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“Frost/Nixon” a nail-biting battle of wits

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen face off in the tense "Frost/Nixon."

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen face off in the tense "Frost/Nixon."

There’s power in punctuation that words sometimes can’t match. Don’t buy that? Take a gander at the title of screenwriter/playwright Peter Morgan’s retelling of 1977 interviews between TV personality David Frost (Michael Sheen) and former U.S. president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella): “Frost/Nixon.” That’s a slash — not a hyphen, not a dash — and the subtext is pointed. It suggests a commonality; it means Frost and Nixon. Look closer and that slash becomes a little more hostile:  It means Frost or Nixon. Frost versus Nixon.

So which is it? Is “Frost/Nixon” a movie about a meeting of the minds, 0r is it an intellectual jousting match? Answer: It’s both, thanks to the nimble yet complex script adapted from a play by Morgan (“The Queen”). Both Frost and Nixon are men in search of something. For Frost, a superstar in Australia, it’s the chance to achieve American fame; for Nixon, it’s a shot at cleaning up his image while collecting a cool $600,000. But shared interests matter little in a duel, since only one man can walk away the victor.

Oh, what a fight this is. Sheen is Frost, a charismatic playboy who’s equal parts Wayne Gayle (minus the Aussie twang) and Oscar Wilde. His show’s a cheeky hit in Australia, but he lusts for U.S. fame. “There’s nothing like it,” he tells his producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen). And coaxing Nixon into an on-camera apology for Watergate, Frost figures, will win him plenty of Yank fans. He hires two investigators — Bob Zelnick (a delightfully droll Oliver Platt) and professor/author James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) — to dig up dirt on Watergate and figures his work is practically done.

But Frost understimates Nixon, who comes armed with a formidable PR team led by his doggedly loyal post-presidential chief of staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon). Nixon’s quicker than Frost, more practiced in twisting words, and there’s an impish gleam in the former president’s eye that suggests he delights in the challenge.

You see, it’s expactly this serve/return, advance/retreat strategy that makes “Frost/Nixon” so captivating. Morgan taps into something visceral and elemental, a kind of survival-of-the-fittest instinct that, at times, makes “Frost/Nixon” feel like a National Geographic documentary about a lioness stalking a wounded gazelle. Part of the excitement comes from watching Sheen and Langella trade roles; you’re never quite sure who’s the lion and who’s the gazelle, and every time the answer seems clear it’s not. Even those who’ve seen the interviews will be left wondering. Morgan’s that good. Perhaps he’s scored a breakthrough with this one.

Credit, too, must go to Sheen and Langella, who redefine the “less is more” approach to acting. Here are two actors who have a formidable command of facial expressions. This is a movie where the beauty is in the expressions and body language. Nobody but nobody does fear and awkwardness like Sheen (he bests his performance in “The Queen” by leaps and bounds). Watch him sweep uncomfortable grimaces into big, toothy, fake smiles that don’t quite reach his eyes. That’s where the magic happens — his eyes. They give everything away. There’s a sadness, and later, a steely resolve there that suggest Frost is far more than some shallow dandy.

And yes, there’s a reason Langella earned an Oscar nod for his work as Nixon. His Nixon is a tricky one, alright, a man with an uncanny ability to worm his way out of nearly any trap. Still, Langella conveys more emotions with one frown, one sideways glance, one arched eyebrow than most actors can in pages of dialogue. But he can be explosive. There’s a phone call (fictionalized apparently) between interviewer and interviewee where Langella lets loose a near-volcanic explosion of anger. It’s frightening to behold, but try to turn away. This is the kind of multi-layered performance Oscars were made for.

Layers. Yes, “Frost/Nixon” is all about layers — of emotions, of meaning, of subtleties, of complexities. And those layers are what make this simply done but immensely powerful docudrama one of the year’s best films.

Grade: A

“Gran Torino” introduces Eastwood’s darkest character yet

Eastwood (sort of) befriends neighbor Thao (Bee Vang) in "Gran Torino."

Eastwood (sort of) befriends neighbor Thao (Bee Vang) in "Gran Torino."

There’s a line in “Gran Torino,” Clint Eastwood’s snarling, snapping bulldog of a movie, that resonates like no other. “The thing that haunts a guy,” Korean War vet Walt Kowalski growls to a priest, “is the stuff he wasn’t ordered to do.”  Holed up on a porch with a loaded shotgun, a six-pack and a steely glare, Eastwood’s Kowalski is overrun with demons he’s too stubborn to let loose. He’s fighting a private war, and even saying “hello” to his Asian neighbors, for this man, means admitting defeat.

It’s a smart move on Eastwood’s part, playing Kowalski as a tight-lipped, racist S.O.B., because it makes for a hateful yet endlessly fascinating character. He delights in lobbing every racial slur he knows — and some, I believe, he gleefully made up — at the Hmong family next door, yet he rescues the oldest daughter Sue (Ahney Her, a spritely find who holds her own against Eastwood) from a group of neighborhood thugs. He’s openly hateful to Sue’s brother, the quiet, studious Thao (Bee Vang), but scares away the Hmong gangbangers recruiting the boy. Walt’s an exercise in contradiction, but Eastwood never goes for excess; every mean squint, every barbed comment is deliberate.

So, too, are the elements of the story Eastwood uses to draw us in. The Detroit Ford auto plant retiree, who’s just buried his wife, believes he’s got no use for anyone or anything besides his beer, his gun, his 1972 Ford Gran Torino and his porch. Then he catches Thao trying to steal his prized car, and Sue offers Thao’s services as an apology. Later, Walt grimly accepts an invitation to eat dinner with Sue’s family, where he looks at everyone with disgust he doesn’t try to hide. But slowly Sue and Thao draw the crotchedy misanthrope into their lives, and slowly Walt starts to care about something other than insulting or shooting at them.

Wait. That last sentences makes “Gran Torino” sound like some chintzy remake of “Finding Forrester.” Far from it — the beauty of “Gran Torino” is the hardness Eastwood brings to Kowalski. Sure, he does “good deeds,” even helps people he downright hates, but Walt’s not the hero. He’s the other guy, and he’s plenty happy to keep right on being him until he’s six feet under. There’s something refreshing about an actor who gives voice to the other guys: the William Munnys, the Luther Whitneys, the Frankie Dunns. Kowalski might be hardest hardass Eastwood’s ever played. This is Oscar-caliber work, plain and simple.

Then again, Eastwood’s made a very fine career of writing and playing Oscar-worthy outsiders. He knows those guys are far more intriguing than heroes. And he also knows the outsiders go out with a bang, not a whimper. So if it’s true that “Gran Torino” signals Eastwood’s retirement from acting, well, it’s one hell of a way to go.

Grade: A

This list (it’s criminal)

So you remember my friend, the Comedian? He’s about 347 kinds of helpful when it comes to Internet surfing and useful/thought-provoking/cringe-with-laughter-inducing link e-mailing. Today was no exception. You see, he sent me The List.

(Note: If you don’t know what list I’m talking about, run away from you computer at various high rates of speed because I’m about to hurl this 400-year-old stapler that I really, really hate at you.)

That’s right. When I opened my inbox, there it was: The List of Oscar Nominees. I saw, I read, I pondered … and let me just say it’s a good thing our American culture frowns up the tradition of killing the messenger.

In short, the news, well, overall it wasn’t good. In fact, it was bad in ways that I had expected and emotionally prepared for but still caught me totally off-guard.

OK, I’ll go ahead and point out that shy, unassuming little elephant cowering in the corner: Aside from Heath Ledger’s nom for Best Supporting Actor, “The Dark Knight” was shut out from virtually every category not involving cinematography, art direction, score, etc.

Am I surprised, shocked, taken aback? No. Am I peeved, pissed, irked, miffed and, oh, about 1,275 other synonyms for “angry”? You already know that answer.

From here I could explode into a long, bitter, profanity-laden diatribe about all that is wrong with the Oscars and the Globes and their selection process. (How much time do you have? Oh, right, infinite amounts — you’re reading this online! I have a captive audience!) But I will spare you. It almost goes without saying that I am disheartened, disgusted and a variety of other words that begin with the “dis” prefix at this snubbery (a combo of “snobbery” and “snubbing”). What this tells me is that a) the Oscar folks are plumb idiots and b) movies that happen to rake in bucks in theaters always will be considered “movies” and not “films.” “The Dark Knight” is a film, pure and simple, a dark, brilliant work of art and of artistry, and the fact that it did not merit inclusion in Best Picture makes me all clenchy inside.

I propose a revolution, a complete and utter overhaul of the system. Who’s with me? Dorothy Boyd, are you with me?

But best not to rage, rage against the idiocy of the Oscars for too long because they did get a few things right. “Slumdog” and “Milk” get Best Picture nods, while directors Danny Boyle and Gus Van Sant got much-deserved recognition in Best Director. Meryl Streep, who I suspect gets an Oscar nomination for scrubbing scunge off the shower wall, got props for her chilly work in “Doubt,” as did Anne Hathaway for “Rachel Getting Married.” Best Supporting Actor will be one hell of a race, with Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Doubt”), Robert Downey Jr. (“Tropic Thunder”) and Heath Ledger all deserving that fake-gold statuette. The same goes for Best Supporting Actress — I felt a joygasm when I saw Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) and Viola Davis (“Doubt”) got nods for their very fine work.

But someone tell me: In what BIZARRO UNIVERSE are we living in when Brad Pitt gets a Best Actor nomination for a monotone part he PHONED IN and Clint Eastwood gets snubbed for “Gran Torino,” which is easily his best acting work since “Unforgiven”? If Angelina Jolie really had any sense of heart or decency, she’d take five minutes out of her busy schedule of accumulating (I mean adopting) thin foreign children and boycott her accolades, telling Oscar to “stick it” because Eastwood EARNED that nom for her. It was a part anyone could have garnered critical acclaim for. Hell, my dog could have gotten a nomination for a part that dark, twisty and well-written, and frankly my dog’s lips aren’t half as distracting as Angelina’s.

But I digress. My point, you see, is that the world at large is headed to Hades in a flaming red handbasket and the Oscar people are peddaling with the same peculiar brand of vigor Paris uses to find her new BFFL.

Which reminds me … I think I once made some noise about renouncing the world and auditioning for that very role if the Oscars ignored “The Dark Knight.” I’d be happy to pay up, you see, but I think that honor must fall to the person who sent me The List.

I mean, since killing the messenger is verboten, I think this would be acceptable according to the Geneva Convention.

WWVMD? Why, she’d make a movie

Kristen Bell may revive "Veronica Mars" in a movie by creator Rob Thomas.

Blondes have more fun: Kristen Bell may revive "Veronica Mars" in a movie by creator Rob Thomas.

I’ve got a secret. A good one.

OK, no need to bug my cell phone or probe my alibi; I’ll ‘fess up. Truth be told, this “secret” isn’t really a secret — I did, after all, find it on the Internet, where information is neither secret nor sacred — so much as an infonugget I must share immediately before my head explodes (and this cannot happen, as I am wearing a new shirt that a) was expensive and b) I like very much).

Are you ready? Are you sitting down? I am going to blow your mindhole. Finally, after ONE WHOLE YEAR AND THEN SOME of waiting, it is official: A “Veronica Mars” movie is in the works!

(Though I’m not particularly clairvoyant, let me guess what you’re thinking: Who is this “Veronica Mars” and why in the wide wide world of sports do I care that there’s going to be a movie about her?)

Gee, I’m glad you asked. You see, there’s nothing this reviewer loves more than bending an ear — or an eye, as the case may be — about one of the smartest, funniest, most inventive TV shows ever to meet an untimely, unmerited cancellation.

Since I’m a fan of film noir (particularly when the Coens take a stab at it), it shouldn’t surprise you that “Veronica Mars” has that sort of dark, mysterious atmosphere. It’s film noir by way of “Sweet Valley High” with snappy, pop-culture dropping “Gilmore Girls” dialogue with “Twin Peaks”-style plot twists and whodunnits. Oh, and the heroine, Veronica Mars, is a ball-busting teen private detective who — gasp! — who gives that whole “Dumb Blonde” stereotype a sharp, swift kick in the ‘nads … and then stuns it with a Taser for good measure.

But all this summary is just summary; to truly understand how this magical mish-mash of genres works, you have to see it. Don’t be fooled by the fact it was a WB show. Unlike, say, “One Tree Hill” or other such swill, “VM” is smart, satisfying viewing. Chances are, though, that if you’re reading this blog you have the kind of finely-tuned, discerning palate that would appreciate a show — and now a movie! — that features nontraditional characters and a twisty spiderweb of plots and subplots that force viewers to (dare I say it?) use their brains, not their channel-changing finger. So log on to Netflix and put “VM” in your queue. Then and only then will you begin to understand the many onion-like layers to my excitement at the mere hint of a movie.

Read the full story of this long-awaited project at http://movies.yahoo.com/news/movies.eonline.com/79975-.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going home to express my exuberance in in a place where no one — except possibly my dog — will eye me warily before backing away ever so slowly.

Coming soon: Full reviews of “Gran Torino” and “Last Chance Harvey”….

The good, bad, and the WTF?: A Globes recap

Mickey Rourke ego-stroking faithful canine companions everywhere, Little Film that Could “Slumdog” three-upping chum-for-critics “Benjamin Button,” Colin Farrell winning an award for something other than his wondrous, multi-layered, capable-of-independent-thought unibrow … what a long, strange trip last night’s Golden Globes were.

And, as with any strange trip, there were genuine moments of splendor and wonder (me), a few touches of giddiness (me again), a trickle of confusion (also me), and a smattering of profanity-laden rants at horrid, horrid injustices (do you have to ask?).

Let’s start with the moments of childlike wonder and revery: Heath Ledger’s win for his iconic turn as The Joker in “The Dark Knight.” Yes, my eyes got a little damp. I mean, I do have two eyes and a heart, don’t I? Then there was what I’m calling the “Slumdog Shutdown.” This less-is-more dramedy/coming-of-age beauty beat over-the-top “Benjamin Button” not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES. Can I get an “amen,” please? And color me muy, muy allegre: Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” snatched up Best Musical or Comedy. Finally, there’s Paul “I Get No Respect, No Respect” Giamatti getting his props for his S-E-N-S-A-T-I-O-N-A-L work in “John Adams.” Had the awards ended this way, I could have died a happy, happy girl.

But since this is Hollywood, where people alternately list “Botox” and “Scientology” as religions, confusion did appear: “30 Rock” bested “The Office” as the Best TV Comedy, and Steve Carell was robbed — in great highway fashion; it was like a carjacking, really, only less violent — when Alec Baldwin won as Best TV Comic actor. I have one question, Globers: How dare you? Sure, “30 Rock” is quippy and zippy, but it can’t approach the awkward, lovable, undeniably human appeal of “The Office.” And though I’ll drink to Alec Baldwin being the one Baldwin bro with any level of talent, he can’t hold a candle to Carell, whose Michael Scott is the greatest TV character since, oh, I dunno, EVER.

I could devote an entire novel to the Charismatic Weirdness (note the capitalization) that is Mickey Rourke. More and more, I’m starting to believe he’s the end result of a cross-pollination of John Malkovich (sheer strangeness, that I-could-turn-homicidal-in-60-seconds-or-less look about the eyes) and Johnny Depp (who, it would seem, was the subject of the photograph Mickey took to his friendly neighborhood plastic surgeon). He’s quite the “character,” this one, but he can act.

Which brings us to the third state of being I experienced last night: rage. Pure and unadulterated. Expressed verbally with a torrent of colorful four-letter words and physically with a number of things — a pillow, that copy of “Moby Dick” I can’t even give away, the remote, my faith in humanity — being hurled with great force at my unsuspecting television. You see, it seems that Colin Farrell beat out James Franco for Best Performance in Musical or Comedy. NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO. No. N-O. This is wrong on so many levels; if you do not understand this, I cannot explain it to you. It’s like “Monty Python”: You get it or you don’t. But it figures. Forever cast in throwaway, stand-still/look-pretty roles, Franco finally gets some recognition for his superb comedic chops … and they hand the award to a pretty boy who couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag. I am beside myself. You can’t see me, but I am still so angry I am literally standing beside myself hitting my own self on my own head with my own hand.

Then there’s that business with Kate Winslet cheating Viola Davis or Penelope Cruz out of a well-deserved Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture. Trust me, readers, when I say that I heart Kate — she was brilliant in “Quills” and “Eternal Sunshine” and “Heavenly Creatures”; essentially, she’s brilliant in anything — but she already won for Best Actress for “Revolutionary Road.” She’s not that good. Even Meryl Streep doesn’t drive home with two awards in hand. Am I the only one without a blatant disregard for logical thinking here? I missed “The Reader,” and I don’t doubt Winslet was fantastic, but give me a break. Hey, judges, give someone else a chance. Like Davis, who has a five-minute cameo in “Doubt” guaranteed to make your jaw drop and your hands shake, or Cruz, who is crazy-sexy-dangerous-cool as a hot bipolar artist in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” This was the epitome of a poor judgment call.

So there you have it: the scuttlebutt — warts and all — about the Golden Globes. I find it hard to believe next year could top it. Unless, of course, Farrell shows up with two eyebrows.

Now that’s something I’d pay good money to see.

Quick Picks: “Valkyrie,” “Yes Man”

“Valkyrie” (Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson)

In “Tropic Thunder,” he did the unthinkable: resurrected an air-sucking, headed-toward-the-light acting career. Does he do it again in “Valkyrie,” Brian Singer’s tense, understated thriller about a failed 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, seize control of Germany and wave a white flag to the Allies? Not quite. Then again, Cruise’s in-control performance as party loyalist-turned-traitorous schemer Col. Claus von Stauffenberg isn’t meant for show. Neither is Singer’s somber, commendably even-handed creation . Every scene is measured and precise, planned and executed with military-like precision. The same goes for the film’s best performances — Wilkinson’s buttoned-up, duplicitious Gen. Friedrich Fromm is bone-chilling, while Branagh practically sweats sheer desperation. If it all seems a little too muted and by-the-book, beware: the tension surprises you, and so does “Valkyrie.”

Grade: B+

“Yes Man” (Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Terence Stamp)

A movie about a man who says “yes” to every question? Sounds like the makings of a) Eddie Murphy’s moronical, pratfall-heavy next project or b) a tender, smartly observed comedy about life and learning. Wrong. But either movie might be better than the disappointingly blah “Yes Man.” Carrey tries hard as Danny, a sourpuss who keeps life at bay until a self-help guru (Terence Stamp) convinces him to open up. Enter the ever-quirky Deschanel as Allison, Danny’s polar-opposite love interest. Shock of shocks, Deschanel and Carrey have a delightfully peppery chemistry. And Carrey has a zippy rapport with Brit Rhys Darby, who plays Norman, his adorably zany dolt of a boss (think Michael Scott a la “The Office”). But don’t expect the same kind of zing from “Yes Man,” which tries so hard to be ingratiating and cute that it’s about as sincere as, well, a real-life yes man.

Grade: C

Blogging means (sometimes) changing your mind

counterfeiters

Karl Markovics plays an enterprising counterfeiter in Nazi-era drama "The Counterfeiters."

As a general rule, I don’t change my Top 10 Films of the Year lists. Call me stubborn, uppity, unflinchingly rigid, even snobbish. My response? “Sticks and stones, my friend, sticks and stones.” My year-long project always unfolds thusly: I watch; I love/loathe/don’t care/feel dead inside; I list; I order; I publish. It is a method, and I like to think there is little madness in it (unless you count inflexibility as madness).

This year was no different, except maybe that I got a few movies in — “Doubt,” “Milk” and “Slumdog Millionaire” — BARELY under the wire. In the name of the Great Holy Aardvark, I’d made my list and I was sticking to it.

And then, as it often happens, my own rule came back to bite me in the place I fell on twice playing racquetball today.

You see, I followed my own “10 is the number, no more, and ties are allowed” rule — which, I believe, falls somewhere below “Thou shalt not expect deep meaning in any movie starring Pauly Shore, Rob Schneider or Anna Farris” — but remembered there were four excellent movies that were left in the cold, all sad-eyed and forlorn-like, just waiting for someone to put them on some form of “best of 2008” list. 

Cut to the creation of the Four Honorable Mentions of 2008 list. Why just four? Well, you might say I’m throwing caution to the wind. Shield your face, readers; all this caution might just scratch a cornea or two.

And 2008’s Honorable Mentions go to …

1) “The Counterfeiters” — They say a truly great movie (like a truly great book) reveals something new to you every time you watch it. In that case, I can scarcely wait to see IFC’s “The Counterfeiters” again, because the first viewing left me speechless (imagine that) and in tears. Karl Markovics leads a talented German cast as Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch, a boozy, opportunistic counterfeiter who decides to use his trade to save himself — and his comrades — from certain death in a Nazi concentration camp. As an actor, Markovics is a wonder; he plays it straight, eschewing melodrama, yet somehow expresses a near-unbearable mix of guilt and relief hidden behind his sunken eyes. If Oscar ignores this one the way it ignored “Dark Knight,” I will renounce life and audition for the role of Paris’ new BFFL.

2) “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” — Some will howl in disbelief that “Benjamin Button” didn’t make my Top 10 list. I have my reasons, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy David Fincher’s expansive, beautifully lensed and surprisingly unsappy tale of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), a most unusual New Orleans lad born old who grows younger each day. Quite the opposite: There’s much here to like, even love, here, from the vivid, storybook-like characters (Jared Harris is memorable as drunken, jovial Captain Mike, and Tilda Swinton is impeccable as a woman who’s lost touch with her dreams) to the costumes and stunning make-up to the mind-blowingly awesome CGI effects. “Benjamin Button” is one hell of a fantastic visual experience.

3) “Body of Lies” — It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes Ridley Scott makes a truly intelligent, explosive, well-acted thriller that no one pays much atttention to. Enter “Body of Lies,” perhaps one of the best action films released post-9/11 about American spy ops in the Middle East. Does it get better than Leonardo DiCaprio as a harried spy sent spinning like a demented top by his wily boss (a superb Russell Crowe) and a Jordanian intelligence operative (Mark Strong) who suffers fools violently? When Crowe quips “nobody’s innocent,” expect goosebumps.

4) “The Bank Job” — When it comes to bank robberies, things tend to go wrong even when they go right. And nowhere is that more evident than in Roger Donaldson’s sleek and stylish “The Bank Job.” Based on the true story of the 1971 Baker Street robbery in London, this action-packed caper is tense in all the right places, populated with lesser-known actors that don’t distract by “acting,” with enough twists and double-crosses to make a popcorn refill run a cardinal sin. Top that with a surprising performance by stone-faced actionhound Jason Statham and you’ve got one of the most entertaining movies of 2008.