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Oscar Movie Watch Triple Play: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Doubt," "The Reader"

By admin Published: February 19, 2009

I've tried to do separate postings on movies but the time before the Oscars is short, so I'm going to have to do an extended roundup of three here. Later I expect to post on "The Wrestler" and "The Visitor," two films with best-actor nominees. Notes on the three movies mentioned in the header, after the jump. ...

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Nominations include best picture, director, actor (Brad Pitt), supporting actress (Taraji P. Henson). Field conditions: Midday weekday showing at a Regal cinema. Temperature fine. Audience: Me and four other people. Things I sat through before the movie started: ads for Metropolitan Opera, "A Powerful Noise Live"; trailers for "Duplicity," "The Proposal," "The Ugly Truth," "Reservation Road," "The Soloist."

"The Reader." Nominations include best picture, best director, best actress (Kate Winslet). Field conditions: 6:50 weeknight showing at a Regal cinema. Temperature fine. Audience: me and four other people (not, as far as I know, the same four from "Benjamin Button"). Things I saw before the movie: ads for TV's "Southland," "Powerful Noise Live" and the Oscar telecast; "First Look" promo piece on "Obsessed"; ads for eTrade, Priceline, "Kings," eTrade again, Dove hair proudct, "Castle," Allstate and Coke Zero; a Sprint-backed piece asking people to turn off their phones, ads for Metropolitan Opera and "Powerful Noise Live," trailers for "Duplicity," "The Brothers Bloom," "Watchmen." And to think we used to be able to spend that time with cartoons, comedy shorts and newsreels!

"Doubt." Nominations include best actress (Meryl Streep) and two for best supporting actress (Viola Davis, Amy Adams). Regal cinema, about 10:30 weeknight. I was the only one in the theater. Conditions OK. Stuff I had to watch: Oscars, the "Obsessed" first look, Priceline, "Kings," Dove, "Castle," Allstate, Coke Zero, Sprint/phone turn-off, Metropolitan Opera, "Powerful Noise Live," "Ugly Truth" -- and then the promo reel stopped and music came on. Waited several minutes, then went to the lobby to ask for help; reel resumed with trailers for "Knowing" and "Adventureland." Movie began. 10 minutes in, projector stopped again. Back to the lobby. Projector restarted, and I was offered a readmission ticket; no further problems with the projector.

Two of these films, "Benjamin Button" and "The Reader," are nominated for best picture. I can see why, though not always in a good way.

"Button," as you probably know, is about a man played by Brad Pitt who ages physically in reverse -- born a tiny old man, and becoming ever more youthful over the decades until he dies as a baby. It is a tour de force in its use of special effects, its elaborate staging, its embrace of fantasy (including the use of old-movie-style sets to add artifice to some scenes) and splendid performances by Pitt (who, as with "Jesse James," serves notice that he is an actor to be reckoned with and very good at emotional silence) and Taraji P. Henson. She takes over most of her scenes and who should have been on the Oscar short list before for "Talk to Me." Even Tilda Swinton, who won an Oscar a year ago for "Michael Clayton," is good here -- much better than in "Clayton," where I thought her performance was a ghastly series of twitches. Cate Blanchett, top shelf as always, although the attempts to deal with her aging in the film are not always successful; when playing much younger than herself, she looks especially artificial.

"Button" also takes its source material -- a 24-page story by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- and makes it grand, engrossing ... and long, at about 2 1/2 hours. But in doing so, the movie remains something less than the story, too labored (especially in using New Orleans on the eve of its horrible flood as a device), too long. Again and again, I looked at a scene and thought, "They're way too in love with this. They could have made cuts." It's a good movie, even a very good movie, in a lot of ways, and I don't begrudge Pitt his acting nomination. But it's not on the same level as "Milk," let alone the overlooked "Dark Knight" and "WALL-E."

As for "The Reader," as I said before, it's Oscar bait of the most obvious kind: a Holocaust-tied story told quite slowly, with lessons learned and long pauses and -- to set itself apart from, say, an earnest TV movie -- significant amounts of nudity by Kate Winslet. The film, based on a book I have not read, involves 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) in 1958 West Germany who is seduced by Hanna Schmitz, a much older woman (Winslet) with whom he has a brief and heartbreaking affair. One of the ways they connect is by his reading to her, a practice that will be significant later in the film, although the audience will probably sense why long before the young man does. Years later, having not seen Hanna again, the young man discovers she is on trial for war crimes -- as a Nazi who worked as a concentration-camp guard. The movie then follows what happens with the trial, with the young man, and with his relationship to Hanna; Ralph Fiennes plays Michael as an older man.

I can't say I hated the film, but I didn't like it much either. It's such a ponderous piece, trying so hard to be rich and meaningful but ending up feeling heavy-handed, with a couple of implausible decisions by characters just to make the story seem deeper. As many problems as I have with "Frost/Nixon," "The Reader" is to me the weakest of the five best-picture nominees -- and, again, far less deserving than "The Dark Knight" or "WALL-E."

As for Winslet, she has already won a couple of awards for the film, but as best supporting actress as part of a marketing strategy that pitched her as lead actress for "Revolutionary Road" and supporting actress for "The Reader." The easily manipulated Golden Globes took the bait -- and gave her awards for both movies -- but the Oscars rightly recognized that she is the lead actress, the dominant performer overall, in "The Reader" and nominated her for best actress. Judging from the various Oscar touts, she's the favorite to win, too, although some analysts see it as a close race between her and Meryl Streep for "Doubt." Winslet's performance is very good, especially in a couple of scenes where Hanna has to demonstrate her incomprehension about her wartime acts, which Winslet plays just right; she's also thought to be due an Oscar, since this is her sixth nomination without a win.

I think Streep is better, though "Doubt" is a movie with plenty of difficulties of its own. Angelina Jolie is also fine in "Changeling," and I've heard good things but haven't seen Melissa Leo in "Frozen River" and Anne Hathaway in "Rachel Getting Married," so it really comes down to not having strong feelings about this category overall, so whoever wins, fine.

Since I've mentioned some of the nominating-category difficulties that arose with Winslet, I should also point out that there's no way I see Philip Seymour Hoffman as a supporting actor in "Doubt." He's nominated in that category, but he should have had to be up against lead-actor contenders just the way Winslet didn't get to be an Oscar supporting-actor nominee for "The Reader." Much the way Winslet is central to "The Reader," Hoffman is the pivotal figure in "Doubt," he gets plenty of screen time, and the movie really comes down to a scene where he and Streep go head-to-head.

For those you tuning in late, "Doubt" stars Streep as Sister Aloysius, an old-school, tough as nails nun running a coed middle school in 1964. She has her doubts about Father Flynn (Hoffman), who wants the school rules to loosen up, and those doubts grow deeper when Streep hears from another nun (Amy Adams) that Flynn may be molesting one of the students. The film then becomes a duel between Streep, who wants Flynn to confess and get out, and Flynn, who insists that Sister Aloysius is after him because of his church views and using the molestation complaint as cover. Adams's character is caught between them, struggling about whom and what to believe. Viola Davis appears briefly as the mother of the boy Flynn may be molesting; not only does she have to give a solid performance, she has to do it in scenes with just her and Streep.

I did like the acting in the movie a great deal. I can't say that Davis is giving an Oscar-worthy performance because what I see from her is the sort of solid, no-frills work I have observed in many other things. It's not a breakthrough; it's more like Richard Jenkins' nominated performance in "The Visitor," in that it's fine because the actor does not as a rule make mistakes. Streep is very good, Hoffman makes a fine foil and Adams is all right, though it's not the best work I've seen from her. (Check out "Enchanted," a light movie but one where she does stunning work, for one example.) The best scene in the movie may be the one where Streep, Hoffman and Adams are all in the same little office together, all with agendas, all with things to say and things not to say, and all working within a complex of rules and conventions, not only doctrinal but social, that come into play in something as seemingly simple as where people sit.

But when you get beyond the performances, "Doubt" is not a very good movie. Based on a play, it feels stagy, the dialogue can sound wooden, and there's one plot device near the end that creaks loudly. It's the sort of movie that would make me stop while channel-flipping to catch a scene or two, but not the kind I would watch again from the beginning. Too often I had the urge to check my watch.

Oscars? As I've said, I think Streep was a bit better than Winslet. I could handle Davis winning, although I'm also a big Taraji P. Henson fan; there's been a heavy tide for Penelope Cruz in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" but I still think that's a case of a performance looking especially good because the movie around it isn't that good. Hoffman over Heath Ledger? No.

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