Archive for December 2008

Revolutionary Road

December 26, 2008

If there’s any unifying theme in the director Sam Mendes’ work, it’s disappointment. The morose father-son power games in Road to Perdition; the soldiers who don’t get to see the combat they crave in Jarhead; and of course Kevin Spacey’s suburban malaise in American Beauty. To be an American man, according to Mendes, is to settle for less. Revolutionary Road, Mendes’ new film, based on Richard Yates’ acclaimed but (until this adaptation) all but forgotten novel, is almost a proto-American Beauty. Once again, an American couple withers and dies inside the empty life demanded of them by the great suburban premise: Everyone’s the same, everyone’s pleasant, nobody rocks the boat or wants more than the job, the marriage, the children, the nice house.

What’s the point now, though, of adapting Yates’ closely observed novel? Yates meant to bemoan the ‘50s-era conformity of a nation born in tumult and revolt — hence the book’s ironic title. There’s little of Yates’ wit in the movie (written for the screen by Justin Haythe), and that’s not all that’s missing. In the book, a day or so after a typical fight between youngish couple Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Kate Winslet), the pair’s two children want to help Frank lay a stone path in the front yard. Their presence annoys Frank, who eventually snaps at them, sending them crying to April. This scene isn’t in the movie, and the kids barely are either. They’re conveniently absent a lot of the time so that Frank and April can go at each other in ferocious spats that play for all the world like acting workshops.

April proposes that they tear themselves away from deadening suburbia and move to Paris — Frank hates his job anyway, and it might be fun for April to bring home the bacon for a change while Frank thinks about what he really wants to do with his life. But you know what they say about how to make the gods laugh. As it goes on, Revolutionary Road starts to feel like a tepid rewrite of a Douglas Sirk weepie, without Sirk’s blend of soap opera and just plain opera — the suffering in his films was outsized, Wagnerian. The people here just seem petulant, and despite the histrionics of DiCaprio (this isn’t his best work) and Winslet (who gets one of those patented contemptuous laughing jags — it almost derails her entire performance) the Wheelers are never much more than abstract sketches of conformist angst.

What worked and was funny in the novel is near-unplayable onscreen. I’m thinking of a scene with Kathy Bates as the twittering mother of a mental case (Michael Shannon, too aware he’s got a scene-stealing role); when the nutjob — the movie’s only voice of reason, get it? — starts spouting off, Bates springs up and starts nattering on about the window view, which is in the book, but here it sounds like amateur theater. Every so often, Thomas Newman sadly tickles the ivories on the soundtrack, clueing us in that this is a great tragedy; the movie is a throwback not to ‘50s melodrama but to some of the more self-important Oscar bait of the ‘80s.

If I felt for anyone in the film, it’s poor Shep Campbell (David Harbour), who often invites the Wheelers over for drinks with him and his wife Milly (Kathryn Hahn). Shep has his own thoughts about the Wheelers’ Paris trip, and the blockishly handsome Harbour, who would’ve looked at ease in a Sirk weeper, communicates more outlaw yearning than DiCaprio or Winslet are allowed. The movie ends exactly as the book does, except that in Yates it had a caustic tang in keeping with the rest of the prose, whereas here it just seems misogynistic. Mendes tries to paint as much without words as he can — the image of an obviously slept-on couch speaks volumes — but the movie is, like the Wheelers’ lives, well-appointed but hollow. It turns out there was a reason nobody made a film out of Revolutionary Road for so many years: the book is the prose, the voice, the viewpoint. Take that away and you have squabbling and clichés.

The Spirit

December 25, 2008

I guess I’m going to have to be that guy — the one who genuinely enjoyed Frank Miller’s uber-stylized adaptation of Will Eisner’s comic The Spirit. My brothers and sisters in the critical community, I salute you, but I must part ways with you here.

First and foremost, The Spirit is Frank Miller having a grand old time. I appreciate that. And I’ve gone back and forth on Miller in recent years — I was a fan of his comic-book art and writing way back in the Daredevil days. But in the last few years — starting with The Dark Knight Strikes Back, his controversial, freewheeling sequel to his seminal Batman: The Dark Knight Returns — Miller’s name has become mud among comics fans. They feel betrayed. They mock his increasingly loose artwork, his alleged obsession with prostitutes, his instant-parody dialogue (“I’m the goddamn Batman” from Miller’s recent All-Star Batman and Robin quickly became an internet meme among Batfans).

What they don’t understand, I think, is that Miller has come to a place where he does what he wants. What you see on the page — and, in The Spirit, on the screen — is exactly what he wanted to put there. And what he wants to do these days is to have fun. He became, with The Dark Knight Returns, the American king of grim ‘n’ gritty superhero comics (Alan Moore crowned himself the British king of same with Watchmen). He didn’t necessarily want all superhero comics to follow his lead. But they did. So what was Miller going to do to stay fresh, to march to his own beat? Well, the exact opposite of grim ‘n’ gritty. Thus his two much-derided Batman projects, which I now read as Miller’s attempt to inject some good old-fashioned escapist jollies into the clenched, self-serious superhero subgenre. “These are people who dress up and fight crime,” Miller seemed to say. “We’re taking it deadly seriously why?”

Will Eisner’s Spirit was never particularly serious, either. Eisner’s best work can probably be found in his later graphic novels (like the revered A Contract with God), but The Spirit was where he goofed around and, almost by accident, revolutionized comics storytelling by throwing bolts of cinematic electricity. The Spirit, a pulpy adventure series pitting noble masked hero Denny Colt against nefarious villains and gorgeous dames, was Eisner’s toy box, his space to try things out. Put Eisner and Miller together (the two were friends before Eisner died in 2005) and you get a massive, fetishistic buffet full of whatever Miller loved about Eisner’s work, with side dishes full of Miller’s own preoccupations. For instance, Miller clearly thinks Nazi uniforms look cool. Nazi regalia have popped up in his comics from time to time. So, here, in one scene, with no explanation, the villainous Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) and his disdainful assistant Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) rock SS garb. In another scene, the Octopus has a samurai thing going on.

The plot is essentially the Spirit (Gabriel Macht, this generation’s Sam J. Jones — who, besides being Flash Gordon, also played the Spirit in a forgotten TV movie) and the Octopus going at each other. For variety, there’s the Spirit’s childhood sweetie Sand Serif, who has become, in the curvaceous person of Eva Mendes, a swank jewel thief. The Spirit’s major weakness is women. Miller, I think, can relate. He photographs them adoringly — Johansson, Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Paz Vega, Jaime King, the adorably enthusiastic Stana Katic, and so on. The Spirit is awash in stoic heterosexual chivalry — this hero would almost be content just to look at women, to catch their scent, to know they occupy the same sidewalk he does.

The look of the film (aided by master cinematographer Bill Pope) caught some flack because critics who saw the similarly hued Sin City enjoyed hypothesizing that Miller (who was given a co-director credit on that Robert Rodriguez adaptation of his comics) could only make movies in monochrome, with ostentatious pops of color. If so, who cares? Who else makes movies that look like this, and look so beautiful? The Spirit also seems to unfold in some strange time warp, where the costumes and attitudes are strict 1940s but there are also cell phones and camcorders. “What year is it?” a doctor asks the Spirit. “This year,” answers the hero, who, like Miller, won’t be tied down to any one era.

I guess a movie this brassy, sumptuous, and unafraid of what-the-hell effects, gags and visuals isn’t enough for a lot of people. I don’t really know why. Miller packs every silvery, snow-flecked frame with toys for the eyes; he loves good girls and goes absolutely sappy over bad girls; he even throws in his own storyboard art over the end credits. He puts more of himself into this movie than 90% of the competition ever do into their movies. For this he’s run out of town on a rail and tossed into movie jail? Why do so many people hate fun?

My Obligatory Top Ten Movies of 2008

December 23, 2008

top-tenEvery year the pundits say movies have never been worse. But there are still terrific films out there, even if we sometimes have to wait till they hit DVD to catch them. 2008 isn’t quite over yet, and there are still a few year-end movies I haven’t caught up with, but as of this writing these are the ten best films I saw this year. Look for them on DVD. (more…)

The Wrestler

December 17, 2008

Mickey Rourke is a beast in The Wrestler, though, of course, one with heart and soul. His character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, used to be huge on the wrestling circuit in the ‘80s. Now, after countless mistakes and the body slams of time itself, Randy lives in a trailer (when not forced to sleep in his van when he can’t make the rent) and pops painkillers to get through the day. He works part-time at a supermarket, lugging boxes back and forth. He still wrestles; the ring and the milieu itself (the locker room, the flea-bitten conventions where he sells memorabilia) are the only places he gets any respect.

The Wrestler, written (by Robert Siegel) as an above-average washed-up-palooka tale and sensitively directed by Darren Aronofsky, will work best for you if you have any residual affection left for Mickey Rourke, who, like Randy, seemed poised to own the ‘80s but then threw it all away. On one level, the movie is an art-house Rocky Balboa, in which Rourke, like Sylvester Stallone, stages a comeback parallel to his character’s. We feel for and root for Randy (as we felt for and rooted for the elderly Rocky) for reasons that go well beyond the screenplay. Rourke napalmed his own career through arrogance, and now he returns, hungry and humble, wanting only to do the work.

Randy shambles through snowy New Jersey, finding no solace in life outside the ring. He tries to get something going with a kindly stripper (Marisa Tomei), but she doesn’t quite know what to make of him — is he into her because she’s a stripper, or what? For a while, reconciliation seems possible between Randy and his daughter, not because the script sells it so well but because Rourke brings a tender desperation to his scenes with Evan Rachel Wood, and she’d have to be made of stone not to respond. The movie gets a little on-the-nose when Randy has a heart attack in the second act, but Rourke and Aronofsky ignore the easy symbolism; there’s a fine scene when Randy takes a shower, trying to protect the cellophane-wrapped gash in his chest as if it were a new tattoo.

I’m always eager to learn from a movie, especially about what people do for a living, and The Wrestler offers some insight (which feels authentic) into the inner workings of wrestling: the pre-match meetings between “foes” to determine which moves they’re going to use on each other; the razor blade hidden in the wrist wrap to draw one’s own blood for effect. The punishment gets nasty at times (the staple-gun bit has already become infamous), but we see that for Randy, it’s just a part of the gig, though he doesn’t bounce back from the damage as quickly as he used to. Real life is infinitely more painful for him — sitting alone in his trailer, drinking himself to sleep, clinging to whatever brief contact he can get (the scene in which he and a neighborhood kid play a Nintendo game featuring a pixellated Randy “the Ram” is both funny and sad).

With the exception of his underrated death fantasia The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky has always been drawn to the grit and despair of the down and out, starting with his debut Pi and continuing with Requiem for a Dream. This movie completes the trilogy, I guess; it’s atypical in Aronfsky’s portfolio in that there’s nothing visually flashy about it whatsoever — the only pumping-up comes from ‘80s hair-metal songs, Randy’s preferred personal soundtrack (the scene where Rourke does a barroom dance for Marisa Tomei to Ratt’s “Round and Round” deserves to go on a greatest-hits montage of his screen work). Aronofsky keeps his camera steadily on his star, knowing that Rourke brings everything the movie needs — himself, and his intimate knowledge of failure. It’s one of the decade’s great performances.


December 12, 2008

Typically, a movie only gets awards for editing if it’s action-packed or a thriller — something show-offy. Among other things, Doubt reminded me of the virtues of clean, unobtrusive editing that keeps a drama ticking along like a Rolex. Adapted by writer-director John Patrick Shanley from his own 2004 play, the film is practically all talk, all ideas, all stagebound (despite a few stabs at “opening it out”). Yet none of it is stifling. Editor Dylan Tichenor (who cut three of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films) clips scenes to the bone and essence. Throw in master cinematographer Roger Deakins’ magical control of deep grays and browns, and you’d have a beautiful piece of filmmaking even if it were acted by robots in clown suits.

Which it isn’t, obviously; Doubt is very much engineered as the Acting Olympics, mainly enacting the conflict between a priest who befriends a young black boy and a nun who suspects impropriety between the two. Here you have Philip Seymour Hoffman as the priest, Father Flynn, a pre-Vatican II progressive thinker, and Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, a headmistress whose name strikes terror in the students of the church’s adjoining school. You might think you know how this will play out: the sweaty, flabby, furtive Hoffman of all those P.T. Anderson films up against the she-who-must-be-obeyed Streep of The Devil Wears Prada. But the story adds up to a great deal more than that, introducing shadings of ambiguity and failure on both sides.

Amy Adams has largely been left out of the discussion, but her character — the young teacher Sister James, an innocent who wants to believe, like Anne Frank, that at heart man is good — may actually be the quiet key to the movie. Like Father Flynn, Sister James wishes for a more inclusive and less forbidding Church. (In about a year — the movie is set in 1964 — they would get their wish.) To what extent is Sister Aloysius aligned against Father Flynn simply because he heralds change? When Sister James furiously accuses Sister Aloysius of persecuting the priest because he uses a ballpoint pen, it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. Adams has the least flamboyant role and holds it rock-steady.

One subtext of the Father Flynn/Sister Aloysius scenes finds the current queen of American acting coolly taking the measure of its prince. It’s fun to view the movie that way, especially when Hoffman’s Flynn is summoned to the headmistress’ office and sits at her desk, thinking nothing of it — it’s the priest’s (literal) God-given right in the patriarchy. Hoffman keeps any mannerisms tamped down hard, while Streep lets the left side of her mouth sag, giving her a permanent scowl of disapproval. In this year of superhero movies, these two are Hulk vs. Abomination, Batman vs. the Joker — though we’re not sure which is which. They bash each other with insinuations and contemptuous capsule reviews of one another, battling for the soul of the Church, yet neither of them is really right or wrong.

Shanley has constructed a tightly hermetic parable of ideas that go beyond “did he do it/is she off her meds.” Beneath it all is that detail of the priest casually taking the nun’s seat: it speaks volumes about where the Church is going and how far it still needs to go. The contested boy seems almost an afterthought, a catalyst; even his mother (Viola Davis in a virtuoso cameo) doesn’t really care if the priest is interfering with him, as long as someone cares about him.

Doubt deals in certain stereotypes and plays on contemporary prejudices — the sneeringly accusatory old bat, the chummy priest who likes to hang out with boys — in order to haul out that old Rashomon saw the unknowability of truth. It’s pristinely made, though, with enough subtlety amid the grandstanding to kick this a notch or two above the Oscar-bait actors’ playpen you might expect.

Gran Torino

December 12, 2008

It’s funny how nobody really seems to be in Gran Torino except Clint Eastwood. Oh, there’s dependable character actor John Carroll Lynch in a caustically funny three-scene bit as Clint’s barber. And there are various Hmong people as Clint’s neighbors, and some Americans as his disappointing family. But really there’s only Clint Eastwood, in what is said to be his swan song as an actor, as the irascible Korean War vet Walt Kowalski. Having retired from his auto-factory job and recently buried his wife, Walt pretty much hates everything except his ol’ dawg Daisy. He squints. He scowls. He growls. He waves guns around. The movie would be nowhere, absolutely nowhere, without Clint Eastwood.

This is a different case from, say, The Wrestler, which is inconceivable without Mickey Rourke but has a lot of other things going for it. Gran Torino has a script (by Nick Schenk, from a story by Schenk and Dave Johannson) that seems slavishly tailored to Clint’s mannerisms and range and iconic persona. It’s also the sort of amateurishly basic scenario that would’ve been laughed out of the offices of the notoriously schlocky Cannon Films in the ‘80s. The next-door Hmong kid Thao (Bee Vang) is intimidated by his cousin into joining a local gang. As an initiation, Thao is commanded to steal Walt’s prized Gran Torino. Walt catches him, and soon the kid is doing chores around Walt’s house at the behest of his old-school family. Walt, of course, warms to the kid, introduces him to the world of tools, teaches him how to be a Man.

You can feel how dusty this all is, right? And there’s even a scene where ol’ Walt ambles next door, tastes his first Hmong food, and discovers he kind of likes these people. (Prior to that, he’d been given to such charming epithets as “gook” and “zipperhead.”) Awful as Gran Torino is on paper, iffy as most of the supporting performances are (except for John Carroll Lynch), it’s a valentine to Clint fans, of whom I am one. I don’t think the man has the Midas touch — I was baffled when Million Dollar Baby got wreathed in praise and trophies. His filmography since the masterpiece Unforgiven has been erratic (I’d like to hear the Johnny-come-latelies who declare Eastwood a genius try to defend Space Cowboys). But I enjoy Eastwood’s clean directorial style and his sandpapery, disdainful screen persona, and that’s about all Gran Torino showcases.

With Eastwood in the role, what could’ve played as simple-minded ascends to mythology. (Look at any of the scenes without him in them — pure amateur hour.) You could say that about Unforgiven, too, but that had a brilliant script and Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman. Unforgiven was meant as a deconstruction of (and maybe an atonement for) the pitiless gunslingers on which Eastwood built his career. Gran Torino reads like an elegy — they don’t make men (movie stars) like Walt (Clint) any more. It’s utter sap on that level, but Eastwood plays Walt with a farewell-tour gratitude, like John Wayne in The Shootist. These meta-macho films, which appeal on about the same level as a sports legend stepping onto the field one more time before retirement, are as much about our pasts with the grizzled old stars as about the movies themselves. On that level, Gran Torino is often touching.

A late-inning shot of Walt is horrendously on-the-nose and has been laughed out of better movies than this. Not even Clint can redeem that shot; it’s special pleading, and he should’ve had the sense as director to go for something subtler (or at least less screamingly symbolic). But then nothing about Gran Torino is especially subtle. It’s the cranky old man rediscovering the warmth of family and a sense of purpose when that family is threatened. I wish the damn thing were better, more capably acted across the board, more smartly written; I wish it earned its likely place in film history as Eastwood’s final onscreen bow, and I wish it earned the feelings that brings up in many of us.

Wendy and Lucy

December 10, 2008

We don’t know how Wendy (Michelle Williams) got into her fix, but it hardly seems to matter: she’s in it, and all she can do is deal with it. From Indiana originally, Wendy is headed to Alaska, where she hears there are plenty of jobs in the fish-canning industry. She has her dog Lucy, a twenty-year-old car on the verge of coughing up blood, and a little over five hundred dollars. Over the course of Wendy and Lucy, Wendy will lose her dog, her car, and, little by little, her money. The bulk of the movie follows Wendy as she tries to find Lucy, last seen tied up outside a grocery store where Wendy got busted for shoplifting dog food. Hours later, when Wendy finally returns from the police station, Lucy’s gone.

The third feature by indie filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy), Wendy and Lucy is a quiet heartbreaker with a keen sense of the reality of lives like Wendy’s. Really, a film like this, in which we’re told exactly how much things cost and exactly how much is in Wendy’s budget to pay for them, couldn’t be better timed. True, we’re going to have a new president soon, but the many, many jobless and homeless people aren’t suddenly going to get cushy gigs on January 20 — of 2009 or maybe 2010. Reichardt is a realist, and her movies disregard hope and optimism, which doesn’t mean they’re pessimistic or hopeless, either. Her films see things as they are, good or bad.

The movie is mainly a matter of Michelle Williams playing, or rather underplaying, off of various people Wendy encounters in Portland, Oregon. Aside from the grocery-store clerk who busts her — who seems to go out of his way to “make an example” of her (to whom?) — Wendy barely speaks to anyone above a murmur. She looks washed-out, defeated, yet maybe still young enough to turn things around. Williams is on very low simmer here; Wendy is too exhausted to express how frightened she is, but Williams’ eyes tell most of the story. As in Old Joy, there’s no manufactured drama here — no romance on the road, no violence, no big acting jags for Williams. She just inhabits Wendy and is true to her from moment to moment. It’s heroic work, though sure to be overlooked and underrated.

There’s sufficient drama simply in Wendy’s quest to find Lucy and to stay semi-above-water financially in the process. With the aforementioned exception, most everyone Wendy meets seems to take pity on her (even the store manager doesn’t appear eager to press charges), and this feels right. It’s not that a cast of invented characters is aligned against Wendy — it’s the whole system, of which kind but helpless people are a part. People like a Walgreen’s security guard (nicely played by Wally Dalton), who forbids her from sleeping in her car in the parking lot but otherwise helps her as best he can, or a mechanic (Will Patton) who sees how trashed Wendy’s engine is but also sees she can’t begin to pay for repairs, don’t extend any whopping Hollywood favors to her — they have to eat and get by, too. But that doesn’t mean they have to be mean to her. Even the movie’s tensest scene, when a wacko in the woods (producer Larry Fessenden) happens across a sleeping Wendy, doesn’t play out the way our movie-trained minds predict it will.

Some people, soft-hearted dog lovers such as myself, will want to know in advance: Does the dog die? I can say that if that’s what you’re worried about, don’t let that keep you from seeing the movie. This is not a spoiler so much as a reassurance that this isn’t that kind of film. (The dog is the same Lucy, I believe, who accompanied the men of Old Joy into the Oregon woods. I’m all for a Lucy trilogy, actually.) Wendy and Lucy ends on a bittersweet and uncertain note, and we hope that Wendy makes good on her promise. Will she? Wendy doesn’t know. Reichardt doesn’t know. And I don’t know. Things may get better for Wendy. They may not. If you’re looking for a happy, easy ending, or a happy, easy answer, look elsewhere.

The Reader

December 10, 2008

It’s probably worth sitting through The Reader just for the late scene between Lena Olin, as an Auschwitz survivor, and Ralph Fiennes, who knows someone who was at Auschwitz in a different capacity. At 53, Olin has lost none of her sensuality and none of her wild-card scariness; I almost felt sorry for poor Ralph Fiennes (no slouch himself, let’s remember), who sits and listens and somehow seems very small as she intones, “Nothing came out of the camps. Nothing.” She means, of course, nothing redeeming, nothing that would make sense of it. In just a few minutes, Olin sketches a woman who went through hell as a girl and has no patience for anything that would trivialize her suffering. Give this woman an Oscar.

Not that I begrudge Kate Winslet her own award. As Hanna Schmitz, a surly tram ticket-taker who has an affair with 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross), Winslet speaks and moves like someone carrying a terrible weight in her gut. In time, we discover that Hanna was a guard at Auschwitz, and is culpable for the deaths of hundreds of Jews in a church fire. This, however, is not entirely the source of her shame. Without any obvious Oscar moments — Hanna’s pride wouldn’t allow them — Winslet creates a flawed and fascinating villain, an ordinary woman who let herself drift into evil in order to hide something.

The Reader isn’t really about her, though. It’s mainly about Michael (played by Fiennes in adulthood), who finds himself haunted by this haunted woman. The problem is that Michael is fairly colorless — regardless of his age, he remains, on some level, a lovestruck boy fixated on the first woman who took him to bed. Somewhere outside the movie’s purview, Michael becomes a lawyer, marries, has a daughter, divorces, and somehow morphs from the recessive, hangdog David Kross to the rather more intense and angular Ralph Fiennes (to whom elegant romantic yearning comes a little too easily by now). Meanwhile, Hanna kinda sorta ages, until near the end, when she’s supposed to be in her late sixties, she looks like a mostly-unlined Kate Winslet with a scraggly gray dye job. The computer-generated aging miracles of Benjamin Button were not available to this production or its budget, I guess.

Under Stephen Daldry’s nondescript direction, the movie is a passive and too-tasteful meditation on guilt and its lasting, deformative power. Hanna could’ve saved those Jews but didn’t; Michael could’ve saved Hanna from a harsher prison sentence but didn’t. At the movie’s center is the big revelation — why Hanna found herself working at Auschwitz, why she wasn’t guilty to the extent that she was accused of, why she’d rather spend her life in jail than confess. It seems a tad overblown, especially in light of her actions; it’s also a little too neat a metaphor. Still, Winslet and Olin — and the always-welcome Bruno Ganz as Michael’s law professor — kick The Reader into higher gear. One of the year’s five best films, however, it is not.


December 5, 2008

Though Olbermann/Bush sounds to me like a much more fun movie, Frost/Nixon works just as well as an allegory. It seems impossible that we’ll one day see a televised mea culpa from the defensive, unreflective Bush, yet viewers in 1977 saw one — or close to it, anyway — from the disgraced Richard M. Nixon, three years after he resigned. Based on Peter Morgan’s play, Frost/Nixon says as much about media manipulation as about the war of wills between Nixon (Frank Langella) and his TV interlocutor, David Frost (Michael Sheen). The slightly foppish, womanizing British talk-show host took on the gruff, shrewd trickster-god of American politics, bringing a butter knife to a gunfight before he figured out he’d better upgrade.

Fluidly if unimaginatively directed by Ron Howard, the movie spends a lot of time on the preparations for the 28-hour series of interviews. Frost, who has roughly as much credibility as Merv Griffin, has the devil’s own time trying to get funding and advertisers for the four-program event. He’s pressured by advisors James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) to go for the throat, to bag the great elephant and extract the confession and apology Nixon was never required to deliver in court. Nixon, for his part, is tired of speaking at Republican dinners and hauling out banal anecdotes; his own loyal advisor, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), wants the old man to stay strong and monopolize the process. At times we could be watching the run-up to an instantly legendary boxing match at Madison Square Garden.

Frost’s current arm candy Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) is shuffled into the deck to pretty up the proceedings, which is appreciated, I guess. Otherwise, Frost/Nixon is a masculine affair — in every sense of the word, complete with a drunken late-night call from Nixon to the befuddled Frost. The men are pretty much polar opposites, regarding one another warily across generational and cultural barbed-wire fences. Frost seems more or less apolitical, though — he doesn’t share his advisors’ hatred for Nixon, doesn’t take his offenses personally. To Frost, this is simply the television coup of a lifetime — as long as he can transcend his cocktail-chat instincts and rise to the historical occasion.

As opposed to Doubt, which used none of the original stage cast, Frost/Nixon imports Frank Langella and Michael Sheen from their well-honed roles on the boards. Sheen, also currently in theaters as a werewolf in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (talk about range), has gotten ignored by all the awards ceremonies, though his Frost, a trickier part, is an integral half of this contest. Optimistic and genial by nature, Frost must develop a sense of outrage, and Sheen walks a fine line between engaging politesse and political engagement. Langella, of course, warrants the attention paid; his Nixon is a wounded bear, snorfling heavily over affronts real and imagined, aware that he must drain some of his poison by coming clean but unsure how. Langella rumbles and rants fearsomely, though his best moments are his quietest and least calibrated for the theater’s back row.

What difference did it make whether Nixon owned up to his crimes? Or whether Frost, rather than, say, Mike Wallace, was the one to get it on tape? Well, the former was increasingly important to Nixon, the latter decreasingly important to Frost. The two men co-created a space wherein Nixon could say, with considerable regret, that he had let his country down. Frost/Nixon is not only about a journalistic scoop; it’s an account of one of those rare acts of personal and political synergy, in which the men came to their respective chairs with different agendas and wound up getting their wishes, one way or the other.

Slumdog Millionaire

December 1, 2008

As I write this, Mumbai is in the news for much less happy reasons than birthing a “slumdog” who gets a chance to win lots of rupees on a game show. In Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, set mainly in Mumbai, the lead character spends some of his boyhood as an impromptu tour guide, and the shots of the majestic Taj Mahal provoke an unintended chill. The time may be ripe for a movie that instructs Westerners about the teeming streets and culture of Mumbai, but unfortunately Slumdog Millionaire isn’t that movie. For all its surface devotion to the grit and desperation of being poor in India, it hits too many Hollywood beats and often comes off as patronizing: See, the only way these people can rise from the rubble is to compete on a knock-off of a British game show.

The movie that’s being hyped everywhere as a “feel-good” film (and a strong contender for a Best Picture Oscar) opens with its young protagonist, Jamal (Dev Patel), being tortured by police. Feeling good yet? Jamal is being interrogated because he’s been cranking out the answers on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and the smarmy host thinks he’s cheating. So, as a videotape of the game thus far plays at the police station, Jamal is asked how he could possibly have known this or that answer; we then flash back to his hardscrabble childhood, his exploits with brother Salim and innocent, angelic beauty Latika. It’s a facile structure, but it could prepare us for a fable that shows us how an uneducated kid takes street knowledge to the next level.

Disappointingly, though, Slumdog Millionaire becomes the kind of film in which the brothers are taken in by a Fagin-like villain, who blinds boys (to turn them into more heart-tugging beggars) and raises girls to be whores — he doesn’t have a mustache, or he’d twirl it. Later, when Jamal and Salim rescue Latika moments before she’s due to lose her virginity to a customer, the villain actually delivers this line: “Did you think you could just walk in here and take my prize?” And I thought, My God, I haven’t heard that one in years — although the plot thread reminded me of last year’s feel-good movie about swarthy squalor, The Kite Runner, in which the hero delves back into Afghanistan to save a boy from sexual slavery. The Kite Runner said that the best Afghanis were the most American at heart; Slumdog Millionaire says much the same about Indians. It’s a mercy Satyajit Ray didn’t live to see it.

Bizarrely, the most compelling stuff unfolds in the game-show studio, because it has that built-in tension that has made all incarnations of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? ratings hits; the rest of it plays like cliché-ridden exposition (ah, Jamal knows that Ben Franklin is on the hundred-dollar bill because…). So the implication is that we shallow moviegoers wouldn’t be interested in Jamal’s story without the hook of his trying for the 20-million-rupee jackpot. As for the allegedly transcendent love story, Latika is touched by Jamal’s kindness, and she’s apparently the only female he’s ever met (aside from his dear dead mother, killed during a Hindi-Muslim conflagration); I can see no other reason for the attraction. Jamal is forever rescuing her from one gangster or another; Freida Pinto, the model who plays the adult Latika, is lovely, but she has nothing to work with. Meanwhile, Danny Boyle’s hyperactive camera and rude-boy style strain to manipulate us into the emotions the script doesn’t honestly earn. I mourn the dead of Mumbai, but Slumdog Millionaire turns the great city of 19 million into a steamy backdrop, and a barrier of beggars and gangsters coming between two ciphers. Mumbai deserves better, in life and in film.