13 January 2009

Rewinding 2008: Part I

Reviews of Frost/Nixon, Gran Torino, Happy-Go-Lucky, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Iron Man.

As I work on assembling my best-of list of 2008, I'm pausing to consider releases from the year that I haven't reviewed on Screen Savour. (Note: None of these particular films will be present on my best-of list.)


The first two acts of Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard's cinematic interpretation of Peter Morgan's acclaimed play, feel cooked up beyond belief; it's only by the time of its superior final third act that it comes close to rising above mediocrity. The film follows a series of interviews of the disgraced 37th president of the United States, Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), conducted by David Frost (Michael Sheen), the British playboy-slash-journalist who was underestimated by the rest of the media and even his own researchers. The final third, or the equivalent of the final day of interviews when the topic was Watergate, is played out marvelously by Langella and Sheen, who come to life in those moments unlike any other in the film, but overall the film is rather unremarkable. Howard, though perhaps never among the most experimental or visually recognizable of directors, is hardly felt on screen; why his direction has been nominated time and time again for directing awards is mystifying. (If it weren't for the "Directed by Ron Howard," I might have guessed a relative newcomer was behind the film.) The exposition "interview" breakaways, where those on Frost's and Nixon's respective teams are questioned, are too much of a dip into artifice and detract from a story that already teeters precariously on the verge of losing its sense of realism. In the end Langella brings a surprising amount of humanity to Nixon, but it all comes too late. By that point, Frost/Nixon achieves only a modicum of success; the rest, as they might say of Nixon himself, is criminal.

In Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, hard-ass Walt Kowalski (Eastwood, in a commanding lead performance) is a widower, an angry father, and a racist Korean War veteran who packs heat, talks in a voice of barbed wire, lacks patience for religion, and has little room for friends. He becomes the inadvertent hero of his depressed neighborhood in Detroit when he fends off a gang from his young and aimless neighbor, Thao (Bee Vang), and although he shuns the thanks of the community, he befriends Thao and his sister, Sue (Ahney Her), becoming something of a father-figure to both. Although I don't think Gran Torino fires on all cylinders, I'm quite a fan of all the performers, particularly Eastwood, and I think the direction is focused, clear, and compelling. At issue here is the script, by Nick Schenk and Dave Johannson, which is at once satisfying and inept. The characters are dynamic, and you just can't beat Eastwood shoving the barrel of a gun into someone's face. (Or in a more disturbing moment, his forefinger and thumb positioned into the shape of a gun, which he ominously fires.) The script switches gear regularly between professional and amateur, with the most egregious offense being the occasionally hackneyed dialogue. There are plenty of clich├ęs, too, including a glass that drops from someone's hand in a moment meant to be serious and shocking. Gran Torino isn't among Eastwood's best, but he is a masterful director and actor and behind the wheel is still quite enjoyable.

A movie that comes with a built-in defense mechanism, Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky treats optimism like it's something unexpected and original – an ironic conceit, considering the film's one-note smile becomes something of a circular bore. Sally Hawkins is sweet as elementary educator Poppy Cross, a woman whose primary (or only) character trait is an indefatigable ray of sunshine. In the face of all of the world's negativity, anger, and pain, Poppy continues to giggle riotously, and we come to learn that her happiness isn't defensive, preemptive, or balanced with other thoughts and feelings. While it's all very interesting at first, there is little by way of discerning development, and the film's periphery noticeably falls to waste as we're expected to keep our eyes contently on Hawkins. However, her singular performance doesn't quite have the steam and complexity to adequately fuel this character study. Don't get me wrong: it's a joy to watch her be, well, joyous. But it might work better if were able to see a few more sides to Poppy was slightly more multi-faceted, more of the supporting cast was as strong as Eddie Marsan, who plays Poppy's hot-headed and explosive driving instructor, and if only there weren't so many loose ends to the narrative.

There was always a question in my mind of whether Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would lean more toward the atrocious Temple of Doom or the sprightly Last Crusade. (Raiders of the Lost Ark, of course, is in a class all its own, high above many action films regardless of director, series, or year.) Unfortunately, I must report that it's down on the level of Temple of Doom. There is nostalgia in seeing the character brought back to life for this fourth installment, but it is tarnished with the inevitable feeling of distance, like a college reunion where everyone comes back to campus and drinks at the same bars but it is nowhere near the splendor of the old days. To their credit, director Steven Spielberg and producer-writer George Lucas seem to be having tremendous fun, as does Harrison Ford, and early on (before it becomes utterly ridiculous) it is contagious. The franchise has been transplanted into 1957, and the part of the problem is that it seems to take more cues from a '50s B-movie instead of a rollicking '30s serial. The first twenty minutes might be the most "Spielbergian" of the entire franchise – Janusz Kaminski's remarkably graceful camerawork, done in muted palettes as homage to Douglas Slocombe; the cranked-up Elvis on the soundtrack; the presence of Russians, headlined by a sneering Cate Blanchett; a quick action sequence, the powerful magnetic that literally bends metal lamps; a rescue from an A-bomb testing site via a lead-lined refrigerator; "that Air Force fiasco in '47. But unlike Jones's fedora, the fun blows away too easily after those first twenty minutes and what the film turns into by the end is a prescription to induce severe eye-rolling. But, hey, Karen Allen – Marion Ravenwood, from Raiders – makes a cute return.

It stands to reason that Iron Man, Jon Favreau's adaptation of the Marvel comic book character, is generally successful based on the fact that someone such as myself – who knew only enough of the character to identify him in a police lineup – was not only intrigued when the plot began moving but also entertained for the duration of the running length. It succeeds in many other ways, too, which fortunately outnumber the moments when it falters. The film's great element is Robert Downey, Jr., the snarky innovator and the resilient hero Tony Stark. Downey is effective through and through – scruffy as a man, smooth in a machine, the proper balance of brainy workhorse and casual smart-ass, an outcast who nonetheless seems deftly capable of bedding women. Jeff Bridges is inspired as a corporate (and otherwise) opponent, shiny dome and furry chin aside, but Terrence Howard and Gwyneth Paltrow seem underused as Stark cheerleaders. In many ways Iron Man functions entirely as a layer of primer on what is destined to be a franchise, and that probably made the task of screenwriting go a little easier, as John August et al. didn't have to write against the tremendous amount of cultural knowledge the average viewer would have, say, for Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man. For the most part the screenplay holds, even if it becomes a little anemic and predictable (the generic plot outline of comic-book films has clearly been imported, but it doesn't spin it on its head enough; after the first half-hour, I could see correctly how the rest would go). It doesn't hurt to have Downey on your side, though; even jokes that shouldn't be as funny as they are possess a breezy wit when thrown out by him. Visually, the CGI isn't abused, and the action sequences are well-staged if a little short. Still, for all its fun and smart-alecky traits, the film isn't quite able to scale the restricting walls of genre-work and become a self-sustaining apparatus.


Joseph "Jon" Lanthier 13 January, 2009  

Nixon/Frost I thought was an outrage -- the only scene where Langella comes close to nailing the mythic Nixon (the Secret Honor Nixon, the one we all love to hate) is explained away as a drunken lapse of reason. So Nixon the evil mastermind becomes Nixon the harmless, grumpy old man? If nothing else, I think the film actually undermines the slight significance of the real interviews by reading subtexts that clearly were not there. It's revisionism, and it's not even entertaining.

As far as Happy Go Lucky goes, you raise some interesting criticisms, and yes, I found Hawkins a tad annoying as well. But I must say that my wife is a Kindergarten teacher, so that may have led me to viewing the film in a different manner than most (or not). Somehow I got the impression that Leigh was creating an elusive allegory about the social complexities of pedagogy -- not only that we're all "learning" from each other in some way or another but that we tend to define ourselves based upon whom we perceive as our "pupils". Poppy treats even her lover with the effervescent playfulness with which she schools the wee ones; she diffuses Eddie Marsan at the end using the same tenderness that she breaks up a fight on the school yard with. Marsan, on the other hand, sees the world as a collection of lousy drivers, perpetually breaking laws and common courtesies -- I wouldn't be surprised if his hatred of America springs from an observation that we act like animals behind the wheel. Don't get me wrong, I saw the overwhelming optimism side to it, too, but given the nature of the film's climax I thought there was more to it than just Hawkins' performance.

Anyway, cool round-up, I like the capsule reviews...

T.S. 14 January, 2009  

Jon - Yeah, the whole thing with Frost/Nixon is regrettably superficial – neither character gets the in-depth treatment he deserves, and the screenwriting devices to explain their deeper motives are slightly trite (Nixon's drunken phone conversation, Frost's epiphanic "gosh golly I really can be a journalist" and the canned sequence of diligent working that follows). The film does pick up for me, despite its superficiality, after that phone conversation, and it ends well, but how this thing has been scoring nominations left and right is really beyond me.

And very interesting read on Happy-Go-Lucky. Even if you have, as you say, perhaps read it differently than most, it's still a fascinating read on it that in retrospect enriches my own viewing of it. I liked Hawkins's performance, and was more appreciative of her rhythm and rapport with someone like Marsan, whose character brings out the best of Hawkins's acting (and she needed an explosive figure to "feud" with in order for her specific characterizations to stand out). Overall I found movie just shy of recommendable; it left me a little cold and unimpressed, but I'm willing to admit that's just me.

Sam Juliano,  17 January, 2009  

I am also no fan of FROST/NIXON, but I'll admit it is close to being Howard's best film--for what that is worth--I previously maintained that APOLLO 13 was his best moment. But both T.S. and Joseph here pretty much sum it up correctly, even if I am willing to issue commendations to both Langella and Sheen for their lead performances. I thought the final "television broadcast" of the Watergate affair was marginally the most interesting part of the film, which to be honest did not duplicate the urgency of the Tony-Award winning stage show, which i was fortunate to catch near the end of its run. I can't however, deny the "revisionism" contention posed by Joseph.
Ha! My wife was also a K teacher for several years before becoming a principal in the sam esystem where I teach, and I know where Joseph is coming from here. And I agree T.S., that it's all one-dimensional, yet there's a wordview here that is being conveyed, and there's an irrestible effervescence inherent in both th echaracter and in Sally Hawkins' winning performance. I am not quite the fan of the film as some of the critics' groups, but I was fascinated with Joseph's "ellusive allegory" argument here. Like T.S. I was enriched by that. This film narrowly missed my ten-best list, but I fully understand T.S.'s position, which mirrors others who found it (in the end) an annoying ride. Marsden was terrific here as well. I understand T.S. why you'd say that her "singular performance doesn't have the complexity to fully fuel this film" but I wonder about that.

I am completely in agreement with you on GRAN TORINO, which has that solid lead performance, oodles of guilty humor and some effective sequences. It's an entertaining film, and while it's racism is easily discernible, it's also a film about life, death and loyalty, which some might take for granted. The script is indeed problematic in my view, and like that excellent point you make about the glass bursting, it is rife with cliches and forced moments. It's fun, but days later it's rather forgettable.

I agree with much of what you say about INDIANA JONES, even if I even like it less. But yes, that sequence you speak mof is Spierbergian, and janusz Kaminski's cinematography is always interesting. The noise and the action eventually became grating, a charge I leveled at SPEED RACER too, but was rebuffed by the film's blogger-fans.

"Still, for all its fun and smart-alecky traits, the film isn't quite able to scale the restricting walls of genre-work and become a self-sustaining apparatus."

Yep, T.S., that precisely the way I feel about IRON MAN despite some excellent tech work and a superb turn by Robert Downey Jr. That's a beautifully-written final sentence there T.S., but then again your entire re-cap here is superlative.

T.S. 19 January, 2009  

Thanks for the wonderful thoughts, Sam. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull really was such a horrible film, wasn't it? After the first twenty minutes, I was so gone from it; almost felt like walking away. But even the first twenty aren't perfect; I mean, CGI prairie dogs?

I think you're right, too, on Gran Torino. Even if it gets some momentary attention (and box office glory), it'll fade quickly. It does not require any subsequent viewings.

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