Best of 2008

It’s hard for me to pick a “best” film of 2008 because, the truth is, the term has very little meaning beyond a certain level. As Woody Allen supposedly said, “On what basis are you going to compare my film with Star Wars?”

Well, you could compare acting. Half of the acting in Star Wars is laughably bad, and 2/3rds of the dialogue. But in the lighting and sound editing departments, there’s no contest, right? But, of course, we’re not talking production values per se when we talk about “best”.

You could compare subject matter: A love story about trivial, neurotic people, no matter how good, maybe isn’t worthy of the same consideration as an epic story of good versus evil. Or perhaps a childish fantasy isn’t worth comparing to a realistic look at modern life. Take your pick.

You could factor in popularity, and Star Wars would finish only behind Gone With The Wind–and if you factored popularity over time, Star Wars would almost certainly end up the winner. The fun-factor seldom seems to get considered at the Oscars, either. Or you could look at the difficulty factor: Star Wars was a harder movie to make, and it attempted (successfully!) things that had never been done.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences generally factor in all these things to come up with uniquely wrong answers. In ‘77, it’s hard to say what good movies might’ve been passed over, except perhaps Soldier of Orange. (And I probably would’ve picked Close Encounters of the Third Kind as my favorite movie that year.)

With that in mind, let me make my uniquely wrong choice. First, my top nine, which met my criteria mixing subject matter, entertainment value, and the various other factors.

  1. Changeling
  2. Let The Right One In
  3. Rachel Getting Married
  4. Slumdog Millionaire
  5. Tropic Thunder
  6. Wall-E
  7. Defiance
  8. Frost/Nixon
  9. Gran Torino

By subject matter, I can eliminate Let The Right One In, Rachel Getting Married and Tropic Thunder. These topics (adolescence, addiction and stoopid Hollywood) border on the trivial, however well done. I can eliminate Slumdog Millionaire and Gran Torino for being formulaic. Frost/Nixon can go, because it’s so imbalanced: Frost needed to be a lot stronger a character to compete with Nixon. Wall-E is a tour-de-force, particularly as the greatest silent/slapstick movie in 70 years, but doesn’t end as strong as it starts. The Changeling, while a very strong movie, and an emotionally resonant one, doesn’t exactly challenge the viewer with its muckraking of a long dead Los Angeles.

(The above paragraph, by the way, is basically nonsense. I’m not really figuring anything out; I’ve decided well in advance and am making silly arguments to justify it.)

My pic, then, is Defiance, which I hinted at in my previous post. It’s been growing on me since I saw it, at least in part because I think director Edward Zwick is increasingly able to avoid the sort of facile treatments he’s given earlier films (he has an Oscar for Shakespeare In Love!) to present a more complex subject in a clear fashion.

Maybe timeliness is a factor, too. Defiance is, essentially, about the breakdown of society and how survival requires a brutal adherence to a system of ethics, but also how we have (many of us) the necessary toughness to endure the worst and survive even when the forces against us seem insurmountable.

It resonates.

Even though it takes place 65 years ago, it’s not a fantasy or ancient history. It still resonates–which is part of the reason a lot of the critics downgraded it, I think. Though to be fair, when I read the critics’ reviews, I keep asking myself if they saw the same movie. Maybe history will prove me wrong, but I think it’s the under-rated gem of the year.

More seriously, for whatever reason Changeling didn’t quite hit home for me. And while I love Wall-E and have seen it many times by this point, it’s basically just another great Pixar film. The Pixar film in any year is worth considering for “best picture”, but I think WALL-E gets an (incidental) boost because it’s so politically correct. Even so, I think it’s a safe bet to say that this (and all Pixar films) are going to be the most viewed films in future generations: classic children’s tales always have the longest life.

I asked one other moviegoing guy his best and he said Frost/Nixon, a choice I would be hard-pressed to deny. Interestingly, he said he probably favored it because of the overlap with his own life, where to me, I like it precisely because of the (call it) “fantasy” element.

So, as always: Your mileage may vary.

The Oscars Clog

We’re at that dreaded time of the year: Most of the good movies out are Oscar-nominated films that we’ve already seen or aren’t on our list. The only one we haven’t seen is The Class, which I’ve resisted because it sounds like Stand By Me And Deliver Our Dangerous Minds To Dead Poets. Only in French.

Joaquin Phoenix’s latest (last?) movie is out, too, Two Lovers but I don’t have a good read on that.

Of course, there’s always the Friday The 13th remake, but I hate to encourage that sort of thing.

Revolutionary Road Warrior

Easily the best part of this movie is when Humongous sends his S&M punk troops in to crash the suburban home in an attempt to steal their gasoline.

Ha! I wish!

No, no, this is Revolutionary Road, starring Kate & Leo, together again for the first time since Titanic. And director Sam Mendes is here to tell us they were better off when Leo drowned. For all the crap I’ve heaped on this movie, it’s better than the trailer makes it out to be.

But isn’t Ms. Winslet a charmer? She stars as the most horrible, narcissistic, self-absorbed characters in film, wreaking a swath of destruction wherever she goes–and not even the usual femme fatale type swath, but the inconstant lover swath–and yet we keep going back to see her do it again (and again and again)!

The story here is trite enough: Boy meets girl, boy and girl have a lot of pillow talk about grand adventures, girl gets knocked up, boy gets job and buys girl house, boy knocks up girl again, and both are really depressed.

It’s a little better than that, fortunately, because the two characters are so unlikeable at first, you sort of wish they would do one of those murder-suicide things. April (Winslet) is a wannabe actress, but she’s really horrible. She’s also moody and uncommunicative and none-too-bright Frank (Di Caprio) hasn’t figured that out.

Frank, not feeling special, has a fling with the new girl in the steno pool–gets her drunk first, too, classy!–but then comes home to find new passion in his wife who has concocted the following plan: Move to Paris; they live on savings and money from the house; April will get a government job; Frank can use the time to “find himself”.

This reinvigorates their marriage so much, they have spontaneous, unprotected sex, apparently unaware that that activity can have long-term effects. Meanwhile, Frank, in a moment of ebullience, did something noteworthy and is offered a big promotion–a once in a lifetime thing.

So while Frank is starting to feel good about things, April is getting increasingly depressed. Things go downhill from here.

This is when I began to realize what a truly horrible person April is. She’s so focused on being “special” that she can’t see the esteem in which others see her and Frank. (Or she can, but lacking any respect for those who admire her, she doesn’t care.) I thought we were seeing another side of her when she came up with the Paris plan, but then I realized it meant: 1) getting out of their neighborhood; 2) getting away from their kids; 3) attaching herself to Frank’s future achievements.

This becomes painfully apparent when Frank’s newfound satisfaction results in less happiness for her, and her subsequent actions get more and more selfish. (Though I wonder if Winslet sees any of this. She’s the one who failed to see her Nazi character as a sexual predator.)

Anyway, while I enjoyed American Beauty because I saw it as upbeat–no, really–this movie doesn’t give you any positive thoughts to close on.

For sheer moviegoing pleasure, I thought the movie dragged a lot until April comes up with the Paris plan, then it starts to drag again at the ends of both act 2 and act 3. And as much as I love Michael Shannon (who drives the little horror flick Bug), his character has to be one of the laziest and ham-handed literary devices I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Not to say he doesn’t do the part well, ‘cause he does, but the whole “Aaaand here’s the crazy guy who perceives the situation between Frank and April perfectly and explains it thoroughly to that part of the audience that hasn’t figured it out yet” is completely unnecessary.

The Boy basically liked it. He disagreed with the premise, though, finding suburbia far from hellish. Of course, now, when he’s taking out the trash, he looks pensively up-and-down the street–’cause that’s just what a smartass he is.

And on that last point, the house Frank & April have is gorgeous, and they just have to walk across the street to find themselves in the woods! They’re tramping through the woods explaining how they have to get away from it all at one point.

But, you know, okay, the point is (in part) that it’s not for everyone. However nice your situation is, if you don’t want it, it’s unpleasant. And at least the movie doesn’t force that point on you; I was sort of surprised by that. I perceived it that Frank found a way to be happy there, and that April’s exceeding selfishness stopped her from being happy.

Whether they meant it that way or not is another issue.

Waltz With Bashir

You don’t see a lot of animated documentaries these days and truth be told, Waltz With Bashir’s style reminded me a lot of Ralph Bakshi. Computerized rotoscoping, perhaps?

This is an odd, almost feckless movie, about a man who was involved in the Lebanon War of 1982 and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. But he doesn’t remember it at all. He just has this dream of being chased by 26 angry dogs. He goes to find other people who were there, and learn their stories–none of them remember being at the massacre either.

The opening scenes feature two different instances of soldiers shooting (a lot, for a long period) with no idea what they’re shooting at. There seems to be no commander anywhere. We saw this in Apocalypse Now, of course, but in that case, we were deep in enemy territory. In this case, it’s like they walked down the street. But I guess these wars do take place in small spaces.

I didn’t think the IDF was that disorganized. But, as I said, this is supposed to be semi-autobiographical.

It’s sort of indicative of the random stories being told. From what I can tell, the Israelis invaded Lebanon allied with the Christian Phalangists after the assassination of Lebanese President-Elect Bashir Gemayel. The massacre occurred as Israeli forces invaded and the Phalangists used them as cover to go into certain areas and slaughter civilians.

In stereotypical Jewish fashion, the Israelis–who from the looks of things couldn’t have stopped this if they tried–feel really, really guilty about this. I mean, I’m guessing we won’t see any parallel film come out of Palestine. (Though in fairness to the Palestinians, their cameras are all tied up staging inflammatory news stories.) And it’s pretty clear from the story that the terrorists they were trying to kill loved to hang out with the civilians. (I have to investigate the historical precedent for the common Israeli tactic of “OK, we’re going to attack you, so if you’re not the enemy, you’ll want to be running away now.” I wonder if any other nation has done that routinely?)

But war is heck and leads to a lot of morally and ethically ambiguous situations that can be traumatic and haunt you for decades after–kind of the same theme as Gran Torino, actually, though Torino turns that on its head–and this movie shows us the various hecks that the various Israeli soldiers endure.

It’s pretty effective, I suppose. The Boy was fascinated and unsure, but he seems to be trending more favorable toward as time goes on.

I didn’t check the parental stuff beforehand, so I was a bit surprised when there was a scene of an Israeli commander issuing orders while watching hard-core porn. You probably want to keep that in mind before showing it to the kids. I mean, if the graphic violence wasn’t sufficient. There are also some surreal nude scenes.

It wasn’t boring. It’s probably worth re-watching, even. But I think I was put off a bit by the introspectiveness of it.

This is the only one of the foreign language films up for the Oscar I’ve seen this year. I might also go see Class–but damned if it doesn’t sound like that movie that gets made every 2-3 years here, about the teacher in the inner city? I think the last one of those I saw had Edward James Olmos in it.

Friday The 13th, Part 2

You almost have to admire a movie that completely invalidates its own predecessor in the first few minutes.

WARNING: Once again, here be spoilers.

The first 6-7 minutes of Part 2 recaps the last several scenes of Part 1, and ends with the sole survivor of Part 1 (Adrienne King) getting a screwdriver to the head. After which, the killer politely removes her tea kettle from the stove.

Part 2 is full of unintentionally silly things like that.

But the big ol’ plot flaw is, of course, Jason Voorhees, ghost of the first film, ends up the slasher in this, and most of the remaining movies. He’s not a supernatural force, though, he’s a kid who grew up in the wild.

Wait, what? Didn’t his mother kill everyone for letting him die? Are you saying she wasn’t a mother-of-the-year candidate as she pretended? Jason wasn’t really dead at all?

This movie takes place five years after the last one, so that young Jason could grow up. Lest you find yourself inclined to give the film makers credit for even that, I remind you that Jason died in 1958. That was spelled out in Part 1. He dies, the there are murders the following year, the camp burns down.

So, were he not an undead creature, he’d be in his 30s by part 1. Unless we are to presume that the first movie takes place in 1960 and this one in 1965. (Pay no attention to the jogging suits!)

Well, a sequel was needed. This one has even more sex and maybe even more violence than the last and because there’s no need for a Scooby-Doo reveal, it has the more plausible hulking figure of a grown-up Jason doing his dirty deeds.

Oh, he’s gonna get those counselors back for…for…for…um…chasing him off and forcing him to live in the woods while convincing his mother he had drowned.

No drugs in this one, unless you count alcohol. Actually, if memory serves, there’s really not much drug use in any of the movies. That’s one of those things–like the virgin living–that comes more from fuzzy memories.

Much like the original movie, it doesn’t really matter who survives this one. But we know when Amy Steel starts to sort-of defend Jason that she’s the one. I love the little speech she gives when she’s trying to be sensitive to what Jason might have become, “What would he be like today? Out of control psycho? Frightened retard? Child trapped in a man’s body?”

Well, whatever he is, he managed to track down the survivor from the first movie, call her on the phone, pick the lock on the door to her house–remember, she’s having constant nightmares five years later, no way does she not lock the door–and ninja up behind her despite the hard-soled “casual elegance” shoes, which he’ll later change for a pair of shiny black ones.

So, obviously not “full retard”.

I believe this is the first movie to give us the full-on cheat shock. When the guy in the wheelchair–you heard me–gets it, the camera closes on him from front and back. There’s no one around. When it gets in close, an arm with a cleaver comes out of nowhere to chop the guy across the face. But in order for that angle to make any sense, Jason would have to be kneeling or crouching at a 45 degree angle in front of the guy, and we’ve already seen there’s no one there.

This pales compared to when he garottes ol’ Crazy Ralph from behind a large tree! Long arms, that guy, to reach with the garotte over the top of the tree and then bring it down in front of Ralph’s neck. Or maybe he nun-chucked it.

Stuff like this, which ultimately becomes the hallmark of the F13 series, really destroys any chance to achieve suspense, unless it’s the sort of suspense you get from wondering when Bugs Bunny is going to let Elmer Fudd have it.

About the wheelchair thing: It’s not until Kane Hodder takes on the role of Jason in the 7th movie that there are any rules to his behavior, and so the Jason of the early films is just not a very nice guy. Guy in wheelchair? Fair game. Children or animals? Fair game.


This movie does less sproingy-body tricks than the previous, presumably because Jason doesn’t have his mother’s engineering savvy (though he does manage to make himself a nice rope-tree trap), but it has a particularly odd scene where Jason kills a couple in bed, hangs the guy’s body up on the wall, does something unknown with the girl’s, and then gets in bed and waits! Because he knows, I guess, that someone will come looking in that bed soon enough. (Nobody would think of letting a young couple be undisturbed for the night, I guess.)

What’s awesome is that he then hides all of the bodies, but without ever leaving the house. I think he even manages to take one of the bodies to his forest hideout, too, while in pursuit of the surviving counselors. You wish you were that creative.

Despite his teleportation skills, Jason’s pretty weak in this one. He gets knocked over by the slight Amy Steel, she kicks him in the groin, and she confuses him by dressing like his mother. (Hello, Oepdipus!) He stands on a rickety chair to fool the girl under the bed into thinking he’s gone. (Say what? What kind of killing-machine slasher doesn’t just drive his pitchfork through the bed, like he’s done so many times before?)

In a weak attempt to recreate the thunder of the original, the two survivors “kill” Jason–who wears a flour sack over his head in this one–only to crash through a window and grab the girl sans mask. (He looks like a cross between the Elephant Man and Jack Black as the farmer in this Mr. Show sketch, “The Farm House Musical”.)

Inexplicably, Amy Steel (“Ginny”) is left alive while the hapless John Furey (“Paul”) simply vanishes. No rhyme or reason, except perhaps to give the series a protagonist.

Somewhat amusingly, Adrienne King, the survivor from Part 1 wasn’t offered a big role in Part 2 due to a miscommunication–and Amy Steel wouldn’t take any role in Part 3 on her agent’s advice. At least Steel and Furey would go on to have real careers, even as F13 would go on to lack any semblance of continuity.

Gore-wise, this one is particularly uninspired. A lot of slit throats, an impalement (a twofer!) and members of the cast seem to just vanish. (They actually do: They go into town, never to return, not even when the police are hauling away Amy Steel at the end.)

The next entry in the series would rip off a few of the original movies’ deaths, but would at least provide some particularly creative new ones–and in eye-popping (heh) 3D. It would also be the first film not to take place on Friday the 13th. (Not that this ever seemed to be a prominent feature in any of the movies. Let’s be honest, they called it “Friday the 13th” because they needed a holiday and “Groundhog Day” just doesn’t sound very scary.)

Friday The 13th (1980)

In honor of the upcoming explosive remake of the film-series equivalent of “The Guest That Wouldn’t Leave”, I thought I’d review the original series. The remake already cracks me up, with the extended trailer being a second-long shot of everyone killed in the movie. (13 people, get it?)

Suspense is over-rated, I guess. Although one of those 13 looks like it might actually be the mad killer his own self, so there’s some suspense there if you don’t know that it’s impossible to kill a successful horror villain.

WARNING: I’m going to spoil like crazy since the movie is almost 30 years old, and it was pretty well spoiled on the day it came out.

As a little background, I should note that I rather despised this series as it was happening. I saw one in the theater. I saw the first one on TV because I’d heard so much about it. I saw the third one in the theater, because it was in 3D. (I saw, I think, all of the 3D movies that came out in the ‘80s, and they had two things in common: They ranged from bad to unimaginably awful, and the glasses made my eyes hurt.) That was about it until long after the series ended (the first time) in 1993.

For various perverse reasons that would require you to report me to Children’s Services, I’m not going to explain how it is that I’ve become something of an expert on the series. You’ll just have to take it on faith that I am, and that I’m very, very sorry for what I’ve done.

Anyway, over time, I began to appreciate the sheer awfulness of the films. They’re not just bad singly, they’re bad as a series. Jason Voorhees is an iconic slasher now, of course, but it took six movies to come up with the complete ensemble and “character” that he’s now recognized as–and which only lasted for the next two movies before the series ended with the ninth. (Though the modern “reboot”, of course, skips all that.)

The basic premise of the film is simple: Halloween had cost less than half-a-million to make and made nearly $40M, couldn’t similar returns be had for an even cheaper movie that stole the best ideas?

If you think I’m being snarky, I’m not really: One refreshing thing about F13 is that nobody making that first movie had any pretensions whatsoever. The various interviews of cast and crew that can be found start with, “Well, I needed the money and …” Betsy Palmer needed to buy a car (scroll to last question).

The story itself borrows more from Scooby-Doo than Halloween: Mysterious disappearances at a summer camp are caused by a completely unknown character who is unmasked at the film’s climax. (In the above article, Palmer says that she told director Cunningham that it was unfair only to show her at the end, but that he was right. I’m unconvinced. It did feel like cheating.)

As I said, they’re stealing from Halloween, which basically had a slasher who was hung up on sex and fond of posing bodies in freaky ways, so they base the story around naughty counsellors who have sex and smoke pot, and really does some very elaborate body posing. I mean, we’re talking wires and pulleys–it’s extensive.

Which adds to the absurdity when we discover that 54-year-old Betsy Palmer is the culprit. Not only is she able to easily dispatch virile young Kevin Bacon (and his prominent penis), she’s able to lift bodies into trees and cause them to fall out at appropriate moments.

She kills Bacon by grabbing his forehead from underneath the bed–hella long arms–holding him down, and driving a knife or spear through the mattress, through his spine and out through the front of his throat. And then turning it.

So, it’s not just a cheat, it’s a ridiculous cheat. And then Palmer finds herself challenged trying to dispatch the frail Adrienne King. Their fight scene is, admittedly, pretty intense.

Oh, what? You wanted to hear about Kevin Bacon’s penis? It’s not a big deal (ha!), he waves it around more than Harvey Keitel. It may be accidental in this film but during the swimming scene, he’s wearing a very, very tight Speedo-like brief. Did I mention that he’s circumcized?

The scene where young Jason Voorhees makes his appearance (to the “Love Theme from Friday the 13th”) is definitely a shocker though it, too, makes no sense. We have to assume that he is some sort of undead creature, since the whole impetus for the slaughters was his death. (Plus, the flesh is falling off his skull.)

Or we could assume it was just a dream.

The next movie will completely undermine any logical or even coherent supernatural explanations for what Jason is or was.

A lot of imagined slasher conventions grew up around this series. For example, because Michael Meyers of Halloween killed everyone but the virginal Laurie Strode, there’s this imagined cliché that the “good girl” is the survivor. But as a veteran of ’80s horror movies, I can assure you there seldom was a good girl. And in this, first in the series, Jason’s first modern victim doesn’t have a chance to do anything. She’s just killed for having the audacity to apply for a job at a summer camp.

The survivor, Alice (Adrienne King), is not a good girl, either. Although she’s not shown having sex with the camp director, the implication is there. She is shown smoking weed, too. Although the “one female survivor” trope is the rule for, I think, most of the movies, the big problem here is that the characters are bland enough to completely interchangeable.

Now, if the purpose of the movies is to showcase gory special effects, we can give at least the first movie its due: This was pretty graphic stuff for the time, and fairly convincing. Of course, as time has passed and movies have gotten shorter and shorter shots, those full 2-3 second gore shots have aged very poorly.

High definition makes it even worse: You can pretty much see how all the effects were done now. In fact, in some shots, the fake skin is so obvious as to make you wonder how you ever fell for it.

This movie duplicated Halloween’s box office success but lacked a director like Carpenter whose idea of hell would be producing sequel after sequel of the same crap. Hence, the next eight movies.

Believe it or not, the series goes downhill from here: Way down.

Frost & Nixon & Ted & Alice

Over the years, I’ve had to re-look at most of what I know about right-wing politicians because the stories I got were growing up (from school and the media) were so one-sided, that I just learned to qualify any of that atmospheric “everyone knows” stuff with the question, “Well, how does everyone know this?”

Even so, Tricky Dick was still in my book as a slippery, sleazy guy. Not so much for Watergate, which strikes me as a relatively trivial offense on the scale of Presidential crimes. (Criminally stupid, I’ll grant.) But for his rather ruthless use of various agencies to harass and punish his enemies.

Plus, he was a conservative when conservative meant “for massively expanding governmental powers, but okay with Jesus and anti-hippie.” The EPA, price-controls, kind of like W, only without W’s remarkable honesty.

I’m sure it’s not what Ron “Gee, I Hope I Get To Vote For Someone As Great As Obama Someday” Howard had in mind, but Frost/Nixon made me think that I’ve maybe been too harsh on the guy. I sort of feel like this movie was targeted at the Boomers who hated Nixon with every fiber of their being (like Matt Groening, who brought back Nixon’s head 25 years later in Futurama), and so that we’re assumed to identify with the “journalists” who join Frost in an effort to get the disgraced President.

But since I’m not one of those guys, I sat there going: “Ah. So the whole point of the interviews–for everyone but Frost–was to wring a confession of guilt out of the Nixon. Anything less meant failure and disgrace for eveyrone involved in the project.”

Let me back up a bit and say, this is a movie chock full of great acting. I’ve heard some criticisms of Frank Langella’s Nixon, but I think those views come from people who remember the guy. Langella plays Nixon like King Lear: He’s a towering giant of man, not just in stature but in ability. He’s sly, powerful, elusive, frighteningly intelligent and he intimidates his enemies easily. He controls the space, he rumbles with Langella’s marvellous bass, and he’s so confident, it’s only his enemies absolute conviction that he’s evil that keeps them strong.

Problem is, he doesn’t come across as evil at all. In fact, there are so many points in the movie where he’s validated–as a powerhouse diplomat, as a strong leader, even his defense of Vietnam is better than his enemies’ attack–that when the moment finally comes where he admits to abuse of power, it seems sort of trivial. Downright petty even. And his own confession of guilt and clear feelings of disappointment and shame, well, 30 years out, I began to feel like we weren’t really worthy of him–and that I wouldn’t mind having him in charge today.

TIP: If you want to demonize someone, you probably shouldn’t put a great stage actor up there to play him. And it’s possible, I suppose, they weren’t trying to.

In any event, the whole movie ends up having an almost Amadeus-like surreality to it. Like we’re watching a clash of Titans. Or a titan being brought down by ankle-biters.

Michael Sheen (who gave a brilliant performance as Tony Blair in The Queen) plays David Frost with Matthew MacFayden (Mr. Darcy of Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice) as his friend (agent? producer?) . They pick up the always dependable Olver Platt and Sam Rockwell (as Bob Zelnick and James Reston, Jr. respectively) for their American research team. And Frost picks up chippie Caroline Cushing (played by Rebecca Hall of The Prestige) and parties with her in ‘70s Los Angeles while the project is being put together.

Sheen’s Frost is a media-savvy charmer, a playboy, and a bit of a dilettante until the very end. He’s portrayed as being outclassed for most of the interview. (This is largely fictitious; Obviously Frost didn’t rise to prominence being a lightweight.)

The Nixon side features Toby Jones (who played Truman Capote in one of the two Capote bios that came out a few years ago) as the only truly reprehensible character in the movie: talent agent Swifty Lazar. TV news personality Diane Sawyer apparently helped Nixon write his memoirs, so there’s an actress playing her. But there’s really not much room on the Nixon side for anyone else, with one exception.

Kevin Bacon plays the most heroic figure, Jack Brennan. To get a sense of this guy, you can read this article in People from 1976. Bacon will probably be ignored and underestimated as usual, but the movie’s great emotional moments are his and Langella’s.

Again, I have to wonder if this was the intention: Without any preconceived notions, Nixon comes out nearly heroic. A tragic hero, for sure, but heroic nonetheless. The script refers numerous times to his achievements (his foreign policy coups with Kruschev and Mao), and even his fiercest opponents admit that he was quite accomplished. They just believe him to be criminal.

I saw a man with great ambition and ability who was beset by partisan hacks out to destroy him. They blame him for Vietnam, for the Khmer Rouge, for Watergate–though the point is never the crime, as the gotcha–and all Nixon wants is respect. There’s a fictitious scene where a drunk Nixon calls Frost and goes on a rambling analysis of his own and Frost’s sense of inferiority which I felt overplayed the dramatic hand, but even that didn’t undermine my sense that this was a partisan witch hunt.

This is the guy who famously won his first election by (falsely) accusing his opponent of being a communist. (Though, you know, come to think of it, maybe that’s an “everyone knows” thing, too. The guy was a massive liberal/New Deal type.) The real Frost interviewed the real Nixon on that topic but that wasn’t part of the movie.

Meh. Treat it like you would Amadeus or Richard the III–an interesting fiction with historical figures as characters–and you can have a good time.

The tough question is whether Langella or Jenkins (The Visitor) should win the Oscar. The two performances are nearly polar opposites.

Reprint: Children of Men

In the year 2027…

Women are barren. And have been for 18 years.

OK, it’s not exactly Terminator plot-wise. But while this isn’t a sexy premise, it’s a reasonable one for a movie about dystopia. Besides no new children being born, the world is trying to get into England because of a world-wide famine. (And…England is where the food is? Meh, the movie is English, so let’s just roll with it.)

At the helm is Alfonso Cuaron (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and on-screen, primarily, is the ultra-cool Clive Owen (Sin City) being a little more “every man” here, as the guy who’s tagged by terrorists/rebels/insurgents to transport a woman to The Human Project. (Something about dystopia movies requires that they mention a refuge for the protagonist to escape to, I guess.) The woman, of course, is pregnant.

From this springs a chase movie, action punctuated only by periodic (unnecessary) exposition and peppered throughout with revolution music. Said music is a little out of place, actually, since virtually everyone in 2027 is an asshole (pardon my French), including Owen’s ex-wife, Julianne Moore, who gets him into this mess in the first place.

Moore’s smart enough, though, to know that Owen is trustworthy, and to predict many of the various betrayals that would occur on the way. Michael Caine has a small, but important role as a pot-growing hippy pal of Owen’s who provides him with the means to escape.

This is a pretty good film. Not particularly original—I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s supposed to be so all-fired cretaive about the premise, which was used most recently on film in The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s not particularly tight as far as its construction of the dystopia: What’s valuable when the youngest person on earth is 18 years old? Well, youth, of course. Yet the children of England are frequently shown as indigent. Please. Not only would the demand for food be steadily falling (most likely negating any possibility of famine), the demand for labor would be steadily increasing.

But perhaps I nitpick.

It’s just that when a movie is praised for its detail, intelligence, and ranks in the top 250 on IMDB, I have to call out the obvious. It’s a fine movie, with some excellent sequences, but it ain’t well thought out. Or, then again, maybe it is, seeing as it’s based on a novel, and the director just expects everyone to overlook the glaring questions. Since they did, maybe I should just shut up.

One employee at the theater where I saw this said people were freaking out about this movie, with one person saying they had “no right” to show this film, and another asking “When did this happen?” (If you miss the first five minutes, you could easily not see that it took place in t he future.) All in all, though, I found it a well-executed, well-acted, but otherwise pretty routine dystopic flick. Smarter than The Island (but what isn’t?) but not as smart as…oh, hell, there must be some reasonably well thought out dystopic film…maybe Minority Report? Eh, the movies aren’t really the right place to look for intelligent science-fiction.

But it’s a good film. And it’s not boring.

Best of 2008 Warm Up

The Boy industriously narrowed down his many choices for movie of the year to just three: The Dark Knight, Changeling and Burn After Reading.

He’s got good taste, though those probably won’t be my top three. What’s interesting is that all three of those movies shift gears at some point and turn into something you don’t expect from the outset. The Dark Knight is pretty straightforward until Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face, at which point it becomes something else. The Changeling starts like a mystery and ends as sort-of historical muckraking. Burn After Reading starts like a light comedy and, when one of the characters is killed, turns into a dark comedy.

As I review the list, I’d say that this was a pretty good year for movies. Now, I see a skewed set of films: I see a disproportionate number of foreign movies, micro-budgeters and documentaries–though this was a bad year for distribution of those films, I think, since way fewer of ‘em made it to my local theater.

I’m really not interested in seeing drab rehashes of old concepts with new stars, but if you can bring some life to an old form, like putting Robert Downey Jr. into Iron Man, I’m there.

The biggest box office movie that I didn’t see this year was #4, Hancock, and that’s actually a bit of a regret. I like director Peter Berg. The biggest box office movie that I would’ve missed was #3, Indiana Jones and the whatever.

The next big BO movie I didn’t see was Twilight. Ugh. My childhood love of the vampire movie started to wane about the time Anne Rice published Interview With A Vampire. Teenage girls have basically ruined the undead for me.

There are five movies in the 11-20 range I haven’t seen. And four that don’t really ping a lot of interest. I’ve heard good things about Marley and Me (from dog people) but I’m not really knocking down the doors to see Sex and the City, Mamma Mia, Wanted and Four Christmases.

You might think that if I saw 75 movies, then I’d have about 50/50 chances of seeing the rest of the list, but of course, that’s not true: A great many of the movies I saw this year didn’t make the list. And I have predictive ability as far as which little movies might take off. For example, the delightful little Bottle Shock grossed just over $4M while my best documentary pick, Young @ Heart grossed just under $4M. Man on Wire grossed under $3M! RockNRolla made $5.7M, apparently not benefiting at all from Guy Ritchie’s high profile divorce to that singer.

Yet any of those films is objectively better by any standard than, say, 10,000 BC, which almost made it to the $100M mark. I know this without even having seen 10,000 BC.

Heh. Enough snark.

The problem I’m having with this year is that there were many very good films, but how many were truly outstanding? What’s more, I’ve now seen Kung-Fu Panda about a zillion times, and it holds up pretty well, but Wall-E not so much. Not that it doesn’t hold up, exactly, but that it doesn’t seem to be a favorite. Horton Hears A Who is actually a lot more popular here.

Seeing a movie multiple times can change your opinion of it, of course. There was a lot of competent film making, but nothing that really pinned me to the back of my seat.

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Doomsday

I haven’t done one of these in a while but Hoosier Daddy was waxing enthusiastic on the charms of Rhona Mitra (whom I only know as the hot next-door neighbor chick that Kevin Bacon rapes in The Hollow Man) so I thought I’d have it on when Cinemax showed it in high-def. In Doomsday, Mitra channels Milla Jovovich through Kate Beckinsale. (And she does it in a cast that includes Bob Hoskins and Malcolm McDowell; those English can turn out a cast regardless of the movie, can’t they?)

The movie itself–well, as I’ve said before, there aren’t really a lot of “sound” post-apocalyptic thrillers. Even the best usually suffer from some logical fundamental flaw. In Doomsday, writer/director Neil Marshall–who also wrote the surprisingly cogent The Descent–doesn’t even try.

This is one where knowing the director set out to lift things directly from other films doesn’t really help. You keep recalling where you’ve seen what you’re seeing, and remembering how much more you enjoyed that other film. For a complete neophyte, that wouldn’t be the case, of course, but unless the viewer is totally swept up in fairly run-of-the-mill effects–maybe hasn’t seen any film ever made–the whole thing is a head-scratcher.

The plot is that there’s a virus outbreak in Scotland (reminiscent of the disease in Planet Terror) so England decides to wall it up (Escape from New York). A little girl is rescued at the last moment but loses an eye (a la Snake Plissken) which later is fitted with a remotely-controllable prosthetic (Harry Potter and The Goblet Of Fire). As a grownup, she is a super-duper fighting machine (Resident Evil) working for some sort of special forces group that needs her to go behind the wall to retrieve the Mad Doctor working on a cure (Escape from New York again; actually, unless otherwise noted, assume the plot point came from Escape from New York).

Behind the wall her highly unprofessional SWAT-like team (Aliens) is beset by gang members (The Warriors) who destroy their vehicles (Dawn of the Dead-remake style) and the gang members even eat one of the crew (A Boy and His Dog). Escaping from these guys on a train (another Harry Potter reference?) they find themselves in a newly reconstructed medieval Scotland (Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness) where Mitra must fight a gladiator (Gladiator) before they can escape with the goods.

Malcolm McDowell plays a Colonel Kurtz-type character (Apocalypse Now) and the whole thing climaxes with a chase scene straight out of Road Warrior. The ending is a reasonable transposition of Escape From New York with Mitra betraying her ostensible bosses and then, inexplicably, becoming queen of the punk gang who tried to kill her? I think that’s what that last scene was about but I wouldn’t swear to it. It was very Escape, too, though, reminding of the “boxing” scene where Snake Plissken kills the big guy to everyone’s approval.

I just didn’t give a damn.

You could say, cruelly but not unfairly, that this film swam in cinematic greatness and never got wet. For all the budget, acting and fetching costumery, it comes off like any of 500 low-budget movies made after Road Warrior.

But since our topic is post-apocalyptical fun, we should look at how ridiculously constructed the apocalypse part was. One nice touch is that it’s just Scotland and the wall that fences it in is right where Hadrian’s Wall was.

OK, quarantining is fine. Logical even. Most of the movie takes place 20 years later, when nobody with the disease is left alive. The entire population is immune. Yet the plan is to send someone in to get the guy who may have found a cure. Though, really, why would anyone assume that? Diseases peter out without human intervention all the time. And what possible system could a guy cut off from all support develop to inoculate people? Scotland’s under surveillance the whole time, how bad could their intel be?

Given that all of Scotland’s immune, why keep up the wall at all? Especially after the disease turns up in England?

“Well, it’s there. And we had a divil of a time putting it up, so there it stays!”

The first thing they show us when we’re in the newly recovered Scotland is a veritable horde of cattle. So whither cannibalism?

And why, with plenty of food around, and the legendary resourcefulness of the Scots, do these post-punks just hang around waiting for someone to come through the gate to terrorize and kill them? Especially given that it had never happened before (or at least not very often)?

How do they keep their S&M gear so neat and shiny?

Where’d the cars come from? And if they had them, and gas, why not use them? And can you really unbox a 20 year old Bentley and have it run like it was fresh off the line? (If so, I suppose that would explain the expense.)

I can sort of see why there wouldn’t be any old folks among the punks, but where were the children?

Why does everything explode when a car hits it? Are they storing boxes of explosives everywhere? Why?

Is movie violence really more entertaining when you show everything getting reduced to a bloody pulp?

Why is it that there always seemed to be plenty of whatever technology that was needed around but nobody had bothered to try to turn that into a sustainable lifestyle? Why, if they were dealing with a limited supply, was use not strictly rationed and substitutes found?

Obviously, I’m overthinking this: The movie never rises above “ooh, look at the pretty explosions” and it was clearly never meant to. It was meant to be “outrageous” in the director’s own words.

But you have a problem when you can’t even be bothered to give us some characterizations that we care about. Even the Resident Evil movies (which you borrowed so heavily from) manage to do that. And you can’t blame it on the actors.

Note that this all could’ve been done with a more plausible storyline and it would have worked–well, it would’ve worked better. Or it could’ve been done completely outrageously, a la Shoot ‘em Up. Then it would’ve been funny, at least.

It seems instead like, on the one hand, they were going for an honest homage (like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark) while on the other they wanted to show they were too smart to be sincere about this stuff.

Until next time, mutants: Stay radiated!

Taken: Greasy Arabs and Corrupt Frenchmen

We were just talking about the revenge movie and whether they made ‘em like they used to. And here comes Monsieur Morel (The Transporter) and Liam Neeson to put us a bad-guy slaughter-fest where the good guy can shoot innocent people and not only do you not mind, you see his point.

In a nutshell: Neeson plays “preventor” Bryan Mills who has retired from the CIA (?) to try to build a relationship with the daughter (Maggie Grace) he estranged through years of field work. His bitchy ex-wife (Famke Janssen) guilts him into letting said daughter go to Paris with wild friend (Katie Cassidy) and before you can say “Charles Bronson Lives”, the two are kidnapped.

Now, here’s the beauty of this: They’re not kidnapped for ransom. The kidnappers are not desperate folk just trying to survive. Oh, no.

The kidnappers are white slavers who take young female tourists and drug them up and sell them to the sex trade.

I understand Fox toned the movie down for a PG-13, but it’s bad enough. When Neeson starts killing people, you have no remorse. When he tortures people, you’re thinking, “Well, good.” As I say, he even shoots an innocent woman in the arm and your response is, “Yeah, that was necessary. For the greater good.”

There’s no remorse on Neeson’s face at any point. Ever. It’s almost comical.

And yet.

It’s hard not to relate to his emotional state. The bad guys are well and truly scum. And, tragically, such people do exist as does the trade, though not with Western European tourists. (That, in a way, makes it all the scuzzier, since it implies a degree of control over things.) And if you’re a parent, some part of you is going, “Yeah, that’s about what I’d do. But I probably would’ve shot that guy a couple more times just to be sure.”

No, the villains here are Greasy Arabs (and Albanians) and the corrupt French government. Kind of like Casablanca, if Ingrid Bergman had been kidnapped by Sydney Greenstreet.

Alongside the crispness of pace, the film benefits greatly from Mr. Neeson’s performance: He moves seamlessly from concern over his daughter (even desperation) to cool professionalism. He doesn’t do a lot of the angry grimace/grunt thing but stays cool and on top of things, even when machine-guns are spraying and he’s outnumbered 12-to-1.

Not only does his paternal nature come through when he’s with his daughter, it comes through when he’s with others’ daughters. At no point does he leer or touch inappropriately, and the screenwriters were wise enough not to try to shoehorn a romantic subplot in with one of the 20-something actresses.

I was also impressed by young Maggie Grace–who isn’t that young at 24–but really was convincing as a 17-year-old, rather spoiled girl. Famke is, as always, convincing as a bitch, though she comes around a bit at the end.

As with most action pics, it gets a little silly at points. Once, early on, he tries to track down his lead and ends up with the gendarmes on his tail, yet we are not treated to how, exactly, he manages to evade them. At mid-point he kills five or six bad guys at once, though there is the element of surprise at least. Toward the end, he takes the mandatory bullet which barely slows him down.

There is a point where he does a moderate jump (by film standards) from a bridge to a boat and ends up with a limp for the rest of the movie (minus the parts where it’s necessary for him not to have a limp, heh).

The Boy approved of the relative lack of superpowers and endorses the movie whole-heartedly. I thought some of the bullet spraying at the end stretched our hero’s good fortune a bit thin.

Nonetheless, a good time. I think it’s probably better for the edits and things left unshown. At about an hour-and-a-half running time, it’s not too presumptuous either.

I advise any Albanians who see it not to take it too seriously, though.