Sunday, January 4, 2009

December 2008

The many sides of Richard Nixon----naturally shy, insecure, uncomfortable with small talk, but also charming, smart, profane, vindictive----have brought out the best in quite a few actors.

In the same year this new film is set, Jason Robards played a very frightening, nutty version of Nixon (renamed Richard Monckton) in the miniseries “Washington: Behind Closed Doors” (1977). In another TV miniseries, “The Final Days” (1989), Lane Smith, a little known television actor, gave a memorable performance as the disgraced president facing in the reality of Watergate. Philip Baker Hall, the superb character actor (who played an unforgiving librarian in an episode of “Seinfeld”) gave his finest performance in “Secret Honor” (1984), where he brought out the worst aspects of Nixon in this Robert Altman directed film. In Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” (1995), Anthony Hopkins submerged himself in the character, creating a Nixon who could be pitiful one minute and absolutely evil the next. Even in the goofy satire, “Dick” (1999), the wild-eyed Dan Hedaya gives a good performance as the president.

Now Frank Langella, an actor I never would have pegged as candidate to play Nixon, repeats his Tony Award-winning role as the ex-president who agrees to a series of TV interviews to be conducted by British talk show host David Frost. The performance, which dominates this compelling Ron Howard film, may be the best Nixon yet.

Frost, played with a glib, light touch by Michael Sheen (he was Tony Blair in “The Queen”), was a very popular celebrity in the 1970s who saw the Nixon interviews as a chance to make a lot of money and add prestige to his stardom. The film, based on Peter Morgan’s play, follows Frost’s preparations, along with two hired guns, TV reporter Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and writer James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), for the 1977 interviews. Frost, as most pundits at the time predicted, would have thrown mostly softball questions at Nixon (as the ex-president’s advisors expected) if it wasn’t for Zelnick and Reston (son of the legendary New York Times columnist) pushing the flamboyant Brit to act more like a journalist and less like a TV host.

The first half of “Frost/Nixon” is interesting for those old enough to remember the interviews and the political atmosphere in the wake of Nixon’s resignation, but it doesn’t necessarily make for great cinema. Sheen’s Frost doesn’t hold the screen as the character must have on stage; I kept thinking how much livelier the film would have been if the more animated Rockwell had played Frost. But once the interviews start, Langella takes over the picture and elevates it. Whether holding forth in Nixon’s San Clemente estate or in the nearby house where the interviews were shot, Langella shows all side of this fascinating man, capturing his physical traits and voice patterns, and, most importantly, the inner struggle that seemed to be in constant play for this depressed and beleaguered public man. Langella is at his best in an off-the-cuff, late night (and, I assume, fictional) phone call a well-lubricated Nixon makes to Frost.

The 71-year-old actor made a splash in his film debut, “Diary of a Mad Housewife” (1970), playing a writer who has an affair with the married woman of the title, and then had a hit playing a campy vampire in “Dracula” (1979). Langella has spent most of his career as a supporting player in film and TV and working on stage. In 2007, he received acclaim for his performance in the little-seen “Started Out in the Evening,” playing a writing teacher involved with a student. But clearly, “Frost/Nixon” is the performance of his career.

While I had apprehensions about the laid-back approach Sheen takes to Frost, most of the performances are first-rate, including Platt, Rockwell, Rebecca Hall as Frost’s latest girlfriend and Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s advisor. The film is certainly among Howard’s best works; his usual light touch serves him well here by keeping the tone slightly comic at all times. There is serious stuff going on here, but it’s still just a TV interview----even the highly emotional Richard Nixon eventually realizes that.

Clint Eastwood has played this character dozen of times: an outsider who just wants to be left alone but eventually realizes he’s the only one around who can bring justice to his corner of the world. Here he’s Walt Kowalski, a just widowed retired autoworker living in a neglected Detroit neighborhood now dominated by Hmong immigrants from Southeast Asia.

Walt is an unapologetic bigot (he refers to his neighbors as “gooks” to their face) who spends his days sitting on his porch drinking cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and complaining about life to his dog. But when the neighbor’s family dispute spills onto his yard, the combatants suddenly find themselves starring down the end of Walt’s shotgun. By chasing the gang members, Walt becomes a hero to the Hmong neighbors and he’s soon drawn into the lives of Thao---Walt calls him “toad”----the family’s timid teen son (Bee Vang) and Sue, their more confident daughter (Ahney Her).

Eastwood has this character down pat----he’s disappointed that his sons and their families aren’t more like him, as he clings to a world where men judged others by their race and religion and manliness. And though he’s an old, sick man, he refuses to stand by while punks intimidate his neighbors. What keeps Walt from becoming just another movie vigilante is that his often-foolish actions ring true to his character and are balanced by the way he warms up to these two young Hmongs.

Director Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk also keep the film grounded in reality by emphasizing the natural comic aspects of the interaction between this old white man and a pair of teenage immigrants. While there are a couple of scenes in “Gran Torino” that feel forced and overly theatrical, the film is mostly a strong dose of reality about inner city life and the difficulties of escaping that life. Not exactly the kind of movie one expects from a 78-year-old film legend, but Eastwood hasn’t done the expected for quite a while now.

While this film---the title refers to Walt’s prized 1972 sports car----isn’t the great film that “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby” or “Letters From Iwo Jima” were (maybe the three best pictures of the decade) but it’s a very good one that features one of the actor’s finest performances.

This Italy movie about brothers at odds during the turbulent 1960s reminded me of the incendiary early works of Bernardo Bertolucci----“Before Revolution” (1964), “Conformist” (1970)----that superbly merged the personal and the political into one supercharged crisis. Director Daniele Luchetti doesn’t possess the visual mastery of Bertolucci, but along with co-writers Sandro Petragila and Stefano Rulli, he’s created a story that is both a compelling family drama and a complex chronicle of Italy’s post-war political battles.

Accio (Elio Germano) and Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio) are brothers constantly at each other’s throats, as the younger Accio feels under appreciated, especially after he leaves the seminary and joins a local group of Fascists. The outgoing ladies’ man Manrico is already an activist in the Communist Party. There’s also a girl, of course. Francesca (Diane Fieri) is madly in love with Manrico (she’s also involved in the Communist movement) but she’s just another girl to him and Accio tries to win her heart by being there when she needs someone.

Germano and Scamarcio both give phenomenal performances, never becoming clichés of their views or just hotheaded siblings. And they truly seem like products of their critical, bickering family atmosphere and the volatile political state of the country.

There’s no real conclusion to the political battles (reflecting the reality of Italy) but the brothers do make peace and find a way to understand each other even as they scream at one another.

THE TRIP (1967) and PSYCH-OUT (1968)
Least we forget, the world and the movies were very different in the 1960s. Imagine a filmmaker today making a movie entirely about the events that happen during a young man’s LSD trip? It ain’t happening, man.

Directed by Roger Corman, arguably the most important and influential filmmaker of the 1960s, “The Trip” chronicles the experiences of Paul Groves, a seemingly conventional, sweater-wearing commercial director played by Peter Fonda, after he scores “acid” from Dennis Hopper (who else?) and is given all the proper warnings by his friend John (an equally unhip Bruce Dern). Beyond the usual psychedelic visions right out of a Grateful Dead concert, Paul also imagines being chased by hooded horsemen, having wild sex and witnessing a murder. The highlight though is his strange encounter with a dryer at a laundromat. The film is preceded by a warning of the dangers of this hallucinogen, but not a word about how dull this “trip” would look 40 years later.

“Psych-Out,” a more conventional film directed by Corman protégé Richard Rush (who went on to make “The Stunt Man”), does a good job of capturing the gestalt of Haight-Ashbury when it was the place to be. Jack Nicholson and Adam Roarke (also co-stars of the Rush-directed biker classic “Hell’s Angels on Wheels“) are the leaders of an up-and-coming rock band who take a blind girl just off the bus (Susan Strasberg) under their wing and help her locate her street-preaching brother (Dern, wearing the worst wig in movie history).

An interesting contrast to Fonda’s gentle acid experience in “The Trip,” this film depicts a more wild-eyed, flipped-out tripper. Future director Henry Jaglom plays Warren, who threatens his buddies with a buzz saw when they appear to him to be zombies and then nearly cuts off his hand, which he sees as diseased. Now that’s a trip! But I couldn’t figure out why these hippies had a buzz saw sitting around their pad.

If the film wasn’t shot----by legendary cameraman Laszlo Kovacs---on the colorful streets of the Haight and didn’t star Nicholson, it would have long been forgotten. But it’s a worthy time capsule of the era and memorable if only for Nicholson’s inept efforts to look like a rock guitarist. I can imagine the laughs he got from San Francisco musicians at the time when he tells his girlfriend “we’re going to be famous, like the Airplane.”


There’s plenty to appreciate about this British film that has emerged as the surprising favorite in the Oscar race, but with a plot build on one coincidence after another and an ending right out of a made-for-TV movie, the film ultimately fails its own best interests.

The movie tells the heartbreaking story of Jamal (played as an adult, with virtually no emotion, by Dev Patel), a sensitive boy from the Hindu slums of Mumbai who runs off with his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) after his mother is killed in an anti-Hindu riot. Their adventures are right of Dickens (including a Fagin-like character) but take on added meaning as told in flashback, part of the present-day storyline of Jamal appearing on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Turns out that every question he’s asked on the show relates to some unforgettable incident in his life, much of it connected to his long search to find and save his childhood love Latika (played as an adult by the stunning beauty Freida Pinto). The idea is so far fetched that I can’t believe it survived rewrites.

The direction by Danny Boyle (“Transpotting,” “28 Days Later”) is fast-paced and inventive as he integrates flashbacks on top of flashbacks, but keeps the story focused on Jamal and Salim. Not much has been mentioned in reviews about casting director Loveleen Tanda, who is also listed as a co-director of the film----it’s unclear if she was anything more than a translator for Boyle.

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle does a superb job of reflecting the different aspects of the story---from the gritty slums to the dazzle of the TV game show. Technically, “Slumdog” is a first-rate film, but the script, by Simon Beaufoy (responsible for the cloying “Full Monty”), less so.

I don’t know enough about Indian culture to judge how realistic some of the characterizations are, but if this film reflects contemporary Indian, it is a much more repressive country than I imagined. Is it possible that police would torture someone because they are suspected of cheating on a game show? And, as far as the portrayal of the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” let’s just say that the American image of the congenial host (the beloved Regis) gets lost in the translation.

“Slumdog” seems to be marketed as the feel-good movie of the holiday season, but in fact most of the film tells a harsh, violent and sad tale of life on the street. That’s the good news; the bad news is that every cliché in the screenwriter’s handbook gets tossed up on the screen in the last 20 minutes. And, of course, that’s why it’s expected to score some Oscar gold.

Everything was stacked against any chance of me liking this parody of Hollywood war films, starting with its star-director Ben Stiller. He seems to become more insufferable with every performance he gives (I caught a bit of his remake of “Heartbreak Kid” on TV recently and I’m surprised Elaine May didn’t file suit to stop its release). From his idiotic character in “Meet the Parents” to bland formal films like “Night at the Museum, he’s lost any comic edge he once possessed.

On top of the Stiller factor, “Tropic Thunder” was yet another of the recent crop of comedies that aggressively attempt to be as crude and offensive as possible in hopes of topping last month’s rude hit. These movies are for people half my age---my idea of great low comedy is “Animal House” (1978) or “Back to School” (1986).

But much to my surprise, I laughed my #*&@ off, starting with the faux movie trailers that introduce the four stars of the movie within the movie: Stiller’s Tugg Speedman, an on-the-decline action star; Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus, a five-time Oscar winning Aussie who had his skin dyed to play an African-American in the film; Jack Black’s Jeff Portnoy, whose big hit movie features him playing multiple characters (I hope Eddie Murphy has a sense of humor) who get laughs via their flatulence; and Brandon T. Jackson’s Alpa Chino, an over-the-top rapper making his film debut.

On location in Southeast Asian to shoot a Vietnam War film, the four stars along with an unknown supporting player (Jay Baruchel) end up deep in the jungle, without their director or personal assistants or even cell phones and are mistaken by the security for a heroin operation as real soldiers.

In addition to humorously quoting from numerous Vietnam War films (“Platoon,” “Apocalypse Now”), “Tropic Thunder” turns out to be one of the funniest and spot-on satires of the pretentious trappings and self-centered concerns of Hollywood actors.

The acting (yes, even Stiller) is outstanding for a film of this type, with Downey’s performance as an actor going way beyond the realm of good sense, both on and off “screen,” may be the best of his career. He plays the role with such sincerity that he ends up being the funniest guy in the movie.

The most outrageous performance in the film (and probably of the year) is given by Tom Cruise, buried under makeup and prostheses----for the first couple of minutes that he was on screen I didn’t recognize him----to play the most offensive studio chief imaginable. All arrogance and attitude, Cruise’s Les Grossman is frighteningly heartless and truly evil; as damning a commentary on the twisted thinking of Hollywood as you’re likely to see.

Also very amusing is Nick Nolte, playing the crazed author of the book the film they’re making is based on and an advisor on the film----a role, at least in part, based on Capt. Dale Dye, Hollywood’s go-to advisor on war films (“Platoon,” “Saving Private Ryan”), including this one.

The script, by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Ethan Coen, took some heat when the film was released in theaters for its use of the pejorative “retard” in a long (and very amusing) discussion about how to play mentally disabled characters on screen. But as I wrote above, it’s part and parcel of this brand of comedy to be offensive to someone, be it women, gays, blacks, Latinos, Brits, fat people, bald men or the mentally challenged, no one escapes unscathed. Don’t blame Hollywood; blame the kids who make these films huge hits.

MILK (2008)

Not many films about politics and social activism open with a pick-up scene in a subway station. Not willing to spend his 40th birthday alone, Wall Street businessman Harvey Milk strikes up a conversation with the younger Scott and they spend the night together, remaining partners through most of the rest of Milk’s life.

This film, despite its title, is about the rise of gay activism in San Francisco as much as it is about Milk, the man at the center of the movement who ends up murdered by fellow city councilman Dan White in 1978. Director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have wisely focused on the political struggles and campaigns of the ‘70s, which culminate in Milk becoming the first openly gay man elected to public office and the defeat of a California initiative that would have allowed the firing of any public school teacher identified as gay.

The character development of Milk was pretty much handled when the director cast Sean Penn. This amazing actor, arguably America’s best, creates a character who is more than just simply a “homosexual”; his Milk is both sensitive and fearless, ambitious yet humble and not always sure of what direction the movement should take. He understands the political game and isn’t above playing it for his benefit and the benefit of his cause.

Ironically, it’s the conservative family man White (played with intense restraint by Josh Brolin) who finds himself the outsider when the city council aligns on various issues. His resentment and jealousy of Milk and some deep-seated psychological problems lead to him to murder Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.

Also giving first-rate performances are Emile Hirsch (the star of Penn’s “Into the Wild”) as Cleve Jones, a young hustler turned gay activist and protégé of Milk’s; and James Franco as Scott, Milk’s longtime lover, who, like so many partners of politicians, often feels neglected in favor of the cause.

“Milk,” probably Van Sant’s best film since “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989), depicts just the right details of the martyr’s life and politics to bring the viewer into his world, building to the tragic yet hopeful ending. Without turning the film into a boring political rant, the director shows the long-term importance of what this small group of gay activists accomplished and the difference one very determined man can have on the world.

Robert Siodmak directed some of the most stylish and emotionally intense film noirs of the 1940s. Though born in Memphis while his parents were on a business trip, he was raised in German and began his directing career there before leaving for Paris with the rise of Hitler.

After a few years working in France, he moved to Hollywood in 1940, making his American debut with “West Point Widow” (1941), a forgettable war comedy. He finally made his mark with the occasionally brilliant, but flawed noir “Phantom Lady” (1944), about a man’s desperate search for an alibi in his wife’s murder. The dark, moody thrillers that followed include “The Suspect” (1945), “The Spiral Staircase” (1945), “The Dark Mirror” (1946) and his one great picture, “The Killers” (1946). This noir masterpiece, based on an Ernest Hemingway story, features Burt Lancaster (in his film debut) as the Swede, whose involvement with Ava Gardner’s Kitty and a gang of criminals sends him down a doomed path.

“Thelma Jordan” was among Siodmak’s last American films---after the Lancaster-starring adventure picture “The Crimson Pirate” (1952), he returned to German, where he continued to direct until the late ‘60s.

Barbara Stanwyck stars as the title character, who shows up at the district attorney’s office one night in hopes of getting protection for her sickly aunt’s jewelry collection. Instead she encounters drunk, depressed assistant DA Cleve Marshall, who immediately falls for her and they begin an affair.

The usually milk-toasty Wendell Cory plays the married DA who doesn’t seem to notice Thelma’s obsession with secrecy until the aunt is murdered and her jewels taken. Instead of calling the cops, she phones Cleve and they go to great lengths to fiddle with the crime scene to make sure Thelma can’t be blamed. Then, once she’s arrest and charged, Cleve, tossing aside every code of ethics, arranges to be the one to prosecute her. Up until the film becomes a contrived courtroom drama, it’s a compelling, intense mystery as Thelma plays her cards close to the vest while Cleve struggles with his troubled marriage, disappointment at work and his illicit affair. Siodmak places most of the scenes at night---in cars parked on unlit streets and in the shadowy old house that Thelma lives in with her aunt, all superbly shot by veteran cinematographer George Barnes (“Spellbound,” “Force of Evil”).

In addition to Stanwyck and Cory, the film’s standout performance is given by Stanley Ridges as Thelma’s fast-talking, slick attorney Kingsley Willis, who quickly sees through the double-dealing going on between the pair.

It would have been much improved if someone would have gotten away scot-free in this sleazy deal, but no one does. In 1950 Hollywood, bad people still paid the price for their sins.

If you are not enamored of weddings and the preparations leading up to the ceremony, stay away from “Rachel Getting Married.” I know it’s only a plot device to throw dysfunctional family members into a situation where they’re forced to interact. Yet director Jonathan Demme treats the run-up to the nuptials and all the people involved with such loving detail that you’d think he was documenting his own daughter’s wedding.

Typically of a Demme film, it’s filled with people, music and traditions from a variety of cultures presented with such unbridled zeal that I felt as though I was watching a U.N. Christmas special. Cynical as it sounds, it really seemed as if Demme and first-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet (Sidney’s daughter) were looking for bonus points for being so inclusive.

Cutting through all this “everyone loves everyone” fog is Kym (Anne Hathaway), a volatile recovering drug abuser who comes out of rehab for her sister’s wedding. Everyone in her family treats her as if she’s an unexploded grenade tossed in the middle of their party and she reacts to that fear and distrust. Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) seems to be everything her sister isn’t: outgoing, loving, family oriented; but it doesn’t take long before Kym brings out the worst in her.

You don’t need to see the movie to figure out the arguments that ensue during this long weekend of celebration. Utilizing, almost exclusively, a hand-held camera, Demme puts you right into the center of both the partying and the shouting matches, for better or worse.

Hathaway, best know as Meryl Streep’s nemesis in “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), gives a subtle, controlled and very lived-in performance that allows you feel sympathy for her even when you know she’s in the wrong. It’s a portrayal of an addict that doesn’t rely on the usual clichés---much like Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance in “Sherrybaby” (2006). Unfortunately, Hathaway gives her performances in a much weaker film.

Nearly as good is TV actress DeWitt as Rachel, who blames her sister for everything while refusing to recognized her attempts to change.

Debra Winger, in her first major role since 1995 (the forgettable “Forget Paris”), plays the girls’ mother, separated from the father and equally distant and uninvolved with the lives of her daughters. Winger has a pair of tough, emotionally complex scenes, reminders of what might have been if she hadn’t given up her promising career.

I was once a huge fan of Demme---“Melvin and Howard” (1980), “Something Wild” (1986) and “Married to the Mob” (1988) are among the best and most interesting films of the 1980s. But after he became a superstar director following the mega success of “Silence of the Lambs” (1991), he started making pageants rather than movies. “Philadelphia” (1993) and “Beloved” (1998) were directed with kid gloves and then he made two second-rate remakes of 1960s films, “Charade” (renamed “The Truth About Charlie”) and “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004).

“Rachel Getting Married,” it seems to me, was his attempt to get back to the cynical, edgy pictures he made in the 1980s, but he could help but turn the story of a messed up family into an overblown, feel-good event.


Dana King said...

FROST/NIXON sounds fascinating, especially since my first "adult" experiences were the Watergate hearings and Nixon's impeachment. I hope I can find time to see it before it moves on.

GRAN TORINO, as you said, sounds like something unexepected for Eastwood. I never thought Clint was much of an actor--more of a persona and screen presence--but I've always been in the tank for him. Form what I've heard, this looks like it could be the projected retirement scenario of a lot of his characters, so it makes logical sense for him to play the role, and to show there's more to some of these characters than his earlier action films implied.

I've been reading all the rave reviews for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and suspected it might be as you said: a feel-good movie masquerading as something weighty. "Let's see how much oppression we can have this indominable person overcome." I'll pass. I'd rather see less oppression, with a more realistically set triumph.

I actually saw TROPIC THUNDER in the theater this summer and loved it. I like Stiller more than you do in general, but thought this was one of his best efforts, in large past because he spreads the laughs around, which he tends to do in his more successful movies. The "full retard" bit was not only spot on, but it allowed Stiller to point out the hypocrisy of such protests when people who hadn't seen themovie complained about it, having no idea of the context.

I'm going to have to live throuhg RACHEL GETTING MARRIED someday; I see no point it hurrying things.

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