Incongruous Double Feature: The Reader and The Day the Earth Stood Still

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01/08/2009 10:00 AM |

In which Jesse Hassenger sees two more apathy-inducing December releases just in case it turns out there’s anything of value there (there isn’t, there never is, trust your impulses).

I’ve heard the movie version of The Reader repeatedly referred to as “controversial,” but I can’t quite suss out what the controversy is or who generated it, unless this refers to the fact that Harvey Weinstein insisted on giving it an Oscar-qualifying release that threatened to crowd Kate Winslet’s more interesting work in the more interesting Revolutionary Road. A quick newswire scan produces an article that vaguely attributes this controversy to the movie’s subject, “German guilt and atonement for the Holocaust,” though it later asserts that maybe people are troubled by the sexual relationship between the central character, at fifteen (David Kross), and an adult woman (Winslet).

Either way, it’s hard to picture anyone getting too worked up over this movie, especially anyone who has ever been, met, or considered for over thirty seconds a fifteen-to-sixteen-year-old boy. Actually, the first chunk of the movie, where the fifteen-year-old meets and has constant sex with Kate Winslet, is sort of a literary letter to Penthouse; seriously, he pretty much just looks at her a few times and they fuck like crazy. This is also, by far, the most interesting part of the movie, because once the affair is over and the “controversial” sexy stuff falls away, all we have is a feast of tasteful literary conceits, which may well have worked wonders on the page but don’t exactly burn up the screen. It turns out Winslet’s character was a Nazi guard, and the kid grows up to coincidentally witness her war-crime trial, and then grows up more to become a cold, quietly disturbed and guilt-wracked Ralph Fiennes, or as most people know him, Ralph Fiennes.

I haven’t read The Reader but it seems pretty clear from the movie that it’s one of those books where it all comes back to That One Incident that echoes forever throughout the character’s life. This conceit is irritating enough when, say, the two actors playing a character at fifteen and fortysomething actually seem like they might be the same person, which they absolutely do not here. Without that kind of connective performance, The Reader looks even more formalized and bloodless; it’s an interesting story but not interestingly told, completely unsuccessful at hinting at any kind of outside world for its characters. Time passes, in other words, like the flip of a page: suddenly it’s years later and nothing more has happened. Technically, it’s not a terrible movie (how terrible could a movie with Kate Winslet be? Actually, I need to stop with that line of thinking because I saw The Holiday and I know full well how terrible it could be, but this one is sexier. Put that on the poster: “Sexier than a six-hour cream-colored Nancy Meyers comedy!”). But it isn’t particularly satisfying, either.

After The Reader, I snuck into The Day the Earth Stood Still, which is not where you should seek satisfaction. But I was most interested in the fact that I could sort of sneak in to an IMAX movie for the first time ever: I saw both movies at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square, which recently converted its biggest auditorium into an “IMAX” screen. Of course, this isn’t the stories-high IMAX you’ve seen at the Lincoln Square theater; this is the cut-rate digitally-projected multiplex version, which is to say a screen big enough to show letterboxed IMAX versions of Hollywood movies, but not tall enough for anything shot with actual IMAX cameras (to put it in cruelest terms: Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa but not The Dark Knight).

Of course, few movies are shot with IMAX cameras because they’re unwieldy as hell, but the success of The Dark Knight has led to some big movies going that route, which will lead to a lot of confusion and disappointment when the Times Square IMAX screen can’t play them. It already means disappointment for me that the biggest regular screen at the AMC Empire now has to be set aside not for the blockbuster of the week, but for the IMAX flavor of the every-two-months (to put it in cruelest terms: The Day the Earth Stood Still but not anything else).

This was my first look at the newly IMAXed Auditorium One, and to its credit, it does seem to be modified, which I sort of assumed wasn’t the case, initially. The seats seem to have been rejiggered a little (although I could be wrong about this), basically in stadium formation all the way down to the front, and it’s possible that they brought in a new, even-slightly-bigger screen. The Day the Earth Stood Still certainly looked reasonably huge and crisp up there, though the idea that moviegoers will be charged an extra three or four dollars for the privilege of seeing a movie about 12% nicer-looking than would’ve played there normally is kind of depressing, and might contribute to eventual IMAX brand devaluation.

The movie itself is, you know, incredibly perfunctory, and may be the biggest-budget sci-fi epic to ever take place primarily in Jersey. It tarnishes the good name of the original picture not through Michael Bay-style direct desecration, but by missing the forest for the CGI trees; it’s all slow set-up and dire parable without any thought, joy, or even much popcorn-level follow-through. It also has an ending seemingly tailor-made for those kids and kids-at-brain in Times Square movie theaters who rise from their seats and as soon as it seems like a movie might be even the slightest bit past its climax, like they’re trying to beat people to the parking lot or something, except, FYI, you’re in New York, so chill out. Or go see The Day the Earth Stood Still, which will usher you out the door as soon as a physical threat to the characters you don’t care about is confusingly dispatched.

What binds the Weinstein-approved Reader with the Tom Rothman-approved Earth with surprising (and disappointing) compatibility is their workmanlike literalness; they’re both so steadfastly about what is happening rather than how or why. They’re not so much movies by committee as by kit: assembled carefully with little inspiration.

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