Catching Up: Doubt, Valkyrie, The Reader, The Spirit
By Fernando F. Croce

"Begin with doubts and end with certainties," said Sir Francis Bacon. Begin with Doubt and end with headaches, says I. Iím leery of works that state their themes in their titles, though the Catholic-Gothic setting was enough for me to give it a shot (this former parochial-school dweller readily grasped the horror of Meryl Streepís pale goose face peeking from under a Grim Reaperish black bonnet). Streep skulks around as Sister Aloysius, the presiding gargoyle at a Bronx Catholic school, sternly distrustful of the changes emerging in the mid-Sixties. Her nemesis is progressive Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who feasts on gory beef while the sisters have to swallow dreary lima beans and dares to like that pagan hymn "Frosty the Snowman." Young, mousy Sister James (Amy Adams) gives her the hook she needs by voicing concern about Father Flynnís closeness to a pupil (Joseph Foster), the sole black student in the institution; armed with innuendo and unshakable confidence in her own suspicions ("I know people"), Sister Aloysius proceeds to "kill kindness in the name of virtue." The notion that Sister Aloysiusí inhuman persecution in all likelihood is the kind that helped expose molesting priests is just one of the self-conscious stabs at ambiguity that John Patrick Shanley, who authored the original play and directs the movie adaptation, tries to wring out of the material. Trouble is, Shanleyís continuous straining for that Great Unknown is undercut by tidy characters and cinematic deficiencies (canted camera angles, anyone?). Streep regains her grand-dame bearing after bouncing on beds to ABBA songs, though seductive friendliness, Father Flynnís strong suit, isnít in Hoffmanís arsenal. Props to Viola Davis, a longtime cinematic fortress (Solaris, World Trade Center) who, as the boyís mother, grabs the spotlight and floods it with tears and mucus.

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Itís never a pretty sight when a limited performer tries to "stretch" by way of cosmetics. Playing real-life German Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg in Valkyrie, Tom Cruise is given an eye patch (hey, it worked for John Wayne) and a stump hand for historical veracity, but the voice and presence are still color-of-money shallow. Itís 1944, and the officer is beginning to fall out of love with Hitler; "change must be made," he declares, so after getting maimed during the Tunisian maneuvers, he returns to Berlin and joins a group of high-ranking German dissenters in a plot to overthrow the Fuhrer. Sodom is evoked to describe the Nazi regime, there are "rats jumping from a sinking ship"; Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp and Eddie Izzard are among the honorable rodents, Hitler (David Bamber) is a small, weary figure in a vast bunker. Director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie, both responsible for that most overrated movie of the Nineties The Usual Suspects, are all business when it comes to the mechanics of film -- plane engines roar, teletype machines clack, plot gears click. The challenge is to work up some suspense despite an outcome already written by history: The old bomb-under-the-table gag is ABC Hitchcock, though thereís a fine moment of stillness before the explosion, like the floating pen in the crashing shuttle in Singerís Superman Returns. For the most part, however, itís a solemn, puffed-up version of tight thrillers like The Heroes of Telemark or The Eagle Has Landed, further sunk by Cruiseís rigid cocksureness. With more subversive minds at work, his superstar aura might have been put to better, more perverse use. After all, wasnít Top Gun the closest modern movies have come to Leni Riefenstahl?

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More Nazis, more Academy Award petitioning. This time itís Kate Winslet, who at least attempts a German accent. In the dismal The Reader, she plays Hannah, a thirtysomething tram ticket puncher in 1958 Neustadt who has an affair with Michael (David Kross), a teenage student. Not just any old fling, though, but the kind where intense physicality is coupled with reserve of feeling to signify profound unspoken anguish (Last Tango in Paris), and where a character is forever emotionally withered by an early encounter (The Go-Between). A jackpot for any horny 15-year-old, though she has her demands: She wants to be read to between romps, so Michael dictates from Chekhov, Lawrence, Twain, etc. The doleful, middle-aged Michael (a brooding Ralph Fiennes) remembers the whole thing, so itís only a matter of time before some Dark Secret is devastatingly yet tastefully revealed. Years after they abruptly part ways, the two are brought together again in a courtroom, Hannah in the stand being accused of Auschwitz wartime barbarities and Michael writhing in the audience during a class visit. Itís "a question of German guilt," says the university professor (Bruno Ganz), and one relentlessly muddied by director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare, the surface polishers of The Hours. I havenít read Bernhard Schlinkís Oprah-anointed novel, but, despite talk of historical struggle and glimpses of the Reichís ovens, the story seems to me utterly interchangeable from such insidiously "sensitive" coming-of-age fantasies as Summer of Ď42 and Malena. As for the whole Nazis-reformed-by-reading thing -- wasnít Mein Kampf a best-seller? Winslet, drab, naked and earnest, may finally win her Oscar; if that means she wonít have to wear artificial wrinkles and call Fiennes "kid" ever again, itíll be worth it.

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And... more Nazis? Midway through The Spirit, Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson appear in Fearless Leader and Ilsa the S.S. She-Wolf garb to torture the titular hero, a sort of masked, undead Sam Spade played by Gabriel Macht. Earlier, Jackson (as The Spiritís high-decibel archenemy, The Octopus) pops up dressed like Pei Mei in the old Shaw Brothers kung-fu grindhousers, then smashes a toilet over Machtís fedora, quipping "Come on! Toilets are always funny!" If Frank Miller is aiming for camp, heís playing cricket with a sledgehammer: Padded with hardboiled eyesores and misfired slapstick, his screen version of Will Eisnerís vintage comic-book is dreadful stuff. Envisioning a sepia maze of noir dames and cell phones, Miller forces the Sin City aesthetic (over-the-top yet innocuous violence, monochromatic silhouettes, strenuous winks) onto the material and succeeds only in leaving his actors (including Eva Mendes, Stana Katic and Paz Vega) stranded against blue screens, waiting for Jackson to stop screaming. If The Dark Knight has become a Holy Book for graphic-novel fans, this is sure to become their The Satanic Verses. Quoth Jaime Kingís deathly Lorelei: "Such pain... Such suffering..."

Reviewed January 19, 2009

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