Doubt may not have been the best film of 2008, but it was probably the most thought provoking. Set in the early ‘60s, John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his play explores the insular world of an urban Catholic school, where the forces of tradition and progress are colliding.
This epic battle is spearheaded by Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), an old-fashioned disciplinarian whose contempt for the forward-thinking Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) leads her to interpret his behavior toward a new student as something inappropriate. Enlisting the help of an idealistic younger nun (Amy Adams), Sister Aloysius pursues her suspicions with alarming tenacity.
The genius of Shanley’s script is that he never reveals which side is right. Father Flynn could be molesting the student. Or he could just be friendly and supportive toward his charges, something Sister Aloysius would naturally misinterpret. Adams’ character stands in for the audience, torn between sympathy for both positions.
Shanley’s direction is rather flat — you can tell this started on the stage — but he knows how to get the best from his actors. Not that this group needs any help. All three leads, as well as Viola Davis (as the student-in-question’s mother) garnered Oscar nominations. Their performances bring the story’s complex themes to vivid life, ensuring that no one who sees Doubt will ever forget it.
Extras: Features on the stage-to-screen adaptation process, the cast and the musical score; interviews with nuns from the film’s era; a commentary track by Shanley. (PG-13) Rating: 4.
Kate Winslet deserves to have an Oscar. She’s given so many good performances in so many films (and been nominated so many times), it’s a relief to know that she finally walked home with a statue this year.
Too bad it wasn’t for a better movie . The Reader tackles the issue of ordinary Germans’ behavior during the Holocaust, viewed through the experiences of Michael (David Kross), a teenager who has an affair with a much older woman (Kate Winslet) in 1958 Berlin. Several years later, Michael is a law student observing a war crimes trial, and is horrified to learn that his ex-lover, Hanna, is one of the defendants.
Spanning several years and incorporating numerous flashbacks, The Reader gets weighed down by its need to deal with so many ideas at once. The result is a basic failure to deal with any of them. Michael and Hanna are incomprehensible characters, constantly behaving in ways that make no sense outside of the need for plot momentum. Director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare (adapting Bernhard Schlink’s novel) keep backing off from the implications of the story, offering Michael and Hanna a redemption we never see them earn.
The Reader is technically well made and involving, but it goes nowhere. Kross is an excellent find as the young Michael, and Ralph Fiennes brings his patented melancholy to the older version (telling the story years later). Yet Winslet is the film’s real saving grace. It’s a testament to her talent that she can take such an unlikable, blank slate of a character and turn her into Oscar gold.
Extras: Deleted scenes; features on the adaptation of the book, the score, production design, and Winslet’s age make-up; an interview piece with Kross and Daldry. (R) Rating: 2.5.
Much has been made of Mickey Rourke’s comeback in the title role, a washed-up former pro wrestler named Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Reduced to living in a beat-up trailer park, scrounging gigs at school gyms and community centers, Randy has made a mess of his life and his body. As the profession takes its toll, he tries to connect with a past-her-prime stripper (Marisa Tomei ) whose life somewhat mirrors his own, and attempts a reconciliation with his bitter, estranged adult daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). He even gets a “real” job working behind a supermarket deli counter.
After all those years in the ring, however, Randy has no idea how to survive outside of it. Despite the physical risks, it’s the one place he understands, the one place where he can achieve something close to happiness.
Rourke, whose own face reflects years of self-destructive behavior, gets deep inside this character, giving one of those performances you never want to stop watching. He’s nearly matched by Tomei and Wood, despite their much smaller roles. Director Darren Aronofsky isn’t just doing a character study, and he puts as much effort into creating an authentic environment as he puts into coaxing greatness from his star. His success at both makes The Wrestler the real Best Picture of 2008.
Extras: A lengthy making-of feature; a round-table with former pro wrestlers; a video for Bruce Springsteen’s theme song. (R) Rating: 5.
I never thought I’d feel sorry for Richard Nixon, but that’s just how good Frank Langella is. His portrayal of the disgraced president in Ron Howard’s heavily nominated film possesses a humanity that was sometimes hard to see in the real man.
Langella starred in Peter Morgan’s play (which Morgan adapts here), as did Michael Sheen, who does equally well inhabiting British reporter David Frost. Both actors could do this in their sleep, but their commitment doesn’t waver a bit onscreen.
Dramatizing Frost’s legendary 1977 TV interviews with Nixon, the film captures the similarities that seemed to drive these men together, despite their discomfort with each other. Frost is portrayed as a shallow celebrity interviewer, risking his entire career on a meeting with one of the most ruthless subjects he could possibly encounter. Nixon is a master manipulator who assumes he can control this chance at a rehabilitation of his public image.
Neither man realizes what he’s getting into. Frost nearly gets eaten alive during their first few rounds, but just as Nixon thinks he’s won, Frost digs in and starts asking tough questions. What follows is a terrific battle of wits between two fascinating characters, played by actors who have come to know them inside and out.
Howard does his best to break Frost/Nixon free of its talking-heads origins. He succeeds to a point, but it’s almost unnecessary. The real drama — and brilliance — of this film comes from the interplay between Langella and Sheen. You don’t need set changes and location shooting when you’ve got performances like this.
Extras: A commentary by Howard; a making-of feature; deleted scenes; docs on the real interviews and the Nixon Library. (R) Rating: 4.
Loey Lockerby can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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