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'The Reader' and 'Doubt' Tackle Generational Divides

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Three movies open this week, all angling for Oscars. "The Reader" is about Germany's Nazi past, "Gran Torino" is about a war veteran who hates immigrants, and "Doubt" is about a church scandal. So you might think these movies have nothing in common. But Bob Mondello says all three are about generational divides.

BOB MONDELLO: Two of these movies have plots revolving around sex between an adult and an adolescent. In "Doubt," about a nun who suspects a priest of molesting an altar boy, absolutely nothing sexual happens on screen. And even without sex, "Doubt" turns out to be more about sex than "The Reader," in which a 15-year-old German boy spends the summer of 1958 romping in bed with his 36-year-old girlfriend. Erotic antics are more or less beside the point in "The Reader," even when the reading is going on in a shared bath tub.

(Soundbite of movie "The Reader")

Mr. DAVID KROSS: (As young Michael Berg) Lady Chatterly felt his naked flesh against her.

Ms. KATE WINSLET: (As Hanna Schmitz) This is disgusting. Where did you get this?

Mr. KROSS: (As young Michael Berg) Borrowed it from someone at school.

Ms. WINSLET: (As Hanna Schmitz) Well, you should be ashamed. Go on.

MONDELLO: "The Reader" treats young Michael as a sex-crazed puppy eager for experience. It does not treat Hanna as particularly exploitive, though she clearly is exploitive, because what "The Reader" has on its mind isn't their physical relationship but the generational change they represent in Germany. Michael is part of what's known as the German second generation. He was born toward the end of World War II and grew up innocently, only learning of Nazi crimes against humanity as he matured. Hanna lived those crimes and that, far more than the criminal act of her taking an underage lover, is what makes their intimacy grotesque. "Doubt" is also about a generational difference, not so much between priest and altar boy, though that's certainly the topic of a lot of conversation, but between priest and nun. Young Father Flynn, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, represents the winds of doctrinal change that are blowing through the Catholic Church in the 1960s, winds that alarm Sister Aloysius, played by Meryl Streep. She resists change, whether it's those newfangled ballpoint pens that are messing up penmanship or the very idea of singing a non-religious song at a Christmas pageant.

(Soundbite of "Doubt")

Ms. MERYL STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) "Frosty The Snowman" espouses a pagan belief in magic. If the music were more somber, people would realize the images are disturbing and the song, radical. Should be banned from the airwaves.

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) So, not "Frosty the Snowman."

Ms. MERYL STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) May I ask what you're writing down with that ballpoint pen?

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Oh, nothing. It's an idea for a sermon.

Ms. MERYL STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) What is the idea?

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Intolerance.

MONDELLO: The laid-back priest seems far more appealing than the close-minded nun until she wonders aloud, without offering any evidence, what's going on between him an altar boy. Nothing, he says, but it's hard to prove a negative, which leads, as the title has it, to doubt. What connects "Doubt" and "The Reader" is a shared notion that the old ways, whether old church or old Germany, were intolerant, even monstrous. But the espousers of the new are damaged, compromised and not necessarily better guides to morality. Our elders are disasters, these movies say, and so are we. Now what are we going to do about our children? One answer is suggested by Clint Eastwood in his new film, "Gran Torino." He's playing a guy who is sort of a geriatric Dirty Harry, a racist, bitter old coot who can't stand the Hmong immigrants who have taken over his neighborhood. Then he gets in the middle of a gang dispute and inadvertently helps them, at which point they start stacking flowers on his front porch.

(Soundbite of "Gran Torino")

Mr. CLINT EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) Why are you bringing me all this garbage anyway?

Unidentified Woman: Because you saved Thao.

Mr. CLINT EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) I didn't save anybody. I just - that's all.

Unidentified Woman: You're a hero to the neighborhood.

Mr. CLINT EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) I'm not a hero.

Unidentified Woman: Too bad, they think you are.

MONDELLO: What he really is is something these Hmong families feel they've lost. They have developed generational issues themselves in resettling here, distant kids, rootless families. Eastwood's character reluctantly becomes for his Hmong neighbors what our society once respected and what theirs still does - the wise, protective elder, capable of routing gangs and of knowing instinctively what's right. Now, if only it were that easy outside the cineplex. I'm Bob Mondello.

NORRIS: And you can find reviews of other movies out this week. That's at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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