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Star Wars: "Doubt," "Valkyrie," "The Reader," "Bedtime Stories," and "Marley & Me" PDF Print E-mail
Movies - Reviews
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 07 January 2009 10:38

Meryl Streep in DoubtDOUBT

Based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, writer/director John Patrick Shanley's period drama Doubt - set in 1964, and concerning a nun who suspects a priest of sexual misconduct with an altar boy - isn't much of a movie. Shanley's previous directorial effort was 1990's Joe Versus the Volcano, and it's a shame he wasn't able to get in more practice over the last 18 years; in an attempt to gussy up the visual blandness that accompanies most theatrical adaptations, Shanley opts for a series of high- and low-angle shots and symbolic thunder, lightning, and wind effects that oftentimes make Doubt resemble a satire of a low-budget horror flick. And it's still visually bland.

But I had a pretty great time anyway, because how many chances do you get to see stage material this juicy being performed by actors this bloody good? Philip Seymour Hoffman employs his built-in empathy and cagey inscrutability to dynamic effect, and seems just about perfectly cast as the accused priest; you want to think the best of him, but continually lean toward the worst. Amy Adams, portraying the novice who serves as the audience surrogate - or "umpire," as The New Yorker's Anthony Lane succinctly, and accurately, described her - lends her natural vibrance to a sketchy role and winds up enormously touching. And the thrilling Viola Davis has only one scene as the altar boy's mother, and suggests a lifetime of deference, pain, and pride in a tidy 10 minutes.

Best of all, Doubt has Meryl Streep as the Catholic-school principal convinced of the priest's guilt. Red-eyed and grim-faced, the actress is frighteningly intense as a woman with no time or patience for uncertainty, but the performance is never less than hugely enjoyable; with a broad Bronx accent and faultless timing, Streep - who, over the last decade, has morphed into a deliriously engaging big-screen ham - provides the movie with texture and much-needed comedy. Like Shanley's technical "enhancements," Streep, too, seems to have blown in from a different film altogether, but it's actually a more entertaining one than the film everyone else is in.

 

Tom Cruise in ValkyrieVALKYRIE

Yeah, I'll admit it: I'm one of those people who, during the previews for Bryan Singer's World War II thriller Valkyrie, chuckled upon seeing Tom Cruise wearing an eye-patch and declaring, with unmistakable (and defiantly American) Tom Cruise earnestness, "We have to kill Hitler." Yet the movie isn't bad at all, and despite being colossally miscast, neither is Cruise. He might have been if Valkyrie seemed at all concerned about believably dramatizing this real-life story of the German colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who masterminded a series of assassination attempts on the Führer. Valkrie's director and screenwriters (Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander), though, are more interested in delivering a speedy, gripping action adventure than any kind of history lesson, and that turns out to be a smart way to go.

Some of the filmmakers' imaginings here are on the ludicrous side; the scene in which von Stauffenberg has his light-bulb moment while listening to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" theme slides into near-parody. But this continually well-edited, well-shot entertainment features more than a few sequences that are legitimately exciting - especially the passage that finds a potential assassination plot aborted via a series of hasty phone calls, and the successful bombing that has disastrous, though unforeseen, results - and Cruise's workmanlike portrayal sans accent isn't distracting considering that barely anyone here is bothering with an accent. The film's estimable cast includes Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, and Eddie Izzard, and the British stars, speaking in their natural dialects, are no more German than Cruise is; Singer provides a device (à la Judgment at Nurmenberg) early on that lets everyone get away with it, but hearing clipped English enunciation in a room full of Germans is still an odd sensation. For all I know, Valkyrie's previews are being chuckled at in London, too, but for completely different reasons.

 

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The ReaderTHE READER

Friends whom I greatly respect have raved to me about Bernhard Schlink's Oprah-endorsed novel The Reader, and director Stephen Daldry's film adaptation is reasonably effective melodrama. But please please please tell me that the book has some point beyond engendering sympathy for an unrepentant Nazi and her ethically challenged lover, because I really didn't glean much else from the movie.

Kate Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, a prim, stoic German who, in 1958, initiates an affair with the 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross); years later, when Berg is a student in law school, he discovers that the love of his life was, in fact, a former guard at Auschwitz, now on trial for the murder of 300 Jewish women in her charge. The Reader's script, by David Hare, features an overly busy, leapfrogging chronology and a bum performance by Kross, who comes off as dense and thick-headed even in his moments of enlightenment. (Listening to the litany of Hanna's crimes during the trial, Kross sighs and drops his head, as if to say, "Aw, man ... !") The movie's bigger crime, though, lies in the way it asks us to weep for the poor, incarcerated Hanna, hiding a secret shame - which is really no big secret - and unwilling to grasp the enormity of her SS participation. You watch Winslet's eyes brim with tears and listen to Nico Muhly's score pluck gently at your heartstrings and ask yourself: Exactly why am I supposed to feel badly for this monster?

If you can get past the moral questionability of it all, it's still possible to enjoy The Reader for its handsome production design, its fine, engaged performances by Winslet and Ralph Fiennes (who, mercifully, takes over for Kross as the middle-aged Berg), and for the magnificent, too-brief performance(s) of Lena Olin. Playing an elderly concentration-camp survivor and, years later, the woman's daughter, Olin is spectacularly alive in ways that no one else in The Reader is, and manages to bring some desperately needed sanity to the proceedings. "The camps weren't therapy," she tells Berg late in the film. "Go to the theatre if you want catharsis. Nothing came out of the camps." True, but as movies such as The Reader make clear, not quite true enough.

 

Adam Sandler in Bedtime StoriesBEDTIME STORIES

Good lord, but Adam Sandler movies must pay well.

The comic's latest is the kiddie slapstick Bedtime Stories, in which the star's motel-handyman goofus, Skeeter, sends his niece and nephew to sleep with tales of cowboys and gladiators and space creatures, and discovers that their playful additions to the stories - a petulant dwarf, Abraham Lincoln, a torrent of mucus - have a habit of popping up during Skeeter's waking life. (Beware the drawf. And the mucus.) It's a moderately clever premise that grows more and more grating and uninspired as it progresses, and Sandler looks bored and irritated in his role, offering bitter sarcasm and unfunny "funny" voices in place of things like, you know, sincerity and friendliness and humor. Which, I guess, makes him absolutely perfect for this crass, witless vehicle.

Let's all be thankful, then, that Sandler (or director Adam Shankman) has so many friends (or suckers) willing to bite the bullet, cash a check, and add a measure of professionalism. Joining the ranks of Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, Winona Ryder, and other adorable actresses forced into finding Sandler irresistible onscreen, Keri Russell manages to provide some levity and blessedly soothing rhythms, and at random moments, Courtney Cox, Richard Griffiths, Jonathan Pryce, Guy Pearce (who proves to be a surprisingly nimble song-and-dance man), Kathryn Joosten, Aisha Tyler, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall's awesome Russell Brand are frequently good for a smile, if rarely a laugh. (And I can't prove it, but I'm positive that I saw frequent Sandler-flick guest star Steve Buscemi in a quick cutaway during the gladiator story.) The only famous face who doesn't offer even the slightest bit of fun in Bedtime Stories is, inevitably, Rob Schneider, who apparently didn't do enough damage as a Canadian-Asian in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, and returns here to play a larcenous Native American. Among performers, it seems, Schneider has a special power that no one else in Hollywood is endowed with: He can kill comedy merely by showing up.

 

Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston in Marley & MeMARLEY & ME

To the relief of many, I'm sure, I don't have a lot to say about Marley & Me, the film adaptation of the beloved John Grogan memoir concerning a journalist, his family, and his Labrador, "the worst dog in the world." In canine parlance, the movie does its business. Director David Frankel doesn't appear to be going for more than bland likability here, and beginning with the casting of Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, that's just what you get: warm-hearted guffaws when Marley tears apart the living room and howls at thunderstorms, warm-hearted "Aw-w-w-w"s when Marley comforts his troubled masters and stares down the camera. It's all pleasant and innocuous and not surprising in the least, and it appears to be making those who want to see it terrifically happy (and happily miserable), so I say, God bless.

Permit me, though, a question and an observation. The question: What the hell happened to Kathleen Turner? The observation: John Grogan is an absolutely shameless self-promoter. I grant you that Marley & Me's film script is actually by Scott Frank and Don Roos - the respective screenwriters of Out of Sight and The Opposite of Sex, if you can believe it. But there are so many lines here recounting Grogan's journalistic legend that it's hard to imagine they were invented from whole cloth.

Alan Arkin plays Grogan's (Wilson's) editor in Florida, and his only purpose in Marley & Me is to continually inform the audience about how freaking talented Grogan is; Arkin's character has to beg Grogan to accept a daily-columnist position ("I'll double your salary!"), and tells him that "this piece is even funnier than your last one!", and extols, "You're the comic voice of South Florida - you're a national treasure!" (I was reminded of the classic line from To Be or Not to Be: "He's world-famous in Poland.") At one point, the editor even quiets down and says to Grogan, with paternal benevolence, "I know you don't want to hear it, but you're a really good columnist." Oh, I think he wants to hear it a little.

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