Monday, December 29, 2008

Frost-Nixon and Gran Torino

By Elise Nakhnikian

“Are you really saying the President can do something illegal?” David Frost (Michael Sheen) asks Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) in Frost/Nixon.

"I'm saying that when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal!” says Nixon.

Spoken like a true Nixon-era Clint Eastwood character. Substitute “a cop” for “the President,” and can’t you hear Dirty Harry saying the same thing?

Nixon never changed his mind, remaining unrepentant to the end, but Eastwood’s vigilantes know better now. Like Bill Munny of The Unforgiven, Gran Torino’s Walt Kowalski is not just a lot older than Harry Callaghan; he’s a lot sadder and less self-righteous too. And though he’s still a hero, he’s also a goat, a funhouse-mirror version of the actor’s youthful antiheroes.

At first, we laugh at the retired Detroit autoworker as he snarls and growls at his disrespectful grandkids and his suspiciously foreign Hmong neighbors, surrounding himself with a protective circle of empty beer cans and blanketing anyone who approaches with insults and racial slurs. But by the end of this tightly constructed entertainment, we’re laughing more with Walt than at him.

His reluctant rapprochement with his neighbors may be a foregone conclusion, but Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk make it fun to watch as it plays out. They also make the cliché of kids who melt the heart of a closed-off old man feel fresh, letting us see the core values the gimlet-eyed geezer rejects in his own relatives and finds in the family next door. And, though we know Walt will defeat the gang that threatens his newfound friends, they keep us in suspense about just how he’ll do it, right up to the satisfyingly melodramatic end.

Frost/Nixon also keeps the suspense cranked up. Screenwriter Peter Morgan, who adapted his own play for the screen, specializes in dramatizing important historical figures and turning points. He likes to focus on the relationship between two people at the center of the storm: Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Tony Blair in The Queen; Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and his Scottish doctor in The Last King of Scotland; and guess who in Frost/Nixon.

The writer portrays the two men as fighting for their professional lives, each trying to use the other to salvage his reputation. Nixon sees the interview as a chance to burnish his legacy as president by focusing on his foreign policy triumphs. Frost, a TV personality whose star is falling, sees it as his chance to climb back to the top of the ratings – but only if he can get Nixon to confess to having broken the law by having ordered and then covered up the Watergate break-in.

Sheen and Langella do excellent work, reprising the roles they played onstage. Sheen looks nothing like Frost, yet he recreates his strangled diction and natty bearing while hinting at his underlying insecurity. Langella brings a pitch-black intensity to the role. Hunched over like a hibernating bear, his black eyes radiating wary intelligence, his Nixon is a formidable foe.

It’s a riveting show, but two questions nagged at me afterward: did Nixon really make that drunken late-night phone call to Frost, laying out the movie’s themes so perfectly? And why would he suddenly decide to confess to having been part of a cover-up, after having worked so hard and long to deny it? The answer to both questions turns out to be the same: He didn’t. The phone call and the confession were Morgan’s inventions.

The phony phone call bothers me mainly as bad drama: it’s the sort of intrusive exposition that takes us out of the moment, like the “interviews” Howard films with the actors playing Frost’s research team, who talk to the camera about the story as we watch it unfold.

The fake confession bothers me as bad history. In a story that’s centered around a battle to land a confession, inventing a confession that never happened feels like a significant cheat.

Howard’s directing can be heavy-handed in other ways, too. He often sends the camera zooming in to search for the truth in somebody’s iris or to ogle Frost’s mistress, Caroline Graham (Rebecca Hall), who gets way too much screen time for someone whose main purpose is to brighten up the scenery.

Still, both movies are well-made machines, entertaining while they last and thought-provoking enough to give you something to talk about afterward. Just don’t mistake either one for the truth.

Monday, December 22, 2008

2008 Top 10: A good year for women

By Elise Nakhnikian

2008 was a good year for women in film. Four of my favorite movies this year -- Happy Go Lucky, Wendy and Lucy, Trouble the Water, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days – are built around extremely capable and sympathetic women, and there are memorable female characters in all six of the others. It may just be a fluke – this year’s picks are from seven different countries, and it doesn’t seem likely that they’re all experiencing a simultaneous renaissance in women’s roles – but it’s a hopeful sign.

Happy-Go-Lucky. The effervescent Poppy (Sally Hawkins), an English primary school teacher with a wide-open heart and eyes to match, sees hopeful signs everywhere. Unused to that much guileless good cheer in the movies, except from ditzy dames and all those infantile adults played by Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell and their pals, I wondered what was wrong with her at first. Then I braced myself for the trouble she was bound to get into (girls in movies can’t be friendly to scary strangers, can they?) But finally I relaxed and just enjoyed director Mike Leigh’s “anti-miserabilist film.” Leigh’s and Hawkins’ portrait of a generous, loving, and vivacious woman is a delight. Like its heroine, it’s also deeper than you may at first assume.

The Class. Like Poppy, François Bégaudeau of Laurent Cantet’s The Class is a caring schoolteacher whose kids are a multicultural mélange. The characters and plots of both films were developed in months of workshops and improvisation, giving them a feel of caught-on-the-fly reality. (That documentary feel is particularly strong in The Class, since Bégaudeau is an actual teacher who plays a version of himself, and the kids in the class are all students in a Parisian school much like the one where he taught.) But where Happy-Go-Lucky is mostly about Poppy’s personal life, The Class takes place almost entirely within the walls of the school (the movie’s French title literally translates to Between the Walls). The cultural conflicts and communication gaps between the well-meaning but sometimes blundering teacher and his equally good-hearted but easily offended students feel painfully real, making us think about how acculturation works and what we’re really meant to learn in school.

The Edge of Heaven. Another sensitive and insightful exploration of the chain reactions that can occur – for better and for worse – when cultures collide, The Edge of Heaven tells the gracefully interwoven stories of three sets of parents and their adult children as they shuttle between Turkey and Germany. You learn so much about its six main characters that, by the end of the movie, you feel almost as if they were part of your own family. It’s an amazing achievement: an intelligently structured, deeply felt story about the power of old-fashioned virtues like kindness, forgiveness, and love.

Synecdoche, New York. Watching screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s first outing as a director of his own work is like finding yourself inside someone else’s dream: always intense, often achingly beautiful, and frequently incomprehensible, with sudden sideways leaps into the absurd. Speaking more to our subconscious than our conscious minds, this profoundly moving movie somehow manages to peel aside the veils of self-delusion we all hide behind, leaving us face to face with the elemental truth of our shared humanity.

Mad Detective. Hong Kong’s prolific Johnny To hit another home run with this funny, poignant, stylish hard-guy mystery about a wildly unconventional detective. Is former police detective Bun certifiably insane or does he have a supernatural gift – or both? To keeps you guessing as a rookie cop enlists the forcibly retired pro to help track down a cop killer. As usual, To takes you far enough inside his main character’s lives that you care what happens to them when they start blasting away at one another, unleashing maximum mayhem in claustrophobically close quarters. And Bun’s intriguing, often absurd visions, Cheng Siu Keung’s beautiful cinematography, and a charismatic cast help make this unassuming genre film a great escape.

Trouble the Water. If you see nothing else about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, see this movie. As Katrina approached New Orleans, Kimberly Rivers Roberts was there with a video camera. A natural leader, Roberts picked up her camera and roamed her neighborhood, checking in with friends and relatives who, like her, had no car and could not afford a ticket out of town. She kept the camera rolling after the storm hit, filming the rising water and the chaos outside, the people she brought into her attic, and their odyssey as she, her husband, and some of their neighbors left the only home they had known to try to put down roots elsewhere. Two weeks into the Roberts’ journey, documentarians Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (whose credit include Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan) joined them. Trouble the Water combines Roberts’ footage with Deal’s and Lessin’s to paint a riveting and ultimately inspiring picture of their struggle to survive. The real damage, the film makes brutally clear, was done not by the storm but by the government whose stunning indifference – even antipathy -- to the poor people of the city is documented in literal black-and-white.

Wendy and Lucy. We learn almost nothing about where Wendy (Michelle Williams) came from or what led to her being homeless and almost flat broke, living out of her ailing car with her beloved dog, Lucy. But as we watch her navigate an unforeseen stop on her way to Alaska, accepting occasional kindnesses and enduring occasional indignities with the same self-contained dignity while doing her beleaguered best to take care of her dog, we learn enough about her character to care deeply about her fate. This spare, beautifully shot fiction (the film is based on a Jonathan Raymond short story), with its soundtrack of train whistles promising an escape Wendy may not ever achieve, boils reality down to its essence, and not knowing Wendy’s back story helps. As you wonder what knocked this warily resourceful, conscientious young woman off the grid, you can’t help but think about all the real people you probably encounter in your daily life who are in the same boat.

Still Life. In its recent push to industrialize, China has been transforming on a scale unprecedented in human history. Morphing from a primarily rural society to a primarily urban one in the space of a generation or two has made China the world’s rising superpower, but it has also caused tremendous upheaval in the lives of its people. Director Jia Zhangke has made an art of recording the effects of those cataclysmic changes on individual people – a perspective, he notes, that has been left out of the official record. At a recent New York screening of his 24 City, Zhang said he sees history as “a mixture of reality and imagination.” That’s a good description of Still Life, the beautifully filmed, deceptively simple tale of a couple of people who go back to the alien landscape of a mostly leveled town, which will soon be flooded as part of the enormous Three Gorges dam project. The two are searching for spouses they lost in an enormous sea of constantly moving humanity. The movie feels slow and uneventful at first, but as the details and atmosphere soak in you begin to appreciate how densely textured Jia’s composition is, layering the frustrations and scams encountered by the unassuming main characters with the poignancy of losing not just your own personal past but an entire, ancient city and everyone in it. Filming on location while workers destroyed the city and mixing in real people with the professional actors adds to the movie’s near-documentary feel.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. This grim tale follows Gabita, a college student in search of an illegal late-term abortion (Laura Vasiliu) in Ceauşescu’s Romania, and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), the sad-eyed roommate who helps her get it, for about 24 hours. It starts in the middle of a conversation and ends during a lull in another, and it feels so realistic that you almost forget that Gabita’s and Otilia’s lives don’t continue beyond the frame of the film. But thank goodness they don’t, since the two are mired in a nightmarish totalitarian world. Nothing works as it should even when they go by the book, and getting what they need on the black market requires enormous tenacity, ingenuity, toughness, and personal sacrifice – almost all of it from Otilia. As we watch her soldier through this day from hell we steadily gain respect and empathy for this admirable young woman, so her final bleak stare into the camera – which contains a bitter awareness of just how stuck she is – cuts like a knife.

Tell No One. This Hitchcockian French thriller is based on a Harlan Coben book, and it owes much of its appeal to his signature elements, including strong, unconventional female characters and an ordinary-guy main character who finds himself on the lam and turns out to have a hero’s ability to think – and run – fast. The acting is excellent, artfully planted red herrings add texture and suspense, and we get an intriguing tour of Paris, from high-society horse shows to low-rent back alleys. Though the pace is brisk and the plot complicated, we never get lost, in part because so much is conveyed without words. And somewhat miraculously – especially since there isn’t a moment of tiresome exposition – every loose end is neatly and ingeniously tied up. This is an elegant piece of work, as beautifully put together as those show horses.

Monday, December 8, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

When it comes to telling the story of a real person’s life, it takes a great fiction film to beat a good documentary. And since The Times of Harvey Milk was good enough to earn an Oscar, you have to wonder just why we need director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s flatfooted Milk.

One of the best things about Milk is its use of documentary footage. In the silent, black-and-white opener, furtive men in what appears to be the ‘50s carefully shade their faces from the camera while mingling in gay bars or getting stuffed into paddy wagons. It’s a chilling introduction to the gay experience as it was first encountered by Harvey Milk, who was born in 1930.

Milk shows Milk (Sean Penn) only briefly as a closeted middle-aged businessman in his native New York, but Penn’s delicately calibrated acting lets us appreciate the sense of liberation Milk must have felt after moving to San Francisco in the early ‘70s. Indulging his own interest in photography while running a camera shop in the Castro with his beautiful boyfriend, Scott (James Franco), Milk became a pony-tailed, blue-jeaned bohemian – and found himself at the center of a fledgling gay-rights movement.

After jumping around in time a bit, the movie soon settles into chronological order. Milk organizes his gay friends and customers to boycott the Castro’s gay-unfriendly businesses and then moves on to bigger political battles, rallying gays to help the Teamsters boycott Coors beer and launching a campaign for city supervisor. Somewhere along the line, he becomes the self-styled “Mayor of Castro Street” and begins running for elected office (it took him several tries to win a city supervisor slot), fueled by the conviction that gay people need political representation just like any other minority group. “If you help elect to the central committee and other offices more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised,” he says in a moving signature speech that’s reenacted in the film.

The movie spends a lot of time outlining the strategies that led to Milk’s eventual victory, yet it always feels a little stagey and never quite recreates the feel of his legendarily disorganized campaign. Its overreliance on montage keeps us at emotional arm’s length, and a generally welcome lack of sensationalism has the unfortunate side effect of making Milk’s election to office feel anticlimactic.

But the main problem is the script’s failure to dig beneath the surface. We get little more than a cameo appearance by crucial campaign manager Anne Kronenberg (Allison Pill), who we learn about more by hearing how others describe her than by watching her in action. And we know almost nothing about either of Milk’s two live-in lovers, Scott and Jack (Diego Luna), except that Scott is supportive and stable while Jack is demanding and unstable. Of course, that makes Milk’s relationships with both men feel pretty thin.

Milk’s fellow city supervisor and eventual murderer Dan White (Josh Brolin) remains wholly opaque, which in turn makes it unclear whether Milk was killed because his activism set off anti-gay bigotry or because he crossed paths with an emotionally unstable coworker who fixated on him for some unknown reason. And Milk himself comes off as too good to be true – although one scene, in which he directs campaign organizer Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) to incite a near-riot just so he can play the hero by stopping it, hints at an opportunistic, manipulative side.

The movie leans too heavily on a couple of gay stereotypes. There are at least two too many scenes of Milk basking in opera, including a laughably heavy-handed death scene. Not even Sean Penn can pull off teetering before a window on his knees, mortally wounded, while gazing at posters advertising Tosca.

Penn also gets the unenviable task of reading from the final statement Milk left to be played in the event of his assassination. Every so often, the movie grinds to a halt while we watch Penn’s Milk sit at a kitchen table and record parts of that statement, most of which tell us things we’ve already seen unfold or are about to watch.

In spite of everything, Penn does a wonderful job. Widening his deep-creased smile and softening his eyes, he exudes waves of joy, loving kindness, humor, and courage that make it easy to imagine why so many people might have been so drawn to Milk – though I could never quite stop wondering what might have been airbrushed out of that portrait.

Brolin is also excellent, giving White a stiff, needy nerdiness that makes him pitiable rather than odious. And Franco’s slow-burning incandescence, Luna’s askew intensity, and Hirsch’s flirty charisma make their characters interesting to watch even when they don’t have much to do.

And yet, when the filmmakers intercut footage of the actors with documentary footage of the people they’re playing at the end of the film, almost all the real people look more complex and compelling than their Hollywood counterparts.

The last one we see is Milk, caught in the middle of an extended laugh, surrounded by friends, and delighted by the life he was living so fully. More than anything else in this two-hour-plus movie, that fleet, flickering image made me mourn his violent and untimely death.

Monday, December 1, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

“Grandfather tell me most important lesson of all: Tell your story,” says Nullah (the liquid-eyed Brandon Walters), the half-white, half-Aborigine boy who narrates Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.

Too bad Luhrmann, who created this story and cowrote the screenplay, didn’t heed Grandpa’s advice.

Originality has never been Luhrmann’s thing: what distinguishes him is not what stories he tells but how he tells them. Nobody since Douglas Sirk has done color-saturated melodramas better than Luhrmann. Like a chick-flick Tarantino, he plucks colorful clichés from other movies and weaves them together with lush music, creamy cinematography, and wife Catherine Martin’s gorgeous production design to create a plushly feathered cuckoo’s nest. Watching one of his swoony concoctions, you get the feeling that no one is more intoxicated by the lush cinematography, swirling cameras, stylized acting and cleverly constructed sets than Luhrmann himself. His movies are always at least in part about the sheer joy of losing yourself at the movies.

Lord knows I love movies, so I admired the sheer intensity and seamless artifice of Moulin Rouge even though Luhrmann’s campy style and well-worn stereotypes left me cold. And I liked Romeo + Juliet, which injected a jolt of teenage hormones into a Shakespeare classic. So I was prepared to enjoy Australia, Luhrmann’s flowery love letter to his native land – but this lumbering Frankenstein’s monster is patched together from too many corpses to feel alive.

Australia is part Rabbit-Proof Fence, part Red River, part African Queen, and part Wizard of Oz. It also shares DNA with every story of a band of misfits that triumphs against the odds – or a couple that bonds over a child.

The couple is a straitlaced English lady, the porcelain-skinned Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), and a rugged Australian drover (Hugh Jackman) known only as “the drover.” The two start out like a poor man’s version of the already parodic Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke in those lady-and-the-tramp movies they used to crank out, the always chilly Kidman icing up as hard as the evil queen she played in The Golden Compass while Jackman trots out his best Marlboro Man butch act.

For the most part, their exaggerated styles fit the contours of Luhrmann’s meta Western, but they slide perilously close to self-parody when the drover washes up at night in the campground he shares with two other men, his perfect pecs glistening in the moonlight while a terrified Lady Sarah peers at him, gathering the folds of the tent around her face like a nun’s wimple.

The two soon get together, as of course they must, rounding up a motley crew of women, children, Aboriginals, foreigners and drunks for a cattle drive aimed at saving Lady Sarah’s farm from the rapacious neighboring landowner, a hissable villain by the name of King Carney (Bryan Brown). And Sarah’s heart soon melts, of course, as evidenced by the tears pooling up in those pale blue eyes.

As if that weren’t enough melodrama, Nullah must dodge the police who are taking mixed-race kids from their parents and imprisoning them in Christian boarding schools “to breed the black out of them” – and who eventually catch him. And then half the country is on the run from the Japanese, who try to occupy Australia after Pearl Harbor. True, there are a couple of idyllic years for our makeshift family on Sarah’s farm before all hell breaks loose, but that part of the movie doesn’t last long: Luhrmann doesn’t do daily life.

He doesn’t do humor either. He tries now and then, but the efforts fall flatter than the drover’s frequently ogled abs.

Instead, we get earnest pronouncements, mostly from Nullah. Walters is a charmer, but even he can’t justify the script’s lazy reliance on his voiceover narration. And, though I think Luhrmann is offering up this part-Aboriginal, part-English child as symbolizing the soul of his country, there’s something creepy about the way the director places not one but two Magical Negroes at the center of his story – Nullah and his grandfather, the ubiquitous King George (David Gulpilil) – and keeps giving them Wise Things to say in pidgin English.

The visuals are just as unsubtle, yet the silhouetted figures frozen in picturesque tableaux, stampeding cattle seen from above, and travelogue shots of canyons, cliffs, and mesas are often arresting.

The supporting cast is wonderful too, stuffed with powerful Aussie actors like Gulpilil, Bryan Brown (Breaker Morant, The Thorn Birds), and David Ngoombujarra (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Kangaroo Jack). I was also happy to see Bruce Spence, the Gyro Captain of The Road Warrior, in a bit part as a racist chief of police.

But the thing doesn’t hang together, and it goes on for too long. There’s too much repetition, for one thing. How many times do we have to see King George striking a yoga pose against a colorful background? And how many times must the drover come to Sarah’s rescue? The pacing slows to a crawl in the last half hour or so, which cycles through one false stop after another before finally lurching to an end as loose ends from the various storylines are neatly tied up.

Early on in their relationship, Sarah tries to comfort a grieving Nullah by stammering through the story of The Wizard of Oz. She’s painfully bad, sketching it out in such broad strokes that she’s done in two or three sentences.

If only Australia ended that quickly. Instead, it takes hours to do the same thing, floating so far above the surface of the stories it tells that it leaves our emotions untouched.