DVD Corner: “The Reader”

Posted April 24, 2009, at 6:20 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:57 a.m.

“The Reader,” DVD, Blu-ray: From Stephen Daldry, a movie marked by superb performances from Kate Winslet and David Kross, a fine performance by Ralph Fiennes, and a cameo by Lena Olin that’s so searing in its sophistication and directness, it’s impossible to look away. Unfortunately, the film also is pockmarked by a shaky script that becomes less involving in its second half, which threatens but fails to ruin the movie. Throughout, it’s the acting that saves it, with Winslet taking home the Academy Award for best actress (though she should have won for the superior “Revolutionary Road”). Still, this coming-of-age tale, which begins in Germany in the mid-1950s, is a movie of note. It involves the sexual relationship that develops between a teenager named Michael Berg (Kross) and a 30-something woman named Hanna Schmitz (Winslet). The relationship is Michael’s first, and while that’s hardly the case for Hanna — her dead eyes conceal complications we’ll come to understand only later — she goes through the motions, giving the “kid,” as she calls him, what he wants, as long as he agrees to read to her. Over the course of a summer, they grow to love each other. And then, just when Michael is most consumed by Hanna, she disappears. In the second part of the story, their paths cross again. Now a 23-year-old law student, Michael attends a public trial and is shocked to find that Hanna is among several women being prosecuted for her role in selecting people for extermination at Nazi concentration camps. As he watches, he’s faced not only with the horror of who his first love was, but also with whether he should come forward with key information that could change her life forever. Wending through the story is a third element — Fiennes as the adult version of Michael, who is looking back upon his life, his experiences with Hanna, and how it all interacts with his relationship with his daughter, which is the film’s dullest subplot. Unlike Daldry’s “The Hours,” which seamlessly fractured time, “The Reader” feels labored in its telling. It’s trying so hard to stitch and construct something profound, the effort competes with the performances and steals away some — though not all — of the rawness of the emotions. Fortunately, Winslet, Kross and Olin are too good to let it all slip away. Rated R. Grade: B

“Ravenous,” DVD: Director Antonia Bird’s culturally bulimic film “Ravenous” is about people — people who eat people. It isn’t very good. It makes “Flesh Eating Mothers,” “Rabid Grannies,” “Bloodsucking Pharaohs of Pittsburgh” and, yes, even “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death” look as if they were farm-raised by Julia Child. The film, which suggests humans are the other white meat, isn’t a complete waste of time; there are moments of tension. Bird also has a nice camp sensibility. She knows she can’t take much of this seriously, so she gives her movie jolts of needed humor. That saves some of it. What undermines most of it is Ted Griffin’s script, which cranks out such stunning lines as “He’s licking me!” before trudging on without a conscience to destroy whatever credibility its stars, Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle, had before coming to the project. Rated R. Grade: C-

“X-Men,” Blu-ray: Just in time for the May 1 release of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” comes the three previous films in the franchise, all dusted off for their high-definition transfers onto Blu-ray disc. Every one of them looks and sounds just as terrific as you’d expect from high-def. The first film is the weakest of the lot, likely because director Bryan Singer had to set up not one superhuman character, but eight — all of whom have different powers that had to be mapped out and explained before the action could begin. It takes half the movie to do so, and yet only two mutants come into focus: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue (Anna Paquin). The other six mutants have histories that are hinted at —particularly those of Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) — but which otherwise aren’t fully explored. As such, to the uninitiated, this potluck of superheroes can be a confusing stew. “X-Men” is the story of misfits, a group of men and women who were born with genetic mutations that, at puberty, manifested not into acne or a pierced tongue, but into special powers. The plot follows the bad mutants, led by Magneto, who are trying to convert the leaders of the world into mutants so they will stop their witch hunt of mutants. Rising against them are the good mutants, led by Xavier, who embrace their differences and find meaning in being “unique.” The problem here is that much of the movie doesn’t take off. It’s too restricted by convention, which is surprising considering where the inevitable finale between the mutants takes place. Recalling Hitchcock’s “Saboteur,” we’re high atop the Statue of Liberty, certainly a place of freedom that should have liberated the film of its stock action scenes and uninspired dialogue, but it doesn’t. Rated PG-13. Grade: C

“X2: X-Men United,” Blu-ray: A vast improvement over the 2000 original, with the film picking up almost immediately where “X-Men” left off. New to the group are Pyro (Aaron Stanford), who could burn a hole through Hell, and Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), who looks as if he were born there. After the film’s opening attack on the president of the United States, the administration, furious to be so brazenly challenged by Nightcrawler, goes into overdrive in its effort to ruin all mutants. To do its dirty work, it hires William Stryker (Brian Cox), a veteran who plans to kill all mutants via a machine. The story is dense, but engaging, and for director Bryan Singer, you sense a kind of freedom. With his characters established in the last film, he now has the time to flesh out those characters and allow them their conflicts. It works. Across the board, the acting is strong, particularly toward the end, when it becomes moving as the film twists into the unexpected. Singer and his screenwriters know the value of a surprise and they deliver their share without dipping into the absurd. The result is a movie that surpasses expectations, a superhero flick that can take its place alongside the best. Rated PG-13. Grade: A-

“X-Men: The Last Stand,” Blu-ray: Well, not really the last stand, though in this outing, the franchise does start to show some wear. Here, Xavier (Patrick Stewart) learns there now is a cure for the mutant gene he and others possess, and that soon it will be employed, thus threatening their very existence. For Xavier and his posse, the only response is to fight back. Ian McKellan returns as Magneto, with two new characters introduced — Kelsey Grammer in a fine turn as the hirsute Dr. Henry McCoy and Ben Foster as the bewinged Warren Worthington III. The film’s action scenes are every bit as tight and as ingenious as you would expect, though the series’ familiarity is starting to weaken its core. Rated PG-13. Grade: B-

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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