by Bill Hawk




The Weinstein Company, 2008, Color, 125 mins.- Genius Products DVD

Bruno Ganz: “What we feel isn’t important, it’s utterly unimportant- the only question is what we do. If people like you don’t learn from what happened to people like me, then what the
hell is the point of anything?”

You can try to get your law students to do the right thing in the changing West Germany of the 1960s, Ganz, but they’ve got their own ideas. And student David Kross has a moral quandary that’s wrapped up like an onion in layers of private and public complication. It started years before when, as a callow youth, he had a May-December fling with older woman Kate Winslet, who liked to be read to. That relationship puts him in a bit of a pickle in relation to a WWII war crimes trial, which will be a pivotal event for both him and his country. Decades later, the trial continues to have an impact on the lawyer, played at the later age by Ralph Fiennes, and he once again has to make a choice….

After several nominations, Winslet finally scored an Academy Award for this part- ironic, considering that an episode of the TV comedy series “Extras” a few years ago showed her tackling a Holocaust-related film role precisely because they are Oscar bait. In any event, Winslet earns her prize here, tackling everything from a German accent to nude love scenes to prosthetic age makeup and carrying it off with style. The different faces of the lawyer, Kross and Fiennes, barely resemble each other, but it’s not hard to just shrug that off and enjoy their respective performances. Screenwriter David Hare, working from the best selling novel by Bernhard Schlink, addresses the issue of German guilt over the Nazi era, and the war crimes trial showcases the sort of skewed moral compass that enabled tremendous wrongdoing. Director Stephen Daldry and his production team create a believable look at postwar Germany over the span of a few decades, but the horrors of the war itself are mainly spoken of rather than shown- an appropriate approach for a story, which highlights the power of words. Not that this is some deep philosophical story, mind you, it’s actually a pretty straightforward drama, but there are some interesting shadings to the characters. Worth a look if you’re not put off by the setup or by characters that have a lot of skeletons in their closets. Disc extras include deleted scenes and featurettes.



Thinkfilm, 2008, Color, 94 mins.- Image DVD

Wes Bentley: “Actually, one of my clients received the Whitman Award for poetry- posthumously.”

Which makes sense, given that Bentley’s unique line of work involves crafting suicide notes for folks who have decided to shuffle off this mortal coil. He devotes most of his time to creating perfectly wrought missives that can be read at his clients’ funerals, if they decide to go through with it. And if they do, Bentley will be lurking near the graveside to take notes, because he’s that kind of committed professional. Not to mention that he’s basically got no life, and that focusing on other peoples’ problems allows him to ignore his own. But his comfortably numb existence is upset by Winona Ryder, the sister of one of his clients, and before he knows it he’s got a girlfriend- who has no idea of what he does or of his actual relationship to her brother. Fortunately, Bentley’s new client, Ray Romano, is there to give the sort of sterling relationship advice that only a morose and bitter and suicidal guy can offer. Not surprisingly, complications pile up, and Bentley’s strange little world could be headed straight for the nearest trashcan….

As one would expect from the premise, there is a successful vein of black humor running through this one, but for the most part writer/director Geoffrey Haley opts for the familiar independent film approach of quirkiness shot through with melodrama. There’s an overdose of the latter towards the end of the film, but on the other hand it does avoid the pat wrap-up threatened by the familiar romantic comedy elements of the story. The performances are good across the board, although lead Bentley is often overshadowed by his co-stars- hardly surprising given his detached oddball character. Ryder is a real bright spot, showing that she can still do conflicted and kooky as well as anyone. And Romano plays nicely against his “Everybody Loves Raymond” TV persona, spouting off various R-rated remarks about life and love. Overall, if you’ve seen a lot of indy films, this won’t seem all that innovative, but if you’re looking for an alternative to the usual rom-com or drama stuff it’s got its moments. Disc extras are limited to deleted scenes, stills and the trailer.




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© Melt Magazine 2009