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Doubt: Titans Clash Over Sheer Intensity

Posted by goldwriting on January 16, 2009

doubt I was told by a reliable source that black is the new black this year.

Rating: 7 out of 10

There are numerous ways to tell a story. You can paint a picture which conveys one image, but a library worth of emotion. You can write a piece of music which seeps in behind the eyes and speaks even more directly to the heart. Hell, some people can even tell a story through the presentation of a seven course meal with a well thought out menu. Yet two of the most popular ways to tell a story are on stage and on screen and every now and again one story takes that perilous walk from one to the other. Sometimes the results can be fascinating, like opening up a whole new way to think about the characters and the story as a whole, but on other occasions all you do is sit back and wish you’d seen it in its original form. Sometimes, just sometimes, where you’re born is where you’re meant to stay.

As you might guess, that is how I feel about Doubt.

Doubt is a story about a power struggle between Sister Aloysius Beauvier, an overbearing, discipline-driven nun and Father Brendan Flynn, a younger, more socially-forward pastor that the Sister unwillingly works for. Sister Aloysius is alerted to a possible inappropriate situation going on between Father Flynn and a young boy in the church and she goes on a hell-bent tirade to root him out, no matter what the cost or the complete lack of proof she has. With conviction and passion on her side and logic and the absence of proof on his side, these two deeply entrenched personalities battle over truth, what you are allowed to do to get it and finally, if you really need it at all.

The story originated as a play written by John Patrick Shanley and he went on to write the screenplay and direct the film himself. In most cases you don’t get that lucky, to have the original creator still in such control over the new permutation, but Shanley made sure he kept the tone and power of the story intact during its newest transformation. In a certain respect that might be part of the problem. In the original play only four characters were in it: the nun, the father, the younger nun and the mother of the boy in question. With the film, many more people had to be created to fill out the world they lived in and on occasion it worked perfectly, creating fluid movement between the scenes with the major characters, but every now and again you could feel the presence of a band-aid type of moment, only there to hold things together while we got to something actually important. Also, I haven’t read the play or ever seen it on stage, but the character of the boy’s mother only has one scene in the film, albeit an incredibly powerful one, and it feels like she could have been made much more integral to the film. The dialogue is intense, pointed and incredibly crisp, but that much is to be expected coming from such an accomplished playwright as Shanely. As a play, Doubt had already taken home the 2005 Drama Desk Award, a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Not too shabby.

In some of the transfers from stage to screen, the studios and directors will reach out to those actors already familiar with the material and bring in the original cast members (as was done with Frost/Nixon with Langella and Sheen), but Shanely made a specific choice to not invite his stage cast into the film project because he knew with the growth of the world he had to create for the film, those actors would have a harder time adapting to the new version of the story and they would feel out of place with the rest of the cast. So he brought in new blood to the project and I can truly say he chose incredibly well. Philip Seymour Hoffman took on the role of Father Flynn and he attacked it with the passion and sensitivity we have all come to know and expect from him. There is an honesty about him, even when he is playing a villain, that makes the audience side with him on nearly anything. Standing across the religious ring from him was Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius. She channeled every child’s worst nightmare of their Catholic school upbringing into this devout and devious despot. From the moment she lets her brain lock onto the possibility of Father Flynn’s misdeed, she tenaciously grabs hold, sets her head down and barrels over anyone and everything in her path. Like most movies born on the stage, this has some truly amazing scenes and one particular fight between Hoffman and Streep is stunning in the level of intensity, power and outrage they both escalate to. Shyly trying to not impede on the performances of her cast mates is Amy Adams as the young and innocent Sister James. She has the unwanted joy of lighting the match which burns through this entire piece and the second she lights it her face and heart drops knowing it will lead to something awful. Adams is still climbing the ladder of her already illustrious career and few are doing it with such variety and skill as her. It’s understandable that she would feel somewhat intimidated by tangling with Hoffman and Streep, but her talent holds up quite well in such company. Rounding out the original four characters is Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller. Davis only gets one scene in the entire film, so maybe it was the knowledge of that which made her decide to knock it completely out of the park. She shared time in that scene only with Streep, but instead of letting the audience revel in Streep’s already well-known talent, Davis injects herself with bravado, self-righteousness and gives Streep her only ass-whooping of the film. With only words, Streep looks like she has been bowled over by a cement truck by the end of a scene where the two characters simply walk down a small path. Davis went along to be nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama and it was well deserved.

In the end my reason for thinking it most likely works better on stage is due to the rest of the world feeling somewhat forced. The original four are still the only truly interesting characters and when we are away from them, we just end up wondering where they are. Also the tone and pacing is still very much that of a play and the film runs incredibly fast, so the ending feels a touch abrupt in my book. Shanely also mentioned in an interview that he wanted to make sure the audience left with a sense of doubt about whether the alleged event of Father Flynn ever really took place. Unfortunately for me, Hoffman’s performance never gave me too much feeling on his guilt and Streep’s inability to see any logic outside of her own made her seem too oblivious and misguided to be on the right side of the argument. There were some quick shots later referred to in an effort to shed a cracked light on Father Flynn, but it was too little too late for me.

Recommendation: This particular film with lose nothing in the shift from big screen to TV, so feel free to wait on that account. If you are a connoisseur of acting, this is a great example of some true pros at work, but if you’re looking for a more well-rounded plot, this might not fit the bill.

Reviews Coming Soon: Seven Pounds, Yes Man, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and many more…

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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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