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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

Frost/Nixon: Bringing the Fight to the People

Posted by goldwriting on December 7, 2008

frostnixonmovie Did I have your phone tapped? Your voice sounds so familiar…

Rating: 9 out of 10

There are few things in life as exciting or exhilarating as watching a good fight. Maybe it’s the primate in us, a deep evolutionary need to see two people beat the piss out of each other in order to prove dominance. Maybe it’s the need to see a champion, someone we can look up to and model our own lives after. Or, on a slight chance, it’s the glimmer of hope we huddle around to keep us warm and keep our dreams from fading away, the dream that one day someone will topple the champ and change the world forever. Now you might think those emotions only get woken up during a purely physical battle, but if so, you are truly missing out on some of the best battles in human history. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated seven times in 1858 for control of the Illinois legislature and those verbal fencing matches were a preview of the power and eloquence with which Lincoln would bring to bear in his time as President. Almost exactly one hundred years later, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon took to the airwaves for the first ever televised debate between Presidential candidates. Those four on-air matches drew numerous comparisons to their predecessors of nearly a century before. Even in our latest election a highlight truly arrived during our one and only debate between Vice-Presidential candidates, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. While it might not have been the intelligence and skill in the fight we were all watching for, it still made for captivating television.

Yet one thing all those previous moments lacked was the dark cloud of obvious guilt and shame hanging over the head of Richard Nixon after he resigned the Presidency in disgrace over the Watergate scandal. A man who achieved amazing and brilliant things during his time in office was forced to step down and hang his head for something he was arguably not the first to do, just the first to get caught red-handed. I’m not defending Nixon, but in the context of political history, including any number of the documented and undocumented crimes committed by our still reigning President, Nixon was a lightweight. But for the American people of the 1960’s, his betrayal of the public office was the lowest they had seen a President stoop to and they demanded action. After newly sworn-in President Ford issued a complete and unequivocal pardon of Nixon, it seemed as though the American people were going to have to drink and eat whatever they could get their hands on to cover up the bad taste. But then one man stepped up to the plate, determined to give the people exactly what they wanted.

This is not just a history lesson; this is the premise and plot of Ron Howard‘s new film, Frost/Nixon. David Frost was a British talk show host who came up with the idea of interviewing Nixon after his resignation, but his original motives were not entirely altruistic. Mainly, he was a master of television audiences and he could feel the ratings he would get for such an interview would be outrageous. Once he locked the interview in place however, it became a monster he almost couldn’t control. The film is incredibly small in scale, beginning the year where Frost came up with the idea and ending within days after the interview was concluded. We get to see the build up to the big interview, but the actual recorded and tastefully lit chat between the two characters is really the lynch-pin on which the whole film rests. Thinking about the premise beforehand, it’s hard to imagine there being an incredible amount of tension in the movie-going audience, especially since we know what happens, but quality filmmaking and intelligent storytelling can make any old story seem new once again. By the time Frost and Nixon sit across from each other, microphones pinned to their lapels, handkerchiefs folded and makeup invisibly applied, the intensity is palpable. It was akin to watching a heavyweight boxing match, except one contender had never really felt the blow of a well-landed punch before. Once he does, the fear in his eyes truly brings the audience into his mindset. Luckily for us, both in the theater and in history, fear that might make some men run will make others fight all that much harder.

Ron Howard has been making movies for a number of years now and won a number of accolades and critical acclaim, but Frost/Nixon might end up topping them all. With a very simple story he found a way to display two very non-simple people. There is tension, anticipation and weight all brought to bear on a simple interview which ended up changing the lives of not only the people in the chairs, but the worldwide audience as well. Howard also got his two lead actors gift-wrapped, Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost. Both actors originally played their roles on stage to massive acclaim, so heading into the movie, they had these characters down cold. There is definitely a difference between playing a role on stage and playing it on film, but the internal work and preparation by these actors is a virtual treasure chest in comparison to what you get on most film sets. The moment they appear on screen, you can feel the depth and skill both actors gained from all their time put in. Frank Langella disappears into Nixon, truly embodying Nixon’s confident walk and sweeping movements of his arms, his imposing intrusion into people’s personal space, and finally the stoop — which on anyone else would have made them look old, but with Nixon is just made him look dangerous and determined. On the other side of the ring, we have Michael Sheen, who shined as David Frost, the plucky and charming television talk show host. There are some moments where Sheen is just listening to Langella rant on and on and Sheen displays an amazing level of intensity, fear and nearly overwhelming nervousness just by using his eyes. He doesn’t even have to move to show the wave after wave of emotional turmoil this man goes through while trying to go toe-to-toe with “Tricky Dick”. Both actors are strong contenders for nominations in the award season.

Beyond the powerhouse duo in front, there is a wealth of strong supporting cast. Sam Rockwell, one of Hollywood’s best go-to character actors, delivers an impassioned performance as James Reston Jr., one of the researchers on Frost’s team. He is the emotional anchor for the team, representing the anger, fury and bitter disappointment of the American people, and if there is one thing Rockwell does better than anything else, it’s playing disappointment and disdain (try poking your head into almost any scene in Choke). Right alongside Rockwell is another amazing talent, Oliver Platt, who plays Bob Zelnick, the more political structure based portion of Frost’s team. Platt continues to do his thing with great talent and shine without ever stealing scenes or trying to make the moment about him. He can be the star of the show if cast that way, but his true talent is blending into an ensemble and making everyone around him better for it. If you’ve never really experienced Platt, I would happily and heartily suggest Casanova and The Three Musketeers, both brilliant comedic performances. A little on the lesser-known side is Matthew Macfadyen, who plays John Birt, Frost’s manager, who continually rallies the troops and sticks by his side even when things are at their most bleak. Macfadyen brought a great sense of strength and loyalty that kept the audience in check and never giving up on Frost and his ultimate goal. As if we needed another name to add to the list, this will benefit all those addicts of the “Six Degrees” game, Kevin Bacon plays Jack Brennan, Nixon’s Chief of Staff and most devoted servant. Bacon lays it on thick, the dogged determination and defense of Nixon, even in the final moments when it all is slipping away. A solid job from an incredibly consistent actor.

Recommendation: If you like movies about important moments in American History, you should like this. If you like Ron Howard films, you should like this. If you like purely character pieces, you should like this. If you are looking for sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, you might wanna move on by. Lastly, if you are like me and try to watch everything on the Oscar nominated list, I’m putting good money this film will end up on there somewhere, whether for acting, directing or writing. Save yourself the rush of trying to track it down during awards season and catch it now.
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Rachel Getting Married: Performances Outpace Story

Posted by goldwriting on October 4, 2008

I remember what it was like to blink. Those were good days.

In every actor’s career there comes a moment where the critics and audiences rally around jumping for joy about how they’ve just witnessed a breakthrough performance. As stunning as these performances are, the term “breakthrough” always felt a little out of place to me since it’s only on rare occasions the actor in question is relatively new. Most times they are people who have been pounding the boards and scraping the screen for years. In those terms, the breakthrough is nothing more than a large group of people seeing that actor in a new light for the first time, mostly in something they never imagined before. Now the newly colored spotlight falls on Anne Hathaway and her powerful turn as Kym in Rachel’s Getting Married.

The film is a slice of life piece detailing a small space of time, only a few days, where Kym returns home from a rehab clinic just in time for her sister Rachel’s wedding. Anyone who has ever taken part in arranging a wedding, especially one taking place in the family home, knows the extreme stress already present, so toss a young, partially unstable girl into the mix and top it off with a nice coating of family denial and dark skeletons in the hallway closet, then you get the full picture of this film. Relationships are strained, ties pulled so tight and taut they could snap and still they try to work it out through screaming, laughing and crying (not necessarily in that order). After all, it’s about a wedding, who’s not happy at those?

Before giving Anne her due credit, let me shed some light on someone most people won’t know off the top of their heads. Rosemarie DeWitt plays the title role of Rachel and she does it with the utmost tenderness and subtlety. What she brings across is the inherent hatred, resentment and unending compassion sisters can feel for each other, even through the worst of storms. With a film more comfortable in the category of “ensemble piece”, Rosemarie is the catalyst and pushes the energy along, changing and charging every one of her scenes. But the light shines brightest on Anne Hathaway as Kym, the ex-junkie, ex-alcoholic, ex-return rehab patient bordering on becoming an ex-family member. Audiences claim this as a breakthrough performance because they fell in love with Anne in The Princess Diaries movies, Ella Enchanted and the wonderfully wicked The Devil Wears Prada. Yet what they might not remember is she’s played rougher, tougher roles in Havoc and Brokeback Mountain, showing the more mature and adult side of her skills. So I wasn’t all that shocked to witness the brilliance she brought to this film, but I will celebrate it all the same. Anne jumps in and exposes a vulnerability, a cavern of pain and lost love, which drives the emotional core of the picture. From opening credits to the closing moment, she is the elephant in the room everyone must deal with and the magical point is this is the first time where the audience can begin to empathize with the elephant and not the onlookers. I can’t end the acting portion of this review without bringing up Bill Irwin and Debra Winger as well. Bill plays her father and churns out a tenderness only an accomplished actor such as himself could generate. There are such small moments, such tiny fractures in his facade which allow you to peer into the heart of a man trying to choose between his greatest love and his greatest loss. On the other side, Debra Winger plays her mother, who has chosen to block out the pain in her past and skate by the rest of her life, allowing the blackness and hurt to fester and suffocate any chance at a real connection with her daughters. As you can read, the acting on display here is sensational and will undoubtedly be remembered during awards season.

As a total film, I’m not sure the story reaches the same heights. A lot of great scenes and spectacular moments are created, but the story lacks cohesion. A particular subplot about the family and its deep love for music is mentioned and referred to over and over, but never fully explained or explored, which weighs down later scenes during the wedding celebration and the overlong musical sequences. During most of the musical moments, all I really wanted was to get back to the story, back to the family and to Kym. Also, the connection between Rosemarie and her soon-to-be husband Sydney (played by Tunde Adebimpe) never quite comes across. There is a wonderful moment during their wedding vows, but it could have been helped even more if their relationship had been more centered earlier on.

On the directing front, Jonathan Demme, with the assistance of a touchingly tender script from Jenny Lumet, helps craft a reality we can all believe in, a home we can all feel we’ve been to before. Much of this intimacy and nuance came from the free form style of camera movement, with the actors never knowing where and when the camera was going to appear on them. Everyone was basically playing everything from the moment he yelled action, so there were emotional surprises around every pan of the camera. That technique gave the movie a certain level of improv or even documentary feeling, like the audience was the most silent of voyeurs.

Recommendation: A powerful series of moments, filled with terrific acting, that don’t quite come together as a film. Certainly has great value to witness, but the theater experience might not be necessary. Also, this really is meant for those viewers not afraid to open themselves up to it.

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