say about the banality of evil (as if anything else could be "revealed" about something so intrinsically unexplainable), but this is all just window dressing for an empty story about empty people who never behave in believable ways. In the end, I'm not sure if this is supposed to be a Holocaust drama or a PSA about illiteracy, but in any case, when it comes to high drama I look for themes and messages beyond something as base and out-of-the-blue as "reading is fundamental." (I'm guessing that the act of reading is meant to symbolize the growth and personal reconciliation of post-war Germany, but to the extent that I understand and appreciate what the film tried but failed so miserably to accomplish with that parallel, I simply don't care.) In all seriousness, if someone could just explain what this thing is even supposed to mean, I'd sure appreciate it.

"Run Fatboy Run"

2008, David Schwimmer, U.S., PG-13

First viewing.

Simon Pegg's American debut as a leading man doesn't compare to his work across the pond (I'm concerned that he'll never equal the one-two punch pf "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz"), but it's solid nonetheless. He plays Dennis Doyle, a 30-something deadbeat who, as the film opens, bolts from his wedding and leaves his pregnant, entirely too-beautiful bride-to-be (Thandie Newton) standing outside the church. Cut to five years later, as Dennis is still leading a sad-sack existence while trying to at least be a decent dad to his son. His ex is getting ready to settle down with a successful financier (Hank Azaria, being unlikable as only he can be), and Dennis takes the opportunity to make one final attempt to prove his newfound dedication by running in a 26-mile marathon. It's actually a better, smoother set-up than it sounds, and the film emerges as a sweet, consistently funny, genuinely inspiring gross-out riff on "Rocky." Look for Irish comedian Dylan Moran as Gordon, Dennis' hapless friend and trainer who provides most of the film's biggest laughs.

"The Illusionist"

*** 1/2

2006, Neil Burger, U.S., PG-13

First viewing.

"The Illusionist" had the misfortune of being released alongside Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige," another compelling bit of cinematic slight-of-hand that benefited from a more audience-friendly cast and better marketing. If I had to choose, though, I just might have to side with Burger's film, which is more imbued with the spirit of old-school misdirection. I was already aware of the twist ending going into the film, but it scarcely mattered; like any good illusion, the movie is best appreciated for the mechanics of the trick, not the effect. (When a man pulls a rabbit out of a hat, you're more interested in the hat than you are the rabbit.) Edward Norton stars as Eisenheim, a stage magician in turn-of-the-century Vienna who finds himself pitted against the crown prince (Rufus Sewell, in a role inspired by a real-life figure and similar true events) as he vies for the affections of the prince's betrothed (Jessica Biel). This battle of wits is complicated by the involvement of a good-hearted but very nosy police inspector (Paul Giamatti), who is more cunning than the prince and just as bent on taking Eisenheim down. The film is well-acted by all, with Giamatti as the clear standout - no surprise there.

"Ghostbusters"

[Masterpiece Selection]

1984, Ivan Reitman, U.S., PG

Repeat viewing.

Watching "Ghostbusters" for what must have been the 20th time, I was struck by the thought that they simply don't make 'em like this anymore - a nostalgic remorse that I had thought was reserved for grandmothers recalling '40s musicals. But, more than 20 years after the peak of the pop entertainment Renaissance we saw in the 1980s, it is easy to look back and realize that, in a purely general sense, popcorn movies have lost something. What that "something" is, I'm not completely sure. But I saw it in the opening scene of "Ghostbusters," when doctors Venkman, Stantz and Spangler (Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis, respectively) raid the New York City library and find that yelling "Get her!" is not a quality plan to seize a ghost. I saw it in the hotel scene, as the Ghostbusters go out on their first paying job and meet Slimer in the process. And I definitely saw it in the final showdown, where the boys simultaneously battle a prehistoric god and a giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man for control of the city. These scenes are electric, for lack of a better word, and indeed, I don't think we've seen this brand of seemingly effortless thrills since the '80s, when form and tension were more often given consideration alongside more commercial concerns instead of being dismissed as irrelevant to a financially successful film. Despite being written and directed by the same team, "Ghostbusters 2" failed to recapture the pure moviemaking joy contained in this first outing, but let's hope the upcoming second sequel captures at least a modicum of the energy on display in the first film.

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