Saturday, January 24, 2009


A lot of reviews of this movie criticized director John Patrick Shanley's penchant for tilted cameras and dramatic angles, arguing that in his effort to make the film adaptation of his Tony-winning play more cinematic Shanley overdoes it with self-consiciously "movie-like" shots. To me, it felt exactly right. When I think of the Catholic Church, for some phantom reason, the images in my head; stained glass, swinging mitres, big jeweled hats, are ominously looming and canted. Shanley really nails the stiffness, oppression and self-denial of institutional life in general and Catholic school life in particular. I was all set to doush Meryl Streep with Haterade, as I tend to find her a bit of a brittle showboat, but her Bronx accent and myriad grimaces worked for a character straining at the seams with repression and self-abnegation. Phillip Seymour Hoffman brings serious heat as a shady priest, and Amy Adams puts her relentless cheefulness to good use, although I still want to see her play a child-murderer or a meth-addict or something.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My Bloody Valentine 3D

So Obama is president now, and he's supposedly "sprung into action" with executive orders closing Guantanamo and banning torture as well as meeting with the joint chiefs to plan Iraq withdrawl. Big Whoop. The man still hasn't addressed the most pressing issue in America: passing a law that requires all super shitty remakes of regularly shitty 70s and 80s horror films to be shot in 3D. That shit right there is change we can believe in.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Slavin' in the Celluloid Mines

The 2008 movie year has been the let-down of all let-downs.

Sure, the summer movie season was probably the best of all time. I'd stack Iron Man, Wall-E and The Dark Knight against any three films from any summer release slate since Steven Spielberg first dropped the hot, sticky load of blockbuster into George Lucas' gaping maw. But the offerings since September have been fucking grim. Except for Rachel Getting Married, everything has reeked of mediocrity. And Rachel Getting Married loses points for reminding me of the superior Margot at the Wedding from last year, and for the entire, face-shatteringly great movie year that was 2007. Even the movies I haven't gotten around the seeing feel like they're going to be brutal slogs. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Fincher or not, looks like Big Fish II: The Suckening. Revolutionary Road gives off a distinct vibe of Little Children remade on the set of Mad Men. The only movie that I'm even midly excited about seeing is The Wrestler, and even that makes me nervous, what with the stunt casting and indie-approved miseribalism. Of course, I should hold off judgement on these things until I see them, but it doesn't help that two of the most heralded recent releases, Milk and Slumdog Millionaire, were exactly as middlebrow and tepid as I was fearing beforehand. The most fun I've had in a theater since Dark Knight was Frost/Nixon, and that's just because my favorite thing in the world is watching Richard Nixon (or someone playing him) bellow about the damn hippies. Here's hoping that at least one of these flicks bucks my dim expectations. If not, I'll just have to sit around waiting for Watchmen to come out.

Monday, January 05, 2009


In 1977, British TV presenter David Frost sat down for twelve hours of interviews with former President Richard Nixon. It was Nixon's first public interrogation since his resignation three years earlier. The interviews were a television sensation and remain a high point in the history of presidential journalism. Thirty years later, the interviews have lost a good deal of their pop culture relevance, raising the question of why anyone watching a movie in 2008 should care about them.

The task of making a little-remembered series of television interviews meaningful in the contemporary world falls to reliably mediocre director Ron Howard. He makes it work by keeping a tight focus on the two elements that defined the source material: Peter Morgan's Tony-winning play and the rich, lived-in performances of the two leads, who also starred together on Broadway. Frank Langella's Nixon is the best silver screen iteration of our bile-soaked 37th president since Philip Baker Hall in Robert Altman's Secret Honor. Both of those performances channel Nixon's volcanic rage as well as his crippling insecurity. Langella deserves even more credit for taking the risk of imitating Nixon's gruff, iconic voice. Grounding a demanding role like this with an impersonation easily could have slipped into broad parody, but Langella's extreme focus and effortlessly authentic body language give his Nixon a powerful vitality. Michael Sheen is given the difficult task of making an impression opposite Langella as the somewhat more reserved, less operatically twisted David Frost. Sheen gets the job done by gently revealing layer after layer of the guarded personality of Frost, a glad-handing schmoozer and former comedian whose career depends on "nailing," in Stephen Colbert's words, Nixon on the issue of Watergate. The talk show host wears a boyish grin that hides his terror and status anxiety. As the interview preparations slowly go haywire and Nixon proves unflappable in the early going, Sheen's facade begins to crack.

With powerhouse actors and a witty, insightful script to work with, Ron Howard acquits himself nicely by staying out of the way, keeping his camerawork unobtrusive, blending docudrama and well-timed close-ups. He lets the material speak for itself, and it has some interesting things to say. Besides offering a subtle but penetrating evocation of Nixon's world-annihilating neuroses, Morgan's script emphasizes the role of television in forging collective memory. The Nixon/Frost interviews might be a cultural footnote now, but they helped define Richard Nixon for a generation of Americans. If David Frost had not been equal to the task of forcing Nixon to confront the magnitude of the Watergate crimes, a president whose contempt for the constitution beggar belief may well have won a public rehabilitation with potentially disastrous consequences for American political life. Watergate was a mass of confusing details and droning congressional hearings. What made it stick to Nixon, in the end, was the squirming, tortured contrition he showed to David Frost's unblinking cameras.

Television, Frost/Nixon shows, may trivialize, but it also reveals like no other medium. Richard Nixon's political image was largely defined by the glistening of his sweaty upper lip under TV lights. One one level, this was profoundly unfair, but considering Nixon's apocalyptic resentment, inability to connect on a human level with pretty much anyone, and his pathological untruthfulness, those shiny little beads of perspiration were in many ways all one needed to know about what kind of president the man was.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

There is an early scene in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire that sums up the director's approach to the material. As a rampaging Hindu mob tears through a Muslim slum in Mumbai, one of the attackers yells out the following line, which is helpfully rendered in an English subtitle: "They're Muslim! Get them!" Now, one would assume that a club-wielding rioter crazed with religious and nationalistic hatred would 1.) know that the people he was setting on fire were not Hindus like him, and 2.) would need no verbal inducement to "get them," since he's already wielding a club and all. It's a small detail, but it speak to a distinctly remedial air that wafts off of every frame of Slumdog Millionaire. Even though the film is based on a novel by Indian writer Vikas Swarup, it still feels for a lot of the running time like a Travel Channel show about Indian slum life without the aw-shucks Caucasian host.

The film unfolds as a series of flashbacks as Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) a Mumbai slum kid, explains to torture-happy police officers how he came within one correct answer of winning the grand prize on India's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, answering questions that stump doctors and lawyers. Each question connects, in a conveniently chronological fashion, to experiences in Jamal's life that that gave him the knowledge to answer them. These vignettes tell the story of Jamal's life growing up in on the Mumbai mean streets and his relationship with his brother Salim and Latika, the love of his life. The plot is basically 21st Century Dickens, complete with chance reunions, mysterious benefactors, and even an honest-to-goodness sinister orphanage. Unfortunately, the characters lack Dickens vividness. "Protagonist," "Brother of Protagonist", "Love Interest of Protagonist", and "Game Show Host" are all the characterization the audience can hope to expect. A mechanistic plot and thin characters, coupled with a bevy of montages and the general diffusion created by the flashback structure, ensure that nothing in Slumdog Millionaire can stand out as distinctive or interesting in the blur of action. Boyle reaches for dizzying heights of Romance, but never bothers to make a case that the romance between Jamal and Latika is worth caring about . It certainly doesn't help that the lovers spend the majority of the film apart. It also doesn't help that many of the film's plot contrivances are explained as the intervention of Destiny. Not only does this minimize the suspense regarding the fate of the lovers, it creates a burden of momentousness that the romance can't bear. What is presented as transcendent love comes across as a naked plot engine and a lazy way to explain the stray deaus ex machina. No amount of vividly filmed squalor or bright-eyed urchins can overcome the burden of an unengaging love story, an overly determined plot and a sometimes patronizing tone.