Grosse Pointe Blank

WFTB Score: 14/20

The plot: Vaguely troubled by his anti-social job – killing people for money – Martin Blank is persuaded to attend his 10-year school reunion in Grosse Pointe, Detroit. The trip allows Martin to catch up with Debi, his jilted love of a decade ago, but Martin’s professional rivals are determined to make the journey a busman’s holiday – possibly a very brief one.

Hitman Martin Blank (John Cusack) just isn’t enjoying his work like he used to, and it’s making him sloppy. His feisty assistant Marcella (Joan Cusack) nags at him to take a break by attending his school reunion, while terrified shrink Dr Oatman (the wonderful Alan Arkin) will tell Martin anything he wants to hear just to get rid of him. When a hit happens to come up in Martin’s hometown of Grosse Pointe he reluctantly takes the job, knowing that he’ll face a heap of questions; not least from Debi (Minnie Driver), the girl he deserted before Senior Prom back in ‘86.

Martin feels the force of DJ Debi’s pent-up anger on live radio, but that’s the least of his problems: unhappy with Martin’s rejection of joining a Union of hitmen – and being undercut – The Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) is lingering on the scene, having tipped off NSA Agents Lardner* and McCullers (Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman) to ‘whack’ him. There’s also a hitman called Felix out to gain retribution for an unfortunate canine catastrophe from Blank’s past. With his life already this complicated, no wonder Martin’s confused by the mundane lives of his classmates, his befuddled mother, and the fact that his family home has become a convenience store.

If the thought of a movie about professional killers being broadly played as a comedy – a romantic comedy at that – troubles you, then a bit of context might come in handy. In the wake of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and especially Pulp Fiction (note the cardboard cut-outs in the Ultimart), it was perfectly acceptable to kill people in cold blood so long as the film acknowledged its ironic status: “Hey, I’m only a movie, there are no ‘real people’ dying here”. In this light, it’s easy to understand Grosse Pointe Blank as a smart mixture of Pulp Fiction and something like Grease, John Cusack standing in as a charismatic if melancholic John Travolta substitute. Neurotic, too: Cusack has imported some of David Shayne’s troubles from Bullets over Broadway.

Wherever it comes from, the strange brew – for the most part – works very well indeed. Thanks to a combination of a consistently clever script and a host of nimble performances (from those I’ve mentioned and others I’ve not, such as Jeremy Piven as Paul, Martin’s oafish Estate agent friend), Grosse Pointe Blank entertains throughout. Blank is marvellously awkward at trying to be normal, and normal people are awkward around him – they can’t process his honest answers, he can’t process their uncomprehending responses or the unrelenting awfulness of the reunion.

Furthermore, the appurtenances to Martin’s career are all great fun: Marcella, Aykroyd’s Grocer, the exploding Ultimart and the pissed-off (ex-)employee, the decently-staged fight with Felix. Together with the touching scene featuring Barbara Harris as Martin’s mother and the less touching one at his father’s grave, we get interesting glimpses of Martin’s past and what might have turned him into a killer.

That said, the movie can’t have it all ways. We build up a picture of an eighteen-year-old who, with a life of normality yawning ahead of him, lost the plot, took the amoral way out and found it suited him perfectly. However, while we’re admiring the cool of this emotionless marksman, the film suddenly throws the switch on Blank by presenting him with a baby that turns him, for want of a better word, gaga.

I didn’t quite believe in Martin as the ex-psycho, suddenly turned potential family man, and the film never quite recovers its poise from this moment, despite an excitingly destructive climax. Nor for that matter did I entirely believe that Debi – for all Driver’s good work – was ever a real person, rather than a collection of quippy, off-beat lines. I didn’t feel that either Lardner or McCullers deserved their demises, even if they are little more than low-grade facsimiles of Pulp Fiction’s Vincent and Jules. And couldn’t Aykroyd’s Grocer have made it out alive?

Then again, this being ironic cinema, we know perfectly well these actors are only playing – Azaria and Aykroyd have been in loads of stuff since, and Freeman has…er…well, IMDB says he was in The Dark Knight, so he must be doing fine. In the final analysis, Grosse Pointe Blank is probably too laid-back, too content with its own hipness, to be a contender for greatness. Still, it’s witty in ways most action comedies can only dream of and mostly enormous fun. If nothing else, if you’re of a certain age, you’ll love the soundtrack.

NOTES: 1 “Steven Lardner, aka ‘Steve’”, as Marcella says. My favourite line, alongside the sing-song way Debi says ‘You’re a f**king psycho’.

2 Even Blank’s name is a movie pun as much as it’s a character clue, though I’ve not see Point Blank to let you know whether it’s a good one.

Advertisements

Green Zone

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Hunting down Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, Warrant Officer Roy Miller keeps coming up empty – and he wants to know why. His investigations send him on a direct collision course with the Pentagon, who refuse to give up their source, so he goes on a hunt of his own with the reluctant assistance of local ex-soldier Freddy. Unsurprisingly, Miller suddenly finds he has enemies on all fronts.

It’s April 2003, and the US Army are busy searching for Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction among the ruins of the bombed-out cities of Iraq. Leading the search is Roy Miller (Matt Damon), who is frustrated when his ‘intel’ repeatedly turns out to be useless. Miller’s inconvenient questions to his superiors bring him to the attention of CIA agent Marty Brown (Brendan Gleeson), who is trying to keep the country functioning; but he’s struggling against local Pentagon official Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), busy installing a puppet leader and feeding Amy Ryan’s reporter Lawrie with stories from an elusive source called ‘Magellan’.

Marty tells Miller to keep his eyes peeled, so when Iran War veteran Freddy (Khalid Abdalla) tells him about a meeting of Ba’ath Party Generals, including chemicals expert Al-Rawi (Yigal Naor), aka the ‘Jack of Clubs’, he’s more than interested. A firefight ensues during which Al-Rawi escapes, but Miller finds a notebook which may hold the key to his whereabouts. Miller is desperate to catch up with Al-Rawi, but the Pentagon are equally keen to keep Miller off the track; so when the Warrant Officer finds further clues in Abu Ghraib prison, he becomes involved in a violent race with moustachioed Special Forces hardman Briggs (Jason Isaacs), who doesn’t let a thing like being on the same side as Miller get in his way.

Whether or not you have any interest in the politics of the piece, there’s plenty to applaud in Green Zone. The re-enactment of the chaos and carnage of war is brilliantly filmed, once you get used to Greengrass’s nervous, restless camera (and you do); and the film is tightly paced, measuring out regular action scenes amongst the slower sections, which develop the plot and highlight the absurdity of the Americans luxuriating in the Imperial Palace while the civilians they’ve ‘liberated’ go without electricity or water.

The film is packaged in the style of previous Greengrass/Damon projects The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, which means Green Zone is always exciting and kinetic. What’s more, while you can agree or disagree with the politics of the piece, as someone who remembers watching Colin Powell trying to bamboozle the UN with crude computer mock-ups of lorries laden with chemical weapons, the subject matter remains relevant and – bravely for mainstream American cinema – points fingers at those in charge. You may believe the invasion of Iraq was justified in any event, but the uncomfortable fact is that the Allies went in to find WMDs – and found none.

The above praise makes it all the more unfortunate that one key aspect of Green Zone is a real let-down. Though the actors are all game, Brian Helgeland’s script fails to muster a single credible character with a humanising personality, quirk or foible. Everyone is a simplistic representative of a political position: Miller the doubting Thomas, Clark the slimy, scheming face of Washington, Briggs the unquestioning assassin, Marty the overlooked voice of reason, Freddy the noble Iraqi, Lawrie the gullible journalist. The film may have been based on a real-life account of the war, but it seems as though anything that could identify the characters as actual protagonists has been sanded away, leaving the talented cast to play a bunch of largely anonymous ciphers.

Consequently, when the film ramps up the thrills in full-blown Bourne fashion, with helicopters and vehicles and on-foot pursuits, the action partly relayed via state-of-the-art technology, it’s a strangely uninvolving experience. You don’t want Damon to get killed because he’s cuddly Matt Damon, but otherwise his Roy Miller doesn’t have enough about him to feel worth caring about. And while you’re clearly meant to feel for Freddy, he’s far too obvious a symbol of Iraqi self-determination to empathise with as a genuine person – and as others have noted, how the hell does he catch up with the action come the climax?

So what does that leave us with? It leaves us with a paradox, in that the film finds truth amongst lies yet doesn’t ring true itself. Green Zone plays like a cracking action film but fails to hammer home its point, which must have been Greengrass’s chief priority. I couldn’t help but compare the film unfavourably to David O. Russell’s Three Kings, which was seldom believable and occasionally quite unpleasant to watch, but took a much more jaded, scabrous view of the first Iraq War and was more memorable and effective as a result. Alternatively, I think of Black Hawk Down, which dealt with another screwed-up mission and brought the viewer into the middle of the fray, concentrating on the humans stuck in hell rather than the political decisions that caused them to be there.

I don’t want to sound too down on Green Zone, because I enjoyed it. I applaud the idea of exposing the (probably) illegal ‘War’ in Iraq for the sham it was, and I understand that packaging the Allies’ shoddy dealings in an action-cum-thriller wrapper secured the film the largest possible audience (though not, ultimately, very good box office). However, action films need a hero, and Damon’s upright but charmless Roy Miller just isn’t that man. Put simply, it’s difficult to warm to any film that suggests that the Ba’ath Party, given the chance, might save the day.

Grown Ups

WFTB Score: 4/20

The plot: Coming together to remember a much-loved basketball coach, five fully-grown friends turn the event into a big holiday for themselves and their extended families. However, some take to being taken away from their daily lives – and thrown in with strangers – with more enthusiasm than others.

Just once in the career of Coach ‘Buzzer’, he led a team to championship glory. That event bonded five boys in friendship, and Coach’s death calls them together again: Lenny (Adam Sandler), a successful agent with a workaholic designer wife Roxanne (Salma Hayek), ungrateful kids and a secret nanny called Rita (Di Quon); Eric (Kevin James), a big-hearted soul with a flash car, pretty wife Sally (Maria Bello), their own brood and his own secret; Kurt (Chris Rock), a hen-pecked house-husband who gets little respect from his kids, wife Deanne (Maya Rudolph) or his flatulent mother-in-law (Ebony Jo-Ann); Rob (Rob Schneider), a would-be spiritualist with a thing for older women such as Gloria (Joyce Van Patten) and, improbably, two stunning daughters plus a ‘fugly’ one; and Marcus (David Spade), a singleton still walking on the wild side when the others’ party days are over.

After the funeral, Lenny reveals he has hired the lake house at which they celebrated years ago, and the party descends for a week of bonding and self-discovery, though Roxanne and the kids initially hanker for the luxuries of Milan. The men will have none of it, especially when Rob’s beautiful daughters arrive, and stay all week to say goodbye to the coach, enjoy each other’s company and visit the nearby water park. They also confront the simmering resentment of the rival basketball team they bested years ago, who are still around – and still convinced that Lenny cheated his way to victory.

You can imagine the scene: our five stars at the bar at Happy Madison Productions.

“Hey,” says one of them, “why don’t we all star in the same movie? That way we can hang out on set as well as off it.”

“Cool. What’s the story?”

“Story? Come on, we’ve put out some pretty crappy pictures between us – especially you, Rob – and folks are going to see them regardless. Who the hell needs a story?”

They clink Buds, and Grown Ups is born. I say this because the movie, written by Sandler with Fred Wolf, is dismally lazy in both concept and execution, the equivalent of Sandler’s home movies; and we all know how interesting it is to watch other people’s holiday snaps. Characterisations and script are largely built around the actors’ obvious attributes: Eric’s out of shape, Marcus is a sleaze, Rob’s a shortarse; Kurt’s emasculated, which requires a modicum of acting from Rock, while Sandler’s Lenny is cursed with – aside from big ears – the tragedy of being too successful. Bless.

While the five guys rib each other in laboured fashion (entirely lacking the lively edge of The 40-Year-Old Virgin), the secondary characters are stooges: the wives are high-maintenance, the kids appallingly ungrateful and brattish, at least until they come round to the men’s way of thinking.

“Daddy knows best” is ultimately the retrograde message of Grown Ups. Worse, it’s about all the movie has to offer. There’s potential for drama, and occasionally the film threatens to throw a raincloud over the self-congratulatory parade, but it never amounts to anything: Kurt hits it off with Rita (and what’s the fuss over her being a Nanny or not?) – it’s Deanne who apologises for being obsessed with work; Eric displays signs of diabetes and is hiding his lack of success – neither are a problem; Roxanne’s miffed that Lenny is surreptitiously controlling his family’s lives? No worries, ‘cos it’s for her own good in the end.

The film is so satisfied with its objectionable grasp on life that it descends to a platitudinous homily from Gloria and manages to condescend the locals who never made it out of town: Lenny and his friends are winners anyway, they can afford to throw a poxy baseball game against the grateful rednecks. Thank goodness Steve Buscemi’s on hand(s) to give the lazy final act a little oomph.

Still, however unpromising the plot, or theme, comedies can be forgiven almost anything if they have funny jokes. Grown Ups does not have funny jokes, or anything approaching them. Instead, it has the sort of material Rob Schneider revels in: man face down in poo; man kicking another man in testicles; men weeing in swimming pool; woman face down in cake; same woman with disfigured toe; same woman (again) blaming smell of own fart on dog.

There’s also a child still breast-feeding aged four (a gag Little Britain already took to its extreme some time ago) and the idea that sex with older women is, in and of itself, gross. I get that the title Grown Ups is meant ironically, but the level of puerility in a film aimed at adults is unforgivable. That said, Arrow Roulette made me smile, which alone is worth an extra mark.

Regrettably – if inevitably – there’s also a leery sensibility where the attractive girls and wives are concerned, and a pointed meanness about women who are plain, or old, or oversized, or all three at once, even if it does provide a half-decent joke where four of the men end up looking at a tree when their ogling shifts go out of sync (and there’s no denying that Madison Riley’s pins are extraordinary). Grown Ups’ attempt to redress the balance is a gag about a hunk at the water park having a daft voice, which would be fine if it wasn’t ripped straight from The Man With Two Brains.

No doubt the makers of Grown Ups want us to go away musing on the precious friendships we take forward into adulthood; actually, I’m sure they couldn’t care less, so long as the box office is decent (decent enough for a sequel, it seems). Whatever, while the five men appear to be enjoying each other’s jokes, they project precious little towards us, the viewer, except the lowest of lowbrow slapstick and a depressing streak of paternalism. It all makes me want to revisit The Wedding Singer, from the period when Sandler had to work at his craft rather than sleepwalk through most of a movie, and sub-contract the rest.

Artist, The

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: The advent of the talking picture brings about vastly contrasting fortunes for two stars of the silver screen: George Valentin, a feted actor who struggles to adapt to the new Hollywoodland landscape; and Peppy Miller, an up-and-coming actress whose idolisation of George competes with her ambition to get on in show business.

It’s 1927 and on the surface at least, life’s a bed of roses for matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Together with his faithful Jack Russell (Uggie), he has a string of hit films under his belt and ladies literally falling at his feet in the shape of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who stumbles into George and plants a kiss on his cheek, much to the delight of the press and displeasure of his wife Doris. Sparks fly when Peppy starts working alongside George at Kinograph Studios, the young starlet showing a keen interest in the handsome star; and as bullish studio boss Al Miller (John Goodman) demonstrates, there’s more excitement in the air – talkies.

George dismisses sound pictures as a fad, but two years later the picture is very different; Peppy has risen up the bill to become a big name in the talkies, while George refuses to adapt even when Kinograph stops making silent films. His self-financed feature Tears of Love opens on the same day as Peppy’s The Beauty Spot, with predictable results, and the film’s failure combined with the Wall Street crash results in financial and personal ruin. Even in hard times, George’s chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell) remains loyal; however, it seems that nothing – not even the pooch – can rescue the fallen idol from his destructive pride.

It has been interesting to follow the reaction to The Artist evolve over the six months or so since its release, from warm praise of an unheralded novelty to the inevitable backlash over an overhyped, over-marketed commodity. And the curious thing is, both responses are completely valid. I’ll deal with the good bits first. The decision to make the film as a silent feature, complete with Ludovic Bource’s ripe, Bernard Hermann-referring score, is a triumphant case of form suiting function. The story is pure melodrama and the exaggerated emoting of the actors brings it across superbly, disarming modern viewers largely unaccustomed to having their heartstrings pulled in this fashion.

Michel Havanavicius directs expertly, bringing out the full impact of scenes such as the outtakes of George and Peppy losing focus whilst dancing, the full wit of George’s dream sequence, and the full drama of some of the later scenes (assuming it’s not clever CGI, the owners of some of those vintage cars must have had their hearts in their mouths). The cast – yes, including the dog – are all excellent, and it is worth emphasising how natural Dujardin and Bejo look in their roles; and not to give the game away, but the final reveal suggests the cause of George’s fear of the talkies – a real problem for many silent film stars.

All of which is fine if you approach The Artist as a wonderful discovery of a low-key project from an unknown European director. If, however, you go to see Oscar®-winning sensation The Artist from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, featuring Oscar®-winning hero Jean Dujardin, you might just get the feeling that the whole thing has been distinctly oversold. The fact is, the story is as simplistic as they come, and though my knowledge of silent films is extremely limited, I believe they are capable of a much greater level of narrative, emotional and psychological depth than this one. The characters develop in an entirely predictable manner, so you can forecast exactly where their career paths will lead.

Because we know where the film is heading (it never deviates from the path), the viewer is often a few steps ahead of it; and in occasional moments when the movie takes its time to proceed – mostly while George is wallowing in self-pity – it’s not surprising that a little boredom creeps in. Visually, there are few surprises either; in a silent film every image becomes a kind of visual metaphor*, but (as others have mentioned) some of the explicit metaphors in The Artist are obvious to the point of cliché – ascending or descending stairs, standing in the rain.

And on the subject of rain, despite its clever presentation The Artist can’t be considered particularly original, specifically owing many a debt to Singin’ in the Rain. The Artist acts as a negative image to Stanley Donen’s classic, using silent film techniques rather than modern Hollywood apparatus to explore the same subject; but despite some terrific hoofing from Dujardin and Bejo, the newer film can’t quite match the sheer joy of Kelly, Reynolds and O’Connor at their all-singin’, all-dancin’, all Technicolor best. Neither does it have the bite or intelligence of Sunset Boulevard, a much darker meditation on what happened to the stars of the silent silver screen.

Nonetheless, viewed with as neutral an eye as possible, The Artist is still a treat. It assaults your emotions in unexpected ways and sends you out of the cinema with a song and a dance. Recommended, so long as you haven’t built up your expectations too much.

NOTES: Discuss.

The Parole Officer

WFTB Score: 5/20

The plot: Unpopular parole officer Simon Garden no sooner arrives in Manchester than he becomes embroiled in murder and police corruption. To free himself from the tyranny of bent Inspector Burton, he needs to retrieve a videotape from a bank vault; and to carry out the job, he needs to lure his three success stories away from the straight and narrow while keeping his potential new love, policewoman Emma, in the dark.

Simon Garden (Steve Coogan) is not a well-loved figure in the Blackpool parole office; and when a tribunal asks for supportive voices, he can only muster three reformed convicts out of the thousand or so he has worked with: ageing Asian George (Om Puri), dumb lump Jeff (Steven Waddington) and effeminate tech expert Colin (Ben Miller). Garden’s not sent to Coventry but to Manchester, where he encounters both arrogant Inspector Burton (Stephen Dillane) and the more approachable WPC Emma (Lena Headey) whilst investigating the misdemeanours of 15-year-old joyrider Kirsty (Emma Williams).

Simon’s not convinced that Kirsty has anything to do with drugs found in her car and tails Burton to a lapdancing club, where he witnesses the Inspector throttling the accountant of drugs baron Cochran (John Henshaw). Garden’s spotted and Burton intimidates him into silence by threatening to frame him for the murder; but Garden doesn’t take well to the threat and resolves to prove Burton’s guilt. The only way to do this is by retrieving the club’s CCTV tape, which Cochran has deposited in a safety deposit box at the local bank; and knowing former criminals turns out to be a perk of the job, even if Victor, a potentially useful master of disguise, has apparently met his maker. Can Simon persuade his reformed charges to backslide? Can he keep the keen-to-help Kirsty under control? And can his ‘gang’ keep clear of the law while Simon woos the lovely Emma?

Although he had played medium-sized roles in films such as The Wind in the Willows and The Indian in the Cupboard, The Parole Officer was Steve Coogan’s first film as lead; so you would imagine he and long-time co-writer Henry Normal would make absolutely sure that their script was as good as it could possibly be. Which makes it all the more puzzling that the film is horrendously written. In general terms, the comedy is based firmly in the gutter, concentrating on bodily fluids, genitalia, boobs and a sequence of (literally) toilet humour; more specifically, the plotting is poor, relying on various unlikely contrivances to force the story into some sort of shape, not least Emma instantly falling in love with the distinctly unloveable Simon (a deleted scene suggested they were at school together, where he stood up for a teacher’s rights).

Victor’s incredibly useful workshop is a lazy plot device, while there’s also a clunking Deus ex machina via a cameo which I won’t spoil for the uninitiated – but don’t get too excited. The poor writing might be excused if it led to a ridiculously overblown set-piece, but one of the movie’s big dramatic moments is – I kid you not – whether a beachball will inflate successfully. And since little of the comedy works, the viewer has plenty of time to poke at the plot: wouldn’t an experienced copper like Burton take CCTV into account? Couldn’t Simon manage another two minutes without having something to eat? How does he get into that light fitting? What’s the deal with the wasp?

The other problem with the writing is that it gives The Parole Officer paper-thin characterisations. Coogan is a good comic actor and capable of mimicking anyone, so it’s unfortunate that his Simon Garden copies many of Alan Partridge’s (for which read Coogan’s own) mannerisms. The members of Garden’s ‘gang’ are no more than vague sketches, looking the part (Puri’s George seems to be an interpretation of Tom Wilkinson’s Gerald in The Full Monty) but having no depth whatsoever.

They’re no Ladykillers, that’s for sure, and although the addition of a recidivist girl into the mix isn’t as awkward as it could have been – she might have been a dreadful brat – Emma Williams can’t do much to liven up the part of Kirsty. I’ve already mentioned Emma, whose motivations are all over the place (poor Lena just grins and bares it), while Dillane smarms effectively without bothering to prove himself a villain. And then it just ends, with a snog and an uneasy dance number.

British comedies very often get a bad rap; but if Four Weddings and a Funeral proved that Brits could write filmworthy material, The Parole Officer shows that all too often we churn out rubbish that is barely good enough for TV*. It’s no Sex Lives of the Potato Men – come to that, it’s no Kevin and Perry Go Large – but Coogan’s talents really deserve better than this forgettable, lowbrow and lazy outing. Still, since he co-wrote the thing, he’s only got himself to blame.

NOTES: This isn’t intended to be a criticism of TV. Indeed, Coogan has written for and/or appeared in some excellent television programmes (the Partridge material, Cruise of the Gods and Saxondale, to name just a few). My guess – since they’ve not returned to film scripts – is that Coogan and Normal realised that they should stick to what they know, namely short-form writing for comic characters.

The Reader

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Lawyer Michael Berg recalls his sexual awakening in post-war Germany, an affair he conducted with a significantly older woman named Hanna Schmitz. Michael reads to Hanna as part of their bonding experience and learns that love is a difficult game to master. He is also to discover how little he knows of Hanna when he encounters her in an entirely different context.

To his lovers, Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) is a closed book, emotionally speaking; but delving into his past reveals the reasons why…Struck down by scarlet fever in Neustadt in the late 1950s, 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) is helped home by tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). Some months later when he’s recovered, he goes to visit Hanna and the ‘kid’ willingly becomes her lover, though she puts a strange condition on the affair; before making love, Michael must read to her, whether from Chekhov or Twain, Homer’s Odyssey or Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin.

Michael and Hanna spend a summer together, including a cycling holiday, but it’s no idyll: firstly, Michael neglects his relationships with family and schoolfriends, including would-be girlfriend Sophie (Vijessna Ferkic); secondly, Hanna becomes increasingly troubled as she gets a promotion at work, ultimately disappearing altogether.

Several years later, Michael is a promising law student under the guidance of Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz). As part of a select group of students, he visits a trial of six women who were SS guards at Auschwitz, and is horrified to find Hanna is not only one of them, but she also selected prisoners for death and made those she picked read to her. Worse still, she accompanied women and children on the ‘Death March’ from Krakow and was present when three hundred women and children were burned alive inside a locked church.

Hanna takes the blame for writing the report about the incident and Michael agonises over whether to divulge the secret he has just realised – the fact that Hanna cannot read or write. His decision impacts on both their lives, which remain intertwined nonetheless. And as Michael comes to term with his involvement with Hanna, he also tries to get closer to his estranged daughter Julia (Hannah Herzsprung).

Given that the Nazis’ “final solution” was the single most shocking, evil, horrifying event of the 20th Century, it’s hardly surprising that many, many films have sought to tell the dreadful stories: Schindler’s List, The Pianist and Life is Beautiful to name just a few. Taking a German post-War viewpoint, The Reader proves that it is still possible to see events from new perspectives.

Of course, if you come to it blind the film starts off as a robust yet reflective coming of age tale, and one which is particularly good at exploring Michael’s own selfishness towards the rest of the world after discovering sex. The revelation of Hanna’s past life is a fascinating twist, and Michael’s reaction to her betrayal is played out incredibly thoughtfully; the violent reaction of his fellow students – and the distraction of (we assume) the first in a series of casual partners – proving a background for his decisions.

You can argue that The Reader concentrates too much on affairs of the heart: Michael visits Auschwitz, but the film is surprisingly coy about the full horror of Nazi atrocities, and it might have been instructive, if unpleasant, for the film to replay the events for which Hanna Schmitz and her co-defendants are tried. On the other hand, there is no cinematic law which states that every film that references the Nazis must concentrate exclusively on the victims; and anyway, there is a refreshingly honest perspective provided by Ilana Mather (Lena Olin), a survivor of the church fire, when Michael tries to make some sort of amends.

Bolstering the narrative are a number of very strong performances, most obviously that of Kate Winslet as Hanna. It’s not unfair to say that Winslet has undressed in more films than most actresses (eg. Titanic, Little Children, Holy Smoke, Jude, Iris), but it would be incredibly shallow to single out this single and relatively unimportant aspect of the film. Her performance as Hanna, at all ages, is excellent: hard, detached and not always comprehending the significance of her own self-incriminating honesty. It’s even better on a second watch, since earlier scenes such as Hanna’s emotional reaction to the children singing in church gain added significance. You do have to ask whether the shame of being illiterate would prevent someone from revealing their – how to phrase it – reduced culpability, but Winslet (aided by some brilliant make-up) is never less than totally convincing, portraying Hanna as vulnerable if never quite deserving sympathy.

Opposite Winslet, young David Kross does brilliantly to hold his own as Michael, stumbling into adulthood in bizarre and cruel circumstances. Alright, he doesn’t look much like Fiennes, and in truth what happens to Michael in his later life (his apparent inability to create lasting relationships with others) is less interesting as the ‘action’ of the film inevitably slows down after the trial; yet the film keeps a keen emotional power as Michael draws back from his involvement from a woman who becomes increasingly frail and forlorn.

In addition to its other accomplishments, The Reader is beautifully shot and edited, brilliantly creates the ambiance of every one of its diverse locations, and features a lovely score from Nico Muhly. Screenwriter David Hare also retains some of novelist Bernhard Schlink’s finest prose. In short, it’s a most impressive piece of work, a meditation on morality just brought down a peg or two by, in my opinion, following Michael into a self-involved future when we might have followed Hanna into her vile but formative past. Winslet thoroughly deserved her awards, but the film is worth watching for much more than her terrific performance alone.

American Pie Presents: Band Camp

WFTB Score: 3/20

The plot: Senior-to-be Matt Stifler is keen to be an exploitative film-maker just like his big brother Steve, and when he’s punished for a prank by being sent to Tall Oaks Band Camp he sees it as an opportunity to take some fruity videos. However, Stifler’s school’mates’ at East Great Falls High School are looking to become Band Camp champs and take against Stifler’s interference and obnoxious behaviour, even if childhood friend, band leader and promising composer Elyse can’t help but have a soft spot for him.

Matt Stifler (Tad Hilgenbrinck) is about to become a senior, bringing him one step closer to emulating his big brother Steve, aka ‘the Stifmeister’, who now has a burgeoning career in tacky T’n’A videos. Stifler the younger’s talents match his big brother’s, not only for chasing women but also for irritating people, for example the graduation day prank wherein he laces the band’s instruments with pepper spray.

The stunt appears to backfire when school counsellor Mr. Sherman, aka ‘the Shermanator’ (Chris Owen), punishes him with a trip to Band Camp, but ever the opportunist Stifler plans to use the trip to take ‘candid’ videos of the girls at camp for a raunchy Bandeez Gone Wild video. Unsurprisingly, Matt doesn’t easily make friends at Tall Oaks, because his IDGAF* attitude is at odds with the rest of the party from East Great Falls High, especially band leader Elyse (Arielle Krebbe) who has a music school scholarship riding on winning the camp competition.

They should be united against the enemy, namely haughty, narcissistic drummer Brandon Vandekamp (Matt Barr), but Stifler has a habit of rubbing people up the wrong way, resulting in frequent trips to the strangely-familiar camp counsellor, one Mr Levenstein (Eugene Levy). Stifler tries a new tack – being helpful – which earns him a smidgen of respect from Elyse; but old habits die hard, and the arrival of cool cheerleaders forces Matt to decide between marching with the band or following his baser instincts.

In my discussions of the American Pie movies, I may – once or twice – have mentioned my puzzlement at the series’ decision to promote Seann William Scott’s Stifler and his obnoxious, sweary, leering machismo at the expense of other characters. What could be worse than a film concentrating on Steve Stifler? As it turns out, a film like Band Camp which features look-a-likey Tad Hilgenbrinck as his brother, doing an irritating impersonation which is just as offensive and sex-obsessed but without any of Scott’s pungent charisma.

Matt Stifler is a hateful character whose main purpose is to annoy people – he’s Jar Jar Binks made man – and he’s neither funny, nor attractive, just an abrasive, creepy horndog with two talents: the ability to screw things up for other people, and sneering. There is – of course – a tiny bit of soul-searching late on, a moment of conscience when Matt decides he might not exploit his criminal acts to impress his brother because he might actually – get this – care a tiny bit for someone else’s feelings; but it doesn’t feel particularly sincere and, besides, he’s forgiven all too easily given the damage he inflicts and only partially repairs.

If you happen to find Stifler acceptable or even amusing – professional help is available – it still doesn’t mean that there’s any reason to watch Band Camp. Almost everything that happens has been done before, and better, in the original trilogy: going to camp in the first place? We’ve already been here in American Pie 2; the sex with inanimate objects thing, the voyeurism thing, and the bodily fluids where you don’t want them thing? We’ve already been here throughout American Pie; and a party where the drinks are laced with spirits and things get a little wild, especially for Elyse’s friend Chloe and Matt’s dorky roommate Ernie (Crystle Lightning and Jason Earles)? We’ve already been there in just about every teen comedy since 1970. Yes, there’s lots of swearing, lots of gross-out stuff and glimpses of nudity (I’m guessing the “Unrated” DVD is more explicit than the incredibly tame version screened on TV), but it’s all so tired and familiar. The presence of Owen and Levy are sad reminders that most of the original cast have matured and moved on (though as I type The Reunion is in the world’s cinemas – one last scrape of the barrel?).

The few innovations Band Camp brings to the party are nothing to get excited about either. Though she warms up as the movie goes on – her impersonation of Stifler is spot-on – Arielle Krebbe is as bland as wallpaper paste for most of the film; neither Lightning(!), Earles, nor any of the assorted nubile actresses/models dotted around the movie make much of an impression either.

Worse still, I get the distinct impression that band members Jimmy (Jun Hee Lee) and Oscar (Omar Benson Miller, wisely uncredited) were both chosen because their racial profiles are a shorthand – or in this case, a replacement – for any individual personality traits (too much effort to write, probably). As for story ideas that are new to this film, all I noted was that the four schools being awarded (or docked) points throughout their time at band camp smacked of the first Harry Potter film.

With each new American Pie movie I see, what faith I had in the original is sorely tested: no more so than with Band Camp, which represents a new low for the series (so far). Yet the fact remains that American Pie deserves some respect, largely because Jim was the warm-hearted victim of his own lustful impulses. This tawdry trash, on the other hand, deserves none.

NOTES: Mmm. I’m not sure about that either, but it appears to be an acceptable thing ‘out there.’