Based on the award-winning book by Bernhard Schlink The Reader is an extraordinary provocative and controversial story set in post-World War II Germany. It starts when 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) becomes ill with scarlet fever and is helped home by sympathetic woman named Hanna (Kate Winslet). After his recovery he returns to thank her and is drawn into a clandestine affair with this intriguing woman more than twice his age. Their relationship grows stronger especially when he starts reading to her. But then she suddenly disappears leaving a devastated Michael who now must move on with his life. Little does he know that eight years later while he is in law school he would see Hanna again -- as one of the defendants in a court case against Nazi war criminals. Shocked at revelations about her secret past he also discovers something that will change both their lives forever. Granted Kate Winslet is one of the finest young screen actresses but her range in The Reader will astonish you. It’s an extremely tricky part that could easily lose the audience’s sympathy if done incorrectly but Winslet handles it with aplomb. She runs through the whole gamut of emotions -- aging from her 30s to 60s -- all at once sexy mysterious conflicted contrite as well as many other colors. As Michael newcomer Kross is devastatingly good the most impressive acting discovery in a long time. Although he plays 15 he was 17 at the start of filming and production had to shut down until he turned 18 for the graphic sex scenes. As the story flashes forward Ralph Fiennes takes over the role as the older Michael and does so with a touching sincerity. Lena Olin also has a strong cameo as a Holocaust survivor with definite opinions of Hanna. Although this is only acclaimed stage director Stephen Daldry’s third film he once again shows a mastery of the medium far beyond his limited cinematic resume. Like The Hours and his debut film Billy Elliot he has crafted another film to savor. The Reader isn’t necessarily the most comfortable film to watch but Daldry guides the subject matter with a delicate and steady hand giving us a complex and touching love story between the most unlikely couple. It also delves into how one generation of Germans can come to terms with the horrors of another. Daldry’s directorial restraint and power perfectly serves David Hare’s impressive screenplay and delivers a memorable movie-going experience.
As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.
A fresh update on the Pocahontas legend. Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) arrives in disgrace on the shores of the New World but he is pardoned and soon rises to lead the English settlers of what will eventually be Jamestown Virginia. Sent to trade with a local chief Powhatan he falls in love with his daughter Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher). He follows his duty rather than his heart and returns to Jamestown whose starving citizens would not have survived the harsh winter without Pocahontas’s help. Powhatan (Wes Studi) mounts an attack to force the settlers to leave but Pocahontas warns Smith leading to her banishment and her new life with the Europeans. Eventually Smith is called away to mount his own expeditions leaving Pocahontas behind with a heavy heart. She finds a new suitor a gentleman farmer who wants to marry her but she still pines for Smith. Her fame spreads far beyond the New World back to England where she is summoned to meet the king and queen. Farrell is finally delivering on his early promise momentarily setting aside noisy action films to work with a world-class director and reminding us just how subtle of an actor he can be. The amazing chemistry between Farrell and newcomer Kilcher puts nearly every other movie pairing this year to shame. Kilcher who had one screen credit to her name before this was only 14 during filming quite close to Pocahontas’ believed age of 12 or 13. Before you reach for that picket sign please note that while the romance is incredibly sensual as is the whole film nothing is shown other than longing looks and playful platonic embraces. As Pocahontas Kilcher radiates beauty and innocence and it’s easy to see why John Smith would be mesmerized by her. After Smith has left her scenes of grief are heartfelt and her later solemnity is remarkable for someone so young. I had no idea of her real age until I looked over the production notes. Christian Bale who only shows up in the last third of the film is wonderfully restrained and melancholy as the widower who woos her after her own loss. Terrence Malick has always been a very sensual director one who can capture nature so well that you feel you are in the film not just watching it. But his previous films such as The Thin Red Line often have a way of losing focus of missing the forest for the trees of throwing out the plot for yet another beautiful but pointless shot of the landscape. Here his narrative is strong enough that we aren’t impatient when the camera lingers on lush forests or a lovers’ embrace. He’s made the love triangle the backbone of the film and you don’t miss the larger picture here at all. The film is not only achingly beautiful but deeply felt. His sympathies are clearly with the “naturals ” as the Europeans call the Native Americans; it’s from their perspective that we first see the tall ships arrive. The Englishmen part from Smith for the most part are dirty cruel and petty and the less time the film spends with them the better. What Malick has made is most definitely still an art film with occasionally abstract or non-linear editing choices but one that is never just art for art’s sake.