DVD Catch Up: Shotgun Stories(1/22/2009)

            Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories was a film that went entirely under the radar throughout 2008 and built a small but devoted following while playing at film festivals.  After hearing enough strong praise for it I decided it was worth a rental.  All I’d known about it was that it took place in the south and had to do with a murderous feud between rival families.  Between the title and the description I was expecting something a bit closer to Deliverance then what I got, which feels a lot closer to the work of the film’s producer David Gordon Green.

            The film is set in a microscopically small southern town and opens with the funeral of a family patriarch.  This man had two packs of children from different women, the first he mistreated, the second he doted on.  One member of the first pack named Son (Michael Shannon), decides to speak up at this funeral and curses the man who mistreated him and his three full brothers.  This sparks a feud between the two packs, which will end in blood.

            When would you think such a story would take place? The 1800s? The 20s? Even the 70s?   Well it doesn’t take place in any of those eras, it takes place in 2008.  But how many people are really going to be starting a blood feud over a few disagreeable words in this day in age?  That’s the problem I have with this movie, the people in it make decisions as if they were in a crazy southern gothic exploitation movie, yet Jeff Nichols goes out of his way to ground the film in absolute reality. 

            From a filmmaking perspective, there is a lot here to be impressed by.  I mentioned earlier that David Gordon Green was one of the film’s producers, and if I was told that he was the director I wouldn’t be shocked.  First time director Jeff Nichols’ visual style borrows from Green’s work so heavily that it sometimes feels closer to rip-off than influence.  Though if you’re going to borrow a style it might as well be from someone as talented as David Gordon Green.  The cinematography by Adam Stone is almost as good as Tim Orr’s work in the david Gordon Green cannon, and the film has the same kind of naturalistic calm that David Gordon Green had in The Good Girl and Snow Angels.

            But all the artful compositions, restrained violence and minimalistic acting only serve as a means of concealing that this is an exploitation plot in which characters make illogical decisions for two thirds of a movie.  As small as this town is I have trouble believing that there wouldn’t be some kind of police force or sheriff trying to stop the idiotic and often deadly feud that is going on.  If Nichols had chosen to embrace rather than conceal some of this stories sillier aspects he may have at least had a movie that was true to itself.  As it is the movie feels like a fraud, a slow and uninteresting one at that.

** out of four  

Che(1/16/2009)

There are few figures in history as controversial as Ernesto “Che” Guevara.  To many people his face is the representation of revolution and radical left wing reform, others see him as nothing more than a communist who helped build a regime that is under American embargo to this day.  Alberto Korda’s photo of the revolutionary has been emblazed on millions of T-shirts, I don’t think the people wearing these shirts are interested in celebrating communism anymore than someone wearing a Thomas Jafferson shirt is celebrating slavery; rather they are celebrating Guevara as a well intentioned visionary.  I’ve never owned one of these shirts, nor have I seen anyone wearing one since the Clinton administration, but I can respect the sentiment.   I’m not sure if Steven Soderbergh has ever owned one of these shirts, but I do know that Soderbergh’s new film about the Argentine revolutionary makes for compelling drama.

When I first heard about this project it was being sold as a pair of separate films called The Argentine and Guerrilla.  This changed when it was delivered to the Cannes film festival as one long film simply titled Che.  After it received mixed festival reviews, the film has been on a distribution roller coaster; the studio that finally picked it up, IFC films, still doesn’t seem dedicated to the idea of releasing it as either one film or two and they still aren’t sure whether they want to call the parts by their original names or as simply Part 1 and Part 2.  Luckily, they had enough confidence in the project to release the film in my market in the deluxe roadshow presentation, and this is the format I saw it in.

The film ran four hours and twenty three minutes and featured a fifteen minute intermission as well as an overture and an entr’acte.  The ticket cost me fifteen dollars, but that’s exactly what this theater would normally charge for two films, so I guess that’s fair enough.  The film even came with a full color program, which is a nice bonus but has little in it except for the movie’s credits (which, in the roadshow tradition, are omitted from the film’s print).  An essay or two would have gone a long way to increase the value of this souvenir, but it was essentially free so I can’t complain.

The two movie in one concept has been experimented with recently by filmmakers like Quentin Tarentino and Clint Eastwood to various degrees of success.  Tarentino’s Kill Bill series, despite its chronological jumping, was undoubtedly one story split into two (the fact that one had more action than the other was incidental).  On the other end of the spectrum, the Iwo Jima films that Clint Eastwood released in 2006 were entirely separate films linked only by setting and mood.  The Che films lay somewhere between the two.  Though they’re being released as one film, I think they would both hold up as standalone films.  Though the Che character in the second act is certainly the same character seen in the first act, the two films take place in fairly disconnected periods in his life.

The first part focuses almost entirely on the Cuban revolution from beginning to end.  There are maybe five minutes of screen time dedicated to pre-invasion material.  The film also flashes forward to Guevara’s 1964 diplomatic trip to New York, but this ultimately acts less as a part of the story than as a medium to listen to his philosophies and better understand his motivations.  The second part the film is about Guevara’s guerrilla war in Bolivia and is even more strictly focused.  The fact that each film maintains such laser-sighted focus on its respective war gives the film a certain purity, but can also be one of it’s a double edged sword.  We only see Guevara when he’s at war, never at peace.  The film skips over the five year period between the two wars, including his marriage to Aleida March which is briefly mentioned only in dialogue (March is a seen as a member of his army in part one).  Because we see almost nothing of Guevara’s personal life, or doing much of anything other than Guerrilla warfare, he’s not a particularly relatable character and the viewer is oddly distanced from him.  I might go so far as to say this is a pair of war films first and a biopic second, especially during part one.

Part of why Guevara seems like such a distant character throughout the film is that Soderbergh maintains an incredible objectivity throughout the film.  He has an almost fly on the wall approach to the events of the revolution and the viewer is left to judge Guevara by his own actions and words.  Soderbergh almost never editorializes and hardly a line is spent on exposition.  Of course the most controversial period in Guevara’s life, his running of the Cabaña Fortress, is completely skipped over and Soderbergh does not get too deep into the implications of Guevara’s ideology.  But all this isn’t really the point; I don’t think Soderbergh cares if Cuba or Boliva are turned into “communist paradises.”  What’s important is that Guevara himself deeply believes in his own cause and will sacrifice himself to see it through.  If nothing else, he’s a man of good intentions, he never sought to profit from his actions and he never seems interested in gaining power.  He’s a man who genuinely believes that what he’s doing is right for the people of Latin America, though he was probably naïve to trust the likes of Fidel Castro. 

The first part appears to have used the brunt of the film’s budget, and it features significantly more combat sequences.  There are a number of skirmishes seen, but this isn’t Saving Private Ryan.  The fighting is small scale and guerrilla-style, very reminiscent of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Soderbergh does not dwell on action sequences; in fact Guevara spends significantly more time recruiting peasants and training soldiers than he does throwing around Molotov cocktails.  It all leads up to the battle of Santa Clara, which is about twenty well crafted minutes of urban combat.  While this is hardly mainstream filmmaking, it is exciting and relatively accessible.

The second part is more personal, smaller in scale, slower, and likely to be more divisive.  During this half the film’s aspect ratio narrows down from 2.35:1 to 1.85:1, and this makes sense given the significantly altered tones of the first two halve.  While Part One was a triumphant victory, part two is about Guevara’s tragic downfall in the jungles of Bolivia.  As such the second part is, appropriately, sort of a downer and the tone does nothing to alleviate the tragedy.   There’s very little action in this second part, and while part one was hardly a laugh riot it was a lot more entertaining about this.  I’m not sure if this movie really benefits from the roadshow presentation in that the film gets slower and less entertaining after around three and a half hours of sitting in a movie theater.  But the movie does rebound somewhere around the sixth act (second film, third act), there’s a great battle in the jungle and the final moments of Guevara’s life are really well handled.  This half actually reminded me of Gus Van Sant’s recent output in that you’re slowly watching someone going toward an inevitable outcome, yet you stick with him in sickness and in health.

One lens through which this second half can be viewed is an allegorical one; because, oddly, Guevara acts a lot more like George W. Bush than Barack Obama.  At one point in Part One, Guevara reads off a Tolstoy quote which establishes that victory in battle is largely related to the motivation of the forces.  In Cuba he was able to motivate the people in a big way; they were interested in and receptive to communism.  That was the right place to spread his ideology, Boliva wasn’t.  Guevara assumes that the Bolivian people will accept any ideology for the simple fact that they are oppressed, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case, they mostly just see him as a dangerous troublemaker.  Bush made the same mistake when he assumed that the Iraqi people would view Americans as liberators and accept democracy simply because Saddam Hussein was a dictator.  I don’t want to oversell this angle, it probably wasn’t intentional and  it’s not a perfect allegory (the CIA were probably just as big a factor in his defeat), but this is there for people like me to see.

One complaint I could have is that, while Guevara himself is fairly distant from the viewer, everyone else is completely unimportant.  Historical figures certainly show up, they’re almost named one by one in an early scene; they’re all basically gears in Guevara’s army.  Even Fidel Castro almost seems like a minor side character.  All this is magnified further in Part Two which, according to the program, had 92 credited roles but a whole lot of them might as well be credited as Guerrilla Soldier #12.  All in all, Guevara is the character at the center of the whole thing, and he’s the only character played by a name actor: Benicio del Toro.  Del Toro is great throughout the film, he doesn’t go through some kind of wild Oscar-bait transformation, rather he does everything he can to sell the audience on Guevara’s passion.  It seems like he’s doing everything he can to capture that look that’s in Guevara’s eyes in that famous photograph.

On the film’s technical side, it’s straight up awesome.   That “Peter Andrews” cinematography is really good here.  I said before that the film reminded me of The Wind That Shakes the Barely, and that’s largely because of the way Soderbergh places the small scale fighting amidst green Cuban scenery (though it had to be shot in Mexico, stupid embargo).  “Andrews” shoots this scenery beautifully while maintaining a gritty look, it’s a tough balancing act but it’s pulled off really well.  In contrast, the flash-forwards are filmed in high contrast black and white, it’s grainy and looks like a picture from an old television broadcast.  Perhaps through this contrast of vivid color and grainy monochrome Soderbergh is trying to suggest that Guevara was more alive during the revolution then he was while building Castro’s Cuba. The cinematography in Part 2 is quite different, the camerawork is more handheld and the colors are more desaturated.  There’s no balance between beautifully shot scenery and gritty warfare in this half, it’s all gritty.  Aurally, both films really shine, gunshots really pop and explosions are crisp; it really feels like you’re in a war. The film also avoids any musical manipulation, the latin music here is good but not intended to do anything other than augment the setting.

With Che, Soderbergh has presented us with a paradox.  He’s given us two war films about the same person, neither of them is as great without the other, yet watching them back to back also has its drawbacks.  As a history of a man’s life, the project is incomplete in spite of its extreme length, which leads me to believe that these truly are two film in spite of the roadshow presentation.  The roadshow was a nice convenience for me as it meant I didn’t have to make two trips, but if you can only see them as separate films it’s probably just as well.  Either way this isn’t a project to be missed, it’s the best war film since Letters From Iwo Jima and the most daring biopic since I’m Not There.  It’s also Soderbergh’s best work since Traffic and in spite of its flaws this is still one of the best movies released this year.

**** out of Four

The Wrestler(1/9/2009)

            If someone ever writes a book called “Things That Aren’t Respectable” they’d probably have to devote an entire chapter to professional wrestling.  I’ve had nothing but contempt for this “sport” and I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a wrestling match in its entirety because of it.  But like all entertainment mediums, the world of wrestling is filled with genuine human interest stories about wash-ups, has-beens, and those who never made it.  Those who dream of being in the WWE may have some strange priorities but are their failures any less tragic then the failures of those who aspire to be boxers, actors, or rock stars?  The new Darren Aronofsky film, The Wrestler, is about one of these sob stories; it’s a film that does what I thought was impossible, it made me care about a pro-wrestler.

            The film is a character study about Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), who was a major star of pro wrestling during the 80s but who has fallen a long long way since.  Now Robinson, in his 50s, is living in a trailer park but still wrestling in low rent matches in seedy New Jersey venues.  His one escape outside of the wrestling ring is the time he spends at a local strip club where he’s befriended a lap dancer named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei).  After a really hard match, Robinson collapses in the locker room.  Doctors tell him he’s had a heart attack and that another match could easily kill him.  This puts Robinson at an impasse in life, he doesn’t have any real job skills and he yearns for the rush of the fight.  Cassidy suggests he contact his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), but he doesn’t know if she’s going to be interested in talking to him.  Meanwhile, Robinson’s fight promoter is trying to arrange a rematch between Robinson and his old “rival” the Ayatollah, a fight Robinson is tempted to agree to, but which could jeopardize his very life.

            The Wrestler is a film that comes at an important point in the career of its director, Darren Aronofsky.  Aronofsky came to prominence with the visually aggressive independent films Pi and Requiem For a Dream; but his last film, The Fountain, was seen by many as a misfire.  That film was an incredibly ambitious sci-fi epic, but its small scale new age aesthetic ultimately felt cold and pretentious.  With The Wrestler Aronofsky has made the perfect film to recover from an ambitious failure like that: a small scale, down to earth independent film with a minimum of the camera tricks that were beginning to define his style.  This is a film about people, not themes or technical devices, and it’s a lot warmer than anything he’s made before.  And yet, the film still explores the themes that Aronofsky has explored throughout his body of work: Addiction, obsession, and the pursuit of unattainable dreams. 

            Aronofsky shoots the wrestling matches here a lot better than the WWE does. Like all the best boxing films the camera here goes into the ring, which allows for something a lot more intense than a filmed live event.  Some of this footage is surprisingly graphic, particularly on “hardcore” match in which the wrestlers fight using weapons like broken glass, barbed wire, and most disgustingly a staple gun.  The fact that fights like this are going on is very disturbing to me, but it’s all fake right?  Well it is and it isn’t.  The fights are certainly fixed; the wrestlers decide who will win ahead of time.  They are also probably doing everything they can to soften they’re blows, but there are dangers, especially in these small venues that clearly don’t have the same safety standards as the WWE.  For instance, during the film’s first fight Randy cuts himself on the forehead with a razor in order to achieve a blood effect after a blow from his opponent.  Then there’s the aforementioned “hardcore” fight; all those painful implements are used to hurt the fighters, for real, in a scene that far more vicious and disturbing than anything I’ve seen in a slasher film.

            The violence in that “hardcore” scene is not gratuitous; in fact it plays directly into the character’s health problems, his motivation, and a Jesus analogy that runs through the film.  Shortly before that fight the Marisa Tomei character recommends Mel Gibson’s high budget snuff film The Passion of the Christ, pointing out something along the lines of “they throw everything they have at him but he never gave up.”  Of course that bloody violence in that “hardcore” fight is not unlike the floggings which are in Mel Gibson’s film, but to what end?  The point of the biblical passion story is that Jesus suffered for a greater purpose; to save souls or something (my lack of religious inclination is probably showing).  Randy “The Ram” Robinson certainly isn’t trying to save anyone’s soul; he’s suffering to entertain whatever sadistic audience apparently wants to see this. 

At least that’s what he thinks he’s doing, but his real motivation is something darker, something he never admits to himself: he’s addicted, not to narcotics (though he does have a drug problem), but to fame.  His addiction to fame is every bit as self destructive as the addictions Aronofsky depicted in Requiem for a Dream.  This addiction has left Randy every bit as obsessed as the protagonist of Aronofsky’s debut film Pi, but he’s not obsessed with math, he’s obsessed with recapturing his glory days.  This obsession has ruined his family life, led him to abuse the more conventional drug of steroids, and most importantly kept him wrestling long past his prime even after there are major health reproductions for doing so.

The film’s soundtrack will probably be remembered for the self titled Bruce Springsteen folk song that’s already getting Oscar buzz, and that’s a pretty decent thing to be remembered for, but it isn’t what most of the soundtrack is like.  The majority of the film’s music comes from bands like Quiet Riot, Ratt, and Mötley Crüe; that’s right 80s hair metal.  This is not cool music but it’s been chosen wisely for this film because it’s exactly the kind of thing Randy would listen to.  First of all this music is gaudy, commercial, unsophisticated and very masculine; all things that are also emblematic of pro-wrestling.  Secondly, the fact that Randy listens to it fits in perfectly with the character’s obsession with recapturing the 80s.  This is a man who didn’t grow out of this music with everyone else, in fact he gives an entire speech about how “that pussy Cobain” ruined it.  His beef isn’t really with Kurt Cobain, it’s with a culture that moved on and left him behind.

Of course Randy isn’t the only one expounding on the virtues of Ratt in that scene, he finds an unlikely musical ally in Marrisa Tomei’s character.  Tomei is about twelve years younger than Rourke, more importantly she’s a very attractive stripper while he’s an “old broken down piece of meat.”  At first it would seem to strain credibility that she would want to pursue a relationship with him, but it quickly becomes apparent that the two characters are really quite similar.  Cassidy is not a stripper simply because Aronofsky wants to shoot topless scenes. She’s a stripper because that is in many ways the female equivalent of Randy’s profession.  Both are performers in seedy and disreputable stage venues, both put their bodies on display as part of that pursuit, and both are getting a bit too old of their chosen vocation.  The difference is that Tomei’s character is not addicted to her job; unlike Randy she hasn’t tied her identity to her onstage character, which is why she ultimately doesn’t understand how strong the urges driving Randy are.

I’m not overly familiar with the work Mickey Rourke did before he left Hollywood to pursue a boxing career in the early 90s.  I’d seen him in the Robert Rodriguez’ film Sin City where he played likable lug of a character, but there wasn’t much there to prepare me for his work here.  Much has already been written about Mickey Rourke’s amazing performance, and I’m going to try not to dwell on it too much simply because the film deserves better than to be overshadowed by its star.  Suffice it to say that Rourke really does live up to most of the hype that surrounds his work.  This isn’t a theatrical performance like Daniel Day-Lewis’ work in last year’s There Will Be Blood; rather it is a performance that builds a character through careful strokes and subtle decisions.  Interestingly, Rourke has much the same challenge that Anne Hathaway has in this year’s Rachel Getting Married.  Both actors have character who are not particularly lovable and warm people, both do things that make want to dislike them, and yet you sort of have to be with them in their suffering. 

The rest of the cast is solid, but occasionally seems to be rushing to catch up with Rourke.  Tomei is not in quite the same position to show off her acting chops as some of her co-stars, she doesn’t have a big scene and her character doesn’t have as many broad characteristics as Rourkes. Still, through her work she maintains a certain dignity throughout the film that transcends what could have easily been a conventional “hooker with a heart of gold” side character.   Evan Rachel Wood has a smaller role than Tomei’s but it requires a lot more out of her.  She has a scene where she really needs to react to her father in a very direct, very angry way which is broader than anything her co-stars are asked to do.  This could be seen as easier or more challenging depending on your perspective.  Either way she handles the scene as well as can be expected and more or less acquits herself.

Darren Aronofsky’s visual style here is very different form his earlier films, which were a lot more technical.  There are no fast cuts or obvious visual motifs in The Wrestler, its visual style is a lot more conventional and at first glance it doesn’t look like a Darren Aronofsky film at all. This is for the best; firstly because Aronofsky’s old style had probably been taken as far as it needed to beforehand and secondly because this slice of life filmmaking better fits this film which tackles its themes in more subtle ways.  It was a wise reinvention; I was worried about Aronofsky after the failure of The Fountain, but this film solidifies his place among the best auteurs of his generation.

Do not be scared away by the film’s wrestling subject matter, that’s not really what it’s about.  If you dismiss the film for this you’ll be missing out on one of the best character studies we’ve seen in a long time.  This is a very smart, but modest drama, one whose greatness sneaks up on you only after you’ve left the theater.  It’s a film that deserves to be taken seriously and it’s much more than a showcase for Mickey Rourke’s acting comeback.

**** out if Four

DVD Catch Up: The Strangers(1/5/2008)

            There’s an oft-quoted phrase in show business that “dying is easy but comedy is hard.”  This is probably true, comedy is incredibly hard because it’s a genre needs to make audiences react on an almost primal level.  What’s perhaps even harder is horror.  The brave souls who try to make good horror films also need to force an audience to react to something almost by reflex.  This already complicated genre has another big hurdle too, namely that most horror productions are cheap cookie-cutter garbage that studios rush into production because horror fans are easily duped into seeing garbage, thus beefing up their profits.  Still, every once in a while someone is able to get something interesting out of the genre, and the 2008 thriller The Strangers had a really promising trailer.

            The Strangers opens with a title card explaining that what we’re about to see is a true story.  Right.  This tactic of pretending your movie is factually based was cute back in the 70s but who do they think they’re kidding now?  You’d have to be a real moron to think any of this is actually true.  Anyway, the film opens with a youngish couple (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) returning to the house they’re staying at after attending a wedding.  Soon thereafter they hear a knock at the door, a woman asks if someone named Tamera is home, they send her away, but soon they hear another knock.  The atmosphere quickly becomes unpleasant, suddenly a face emerges from the darkness, there’s someone in the house.  The rest of the night these two are terrorized by three seemingly human stalkers wearing masks.

            This is a slasher/home invasion film striped down to its barest elements.  If nothing else, it’s a noble attempt to correct some of the wrongs and pitfalls that these movies frequently fall into.  One of the problems it desperately tries to avoid is this recent trend of giving killers elaborate back stories a mistake that often robs the villains of their mystique and aura.  Rather than go down that route, the film opts to give the killers absolutely no back-story whatsoever, nothing, not even at the end, not even the slightest hint as to why they’re doing all this.  This is sort of a double edged sword, though.  It does indeed avoid giving as much useless detail as Rob Zombie’s Halloween, but in doing so it even fails to give as much back-story as John Carpenter’s Halloween.  Indeed, the killers don’t need a full back-story, but a mere MacGuffin would have been nice, the mystery works for a little while but one quickly begins to seriously wonder why they’re going through all this trouble.

            The first thing one wonders when hearing about this concept is how they can make feature length slasher film with only two possible victims for the oncoming killers.  The answer, frankly, is that they can’t.  The film really cooks for about a half hour but it becomes quickly apparent that there’s really no place for these people to run or hide, they’re doomed, but there’s still another hour of stalking to go.  As such, the killers seem to go through an inordinate amount of trouble in order to draw out the film’s plot.  They spend a lot of time stalking the two and have full control of the situation, but for whatever reason they never seem to go in for the kill.  The film quickly get really redundant after the killers get into the pattern of appear, scare the main people, disappear, and the without any real hope of escape the whole thing quickly becomes an exercise in inevitability.

            Also, while the film avoids some of the genre’s clichés, there are plenty of them that the film still falls into.  The main characters frequently do stupid things rather than escape from the situation.  Also the killers have an annoying habit of being on frame and then disappearing in the second it takes for the character to glance away from the window.  This is something a lot of killers in slasher movies do and it usually has little bearing on logic or the laws of physics.  I sometimes picture these killers running and ducking out of frame in order to outrace the editor for no reason other than to be kind of creepy.  There’s a particularly egregious use of this tactic here where one of the killers taps Scott Speedman on the shoulder only to disappear when he turns around.

            The Strangers is a movie that ultimately doesn’t work, but it’s a noble effort.  Bryan Bertino crafts the movie well and there’s a real attempt on display to make something better than the average Hollywood thriller.  That first half hour really works and it’s unfortunate that it all leads up to a general anticlimax.  Unfortunately this is a movie that tried to be a little too hardcore for its own good.

** out of Four

Frost/Nixon(1/3/2008)

            Frost/Nixon is a film about a nation coming to grips with the career of a horrible war time president after he’s left office in disgrace.  How could that possibly be relevant to our times?  I ask that with all due sarcasm of course, it’s pretty obvious this moment in history is being brought up now because the nation is finally getting rid of another terrible president.  Few people are interested in defending Richard Nixon now, he did some good on broad foreign policy, but his handling of the Vietnam War and the way he dealt with descent at home was incredibly misguided.   Then of course there was Watergate, an event which was probably only the tip of this man’s iceberg of corrupt actions.  Yet, for all of Nixon’s faults there’s still something interesting about him, which is why there have probably been more movies about him then any other president of the twentieth century.  Frost/Nixon is the latest of these efforts; it chronicles the story behind Nixon’s first interview upon leaving office.

            The film begins with Richard M. Nixon (Frank Langella) resigning from office and flying away on a helicopter.  On the other side of the world an ambitious British talk show host named David Frost (Michael Sheen) watches Nixon exist stage left and is inspired, he points out how many people were watching and decides it would be a good business venture to seek an interview with the disgraced former president.  His television colleague John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) advises against this, pointing out that CBS had a standing offer with Nixon for $350,000 and that outbidding them wouldn’t be cheap.  Frost is undeterred and manages to land the interview but at a heavy personal expense.  Frost flies out to California and hires journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and author James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) to help him prepare for the interview which is to last eight hours and be split up over four days, only the final two hour segment will deal with Watergate.

The film’s title indicates that this is very much a story of two halves, Frost and Nixon, of the two Nixon is significantly more interesting.  Many writers and filmmakers have turned Nixon into a sort of Shakespearian tragic figure.   Nixon’s paranoia is seen as a tragic flaw that brought down a man with good intentions.  This was a new and creative observation shortly after his resignation when people started writing about him, it was interesting when Robert Altman put together Secret Honor, and it was even interesting when Oliver Stone of all people managed to find a certain level of sympathy in his biopic.  After almost thirty-five years this isn’t such a novel idea, but it at least it’s worth telling, which is more then I can really say about the Frost half.

The David Frost of this film was no Bob Woodward; he was a fluffy talk show host who managed to strike the jackpot.  This is the main problem the film has; it goes too far in trying to make Frost into a David to Nixon’s goliath.  The film depicts Frost as an entrepreneur without much of a work ethic, he spends most of his time trying to get air-time and spends his time partying before his interviews rather than preparing.  The film then has the audacity to celebrate this man for finally doing his homework at the last minute the weekend before he’s supposed to nail Nixon to the wall.  It’s an incredibly Hollywood tactic, one that greatly lowers the viewer’s respect for the man and exists for no reason other than to add a bunch of fake and unneeded suspense to the story.  I don’t believe for a minute that Frost was really this unprofessional, especially with a project he has so much invested in, and if he was he has no business being celebrated. 

What’s more, I wasn’t really that impressed by the whole interview project to begin with.  The film more or less concedes that the first three interviews were failures, and the feeble confession he manages to squeeze out of Nixon by the end is hardly the grand slam the film seems to think it is.  More importantly, why should I care if Nixon is sorry about what he did?  It’s already been proven through other means that he was a crook, his confession does nothing to set the record straight about the events, it was little more than the typical plea for sympathy that common criminals ask for after they’ve already been convicted and want a lenient sentence.  Polls taken after the interviews aired in 1977 showed that 69% of the public still believed Nixon was covering up information; this was by no means the landmark media event the filmmakers seem to think it is.  It would be like if they released a movie thirty years from now called “Couric/Palin,” about that hilarious interview and depict it as some sort of amazing moment instead of the mild curiosity that it was.  Nixon certainly deserves better than to be compared to that joke of a candidate, but if you think about it Frost isn’t that far removed from Couric, they were both mediocre T.V. personalities who managed to perform slightly more professionally than people expected.

In spite of a premise that I don’t think is really worthy of all this fuss, the film could have still worked if it had been done right, but that wasn’t the case here.  I think part of the problem is that this is movie based on a play based on news reports based on real events, it’s been filtered too far and the filmmakers might have been better off starting from scratch.  The film suffers from the usual problems films have with stage adaptations, it’s told through a series of long conversations and isn’t meant to be cinematic.  Most stage adaptations like Doubt and Glengarry Glenross deal with this problem by not dealing with it, they go ahead and set the films in one building and as a result the audience can adjust and accept the movies for what they are.  Frost/Nixon doesn’t do this, it does everything it can to look like a normal movie while having all the same problems that stage adaptations have, thus emphasizing them rather than de-emphasizing them.

What’s worse, I don’t really think this is much of a script.  The film has a lot of really clunky exposition, it explains way too much while talking about its themes in very direct and inelegant ways.  This is exemplified by a scene right before the first interview where Nixon points out that he’ll be holding a handkerchief to wipe perspiration off the top of his lip; so far so good, that’s a nice reference, but the moment is completely ruined when he goes on to tell the same story about his televised debate with Kennedy that any educated viewer will have already heard dozens of times.  Peter Morgan and Ron Howard should have trusted the audience to make that connection without their long winded explanation.  There’s a lot of stuff like that here, later on the film spends entire scenes clumsily explaining all the movie’s themes rather than just leaving them there for the audience to pick up themselves.

Ultimately Ron Howard, a director I’ve never been a fan of, is responsible for a lot of the film’s problems.  Howard has a long history of making movies filled with Hollywood clichés and then making them very bland to boot.  Here he makes the mistake of trying to adopt a docudrama style which frankly torpedoes this entire movie.  The film frequently drops into faux-interviews with supporting characters giving talking head interviews that did nothing but interrupt the film’s pacing in order to make comments which, like a lot of the script, talk directly to the themes while giving patronizing clarifications about the on screen action.

The one thing about the film that really lives up to its pedigree is the acting.  Frank Langella doesn’t work particularly well as an impression; he doesn’t really that look that much like Nixon and his voice is a fairly caricatured.  Rather, Langella’s work excels here because he can deliver the emotional payoff that his scenes require.  Phillip Baker Hall’s work in Secret Honor remains the definitive Nixon performance, but Langella earns his place in the pantheon.  Sheen is also impressive, he doesn’t have a character with the same dramatic opportunities as Langella’s, but he does makes Frost a lot more likable then he should be.  Langella and Sheen both played their respective roles on stage in London and on Broadway before embarking on the film adaptation.  Ron Howard deserves kudos for using them for the film, I’m sure he was given pressure to cast people with a little more bankability but he made the right choice.

The supporting cast is also pretty good.  I especially like Sam Rockwell as a passionate author driven to give Nixon the tough interrogation he deserves, this character was a lot more interesting to me then David Frost and I wish he had more screen time.   John Birt and Bob Zelnick are also good sidekicks in the film and Rebecca Hall does the best she can in a fairly uninteresting and thankless role as a woman Frost meets on a plane and sort of hangs around for the rest of the movie.  Kevin Bacon is fine in the sort of stern disciplined henchman type that he could probably play in his sleep at this point.  I did not like Toby Jones’ turn as a book publisher, though that opinion may be clouded by his distractingly bad makeup and bald cap.

In the end, Frost/Nixon is a very well acted movie that has its moments, but for the most part it is agonizingly middlebrow and lifeless.  It’s the same kind formulaic Hollywood movie Ron Howard has made his career on, but unlike those films it isn’t honest enough to commit to its own corniness, instead it pretends to be the type of serious historical analysis that it clearly isn’t.

** out of Four

DVD Catch Up: Chop Shop(1/2/2008)

            As an amateur critic, I’m deprived a lot of things that my professional colleagues have access to, namely paychecks and advanced screenings.  But another thing I miss out on is the film festival experience, the chance to hike out to places like Telluride and Toronto to watch small movies for hours on end, and to get a feel for what filmmakers who are more than a little bit outside of the Hollywood mainstream are doing.  Of course I could just hike out to places like Cannes on my own… but the aforementioned lack of paychecks tends to get in the way of that.  But, while I’ve never been to the Sundance film festival, I do get the Sundance channel on my cable service, and that’s where I discovered a beautiful little film called Man Push Cart.

            Man Push Cart was a very small film set on the streets of New York; it followed an Iranian immigrant working out of a vending cart as he simply tried to make ends meet.  It was a very good meditation on the American Dream.  Man Push Cart introduced (a few) audiences to a very talented director named Ramin Bahrani, a man who is now one of the most promising talents in the independent film world.  Earlier this year Bahrani released his second film, another slice of life about someone trying to survive in an unsavory area of New York called Chop Shop.

            The film follows Ale (Alejandro Polanco), a pre-adolescent orphan working at and living in the attic of a seedy Chop Shop in Queens.  Ale has never gone to school, with no intention of being scooped up by child protective services his only means of survival is a life of (very) petty crime.  He first works at the Chop Shop, but his criminal activity escalates throughout the film to include the sale of bootleg DVDs to theft.  One day he learns that his sixteen year old sister Izzy (Isamar Gonzales) is going to come live with him in the Chop Shop attic.  Once they reunite Ale tells her of an opportunity he has to buy a vending van, an object that could change their lives.

            Bahrani clearly takes inspiration from the Italian neorealists with his approach to filmmaking.  He shows the stark realities of poor areas with stark, documentary-like filmmaking in real locations and from the use of non-actors.  The grainy photography that categorized the movement back in the day has been replaced by sharp digital photography.  I’ve come to admire the video-like look of some digital photography, it’s not pretty but it has the ability to see the world the way the human eye does, it’s stark, untouched, un-calculated; it’s the perfect medium for something that’s as gritty as the material here. 

            The non-actors are also pretty good here, in that way non actors can be.  Alejandro Polanco is consistently articulate and believable in his role as a street urchin, Isamar Gonzales isn’t quite as good as his sister, but she doesn’t hurt the film at all.  Ahmad Razvi, who played the lead character in Man Push Cart, has a supporting role here.  Razvi is a very good screen presence and it’s nice to see him getting more work (these two films are his only credited roles).  A kid named Carlos Zapata plays Ale’s friend and fellow street kid.

            Chop Shop is a sad film, but it isn’t depressing.  The world Ale lives in is a very unpleasant place for a kid to be in, but it doesn’t dwell on his misery, rather it’s about his struggle to improve his life through day to day work and saving.  It’s another meditation on the American Dream from Ramin Bahrani, and I can’t wait to see what this man makes next.

***1/2 out of Four