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Column Fri Dec 05 2008
The greatest feeling I get from any film is one of inspiration. Sometimes the inspiration is simply to feel something more than I did when I first sat down to watch the movie. Other times I'm driven to act or think a little differently about a person or circumstances than I did previously. And in the case of many of the film featuring screenplays by Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland), I'm inspired to dig a little deeper into the real events that inspired him to write his extraordinary story-behind-the-story works. With The Queen, Morgan wanted to show us how an entire nation's feeling toward its monarchy shifted as a result of a tragedy. And with Frost/Nixon, based on Morgan's celebrated play, he delivers to us the inner workings of one of the most legendary television interview programs in history, an interview that not only was the informal trial of Richard Nixon that the nation never got thanks to Gerald Ford's knee-jerk pardon of Nixon when he took office, but also the opportunity for Nixon to essentially apologize to the nation for shaming the office of President.
It might seem like old hat today to look upon the office of president with some amount of disdain (both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both have much to answer for), but at the time — the summer of 1977 — the nation was still hurting deeply from a single man who resigned from the office without a hint of apology or admission of wrong doing. In an early scene in Frost/Nixon (set three years prior to the interviews), David Frost (played to perfection by Michael Sheen, who did an equally fine job as Tony Blair in The Queen) has just finished taping his Australian talk show when he catches live footage of Nixon leaving the White House and getting onto the helicopter that took him away. He sees the smiling face of Richard Nixon (Frank Langella, who won a Tony for played the role on Broadway), but just before he turns to get on the helicopter, the facade drops and the face of ultimate defeat shows itself. I have no idea if Nixon really looked that way upon his departure, but the scene shows the spark of inspiration that drove Frost to ask for the face to face with Nixon.
The wheeling and dealing that went on in both the Nixon and Frost camps are nearly as fascinating as the interviews themselves, which lasted more than 24 hours in total over the span of 12 sessions. Major players surrounding Nixon include his literary agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar (Toby Jones, who most recently played another legendary snake, Karl Rove, in W.) and Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), a fiercely loyal protector and yes man. The first meeting between Nixon and Frost is quite telling. Frost brings a beautiful woman (Rebecca Hall) he met on the plane ride from London as well as his producer, John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen). Frost was a notorious playboy, one of many traits that made the Nixon people think he would be a better person to lob softball questions than, say, Mike Wallace.
Frost/Nixon does a fantastic job detailing exactly what each man had at stake by "winning" these interviews. Obviously Nixon was attempting to seem presidential and regain a reputation lost and remind the nation that his time as commander-in-chief was more than just Watergate and Vietnam. Frost had a career and pretty much every penny he owned invested in this production. Although he'd interviewed political heavy hitters prior to Nixon, clearly he was beginning to wonder if he was in over his head intellectually. For 11 of the 12 interviews, it certainly seemed that way.
Special acknowledgement should be given to the great team of Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell, who play Frost's primary researchers and question writers Bob Zelnick and James Reston Jr. These two do the greatest job of putting things in perspective for both Frost and us. While Reston is the emotional player who wants nothing short of vigilante justice for Nixon, Zelnick is the balancing force who remembers that the best way to get Nixon is through more subtle means rather than pulling the knife out on the first day. Platt and Rockwell are the film's secret weapon, as they provide the biggest laughs along with the greatest insight into all of the characters. Perhaps my favorite sequence is a dry run the two have with Frost, with Platt taking on the part of Nixon.
I've deliberately left out the name of director Ron Howard from my review up to this point because for some unknown reason, his name sometimes gets a negative reaction from people, which makes no sense to me. If the only other movie he had ever made besides Frost/Nixon were Apollo 13, I would still consider him the most qualified director to make this movie. His approach to the two works is remarkably similar, and he clearly holds the belief that the truth is always infinitely more interesting than fiction. Sure, he's made a few adjustments to the facts to up the dramatic kick of the story, but nothing truly vital has been altered. The tension he manages to derive from a conversation is remarkable. The film's only flaw in my mind is the inclusion of a series of interviews with some of supporting players (primarily with the actors playing Reston, Zelnick and Birt) meant to appear like they were taking place years after the interviews. They serve as a kind of narration and insightful commentary on the mindset of the two leading characters, but I don't think they were necessary or vital to the telling of this story. In some instances, they seem like lazy shortcuts, and I wish Howard had chosen to show and not tell. But these inserts are few and far between, especially as the film goes on, and they don't even come close to ruining the flow the this otherwise flawless work.
What I particularly liked about Frost/Nixon is that it manages to keep things simple and streamlined, using just the right number of select scenes to capture the personalities of its subjects, while never forgetting that the interviews were where history was made. Despite Zelnick and Reston's best efforts not to let Nixon look sympathetic, in the end Frost/Nixon comes darn close to doing just that, especially in the scenes where Nixon essentially spills his guts to Frost. The film reminds us that demonizing someone rarely gets the heart of why someone did what they did. A strange and almost scary late-night phone call between Frost and Nixon on the eve of their final interview reveals more about the former president in a five-minute conversation than anything in Oliver Stone's Nixon, a film I've always admired. Frost/Nixon is proof that just hearing somebody out or letting a situation carry out to its natural conclusion is enough to get people glued to their seats. I know a lot of critics are calling this Howard's finest film, but for me, that's hard to say, because in the end it really doesn't matter. Howard isn't imposing himself on this film, so I applaud him for standing aside and letting the words and gripping acting take center stage. This is a remarkable movie that never tries to be remarkable or overly dramatic. Things happen, lives change, but the world keeps turning. It seems simple and obvious, but so few filmmakers understand or convey that in their works. Frost/Nixon gets it and gets it right.
This story of Chicago's legendary Chess Records and its founder Leonard Chess (Adrian Brody) is actually pretty good, despite some efforts to make it less so. Right of the bat, the movie's grandest mistake of all was not making this movie about Muddy Waters (played to absolute perfection by Jeffrey Wright). But there's certainly enough of Waters to make the film a remarkably cohesive and entertain surface treatment of the company that brought blues, R&B and early rock 'n' roll to the mainstream.
Part of the reason I wish the film had been centered on the rise of Muddy Waters is because it's a far more interesting story than that of Chess Records. Not that the Michigan Avenue recording studio didn't have its incredible share of talent coming through its doors (including Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Etta James, Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker and even the Rolling Stones, who recorded much of their Now! album there. But filling the screen with famous faces of today (Beyonce Knowles as James; Cedric the Entertainer as Dixon; the scary as shit Eamonn Walker as Wolf; Mos Def as Berry) played famous people of yesteryear only carries the film so far. Waters' journey from the cotton fields of the south (discovered by folk music song collector Alan Lomax) to Chicago is such as more notable and interesting tale. Fortunately writer-director Darnell Martin is smart enough to see the inherent drama in Waters' life and make him the secondary focus of her film. He was a cheating man (his loyal woman is played by Gabrielle Union) who insisted on loyalty from everyone around him. His concerts were electric and sometimes dangerous, and even his side players went on to be famous. Wright couldn't be any more perfect to play this part. With a souped-up hairstyle, the right threads, and a southern mumble in his voice, he completely and totally embodies Waters. And with all of the actors singing their own parts, Wright even manages to nail the Waters' vocals.
As much as this film does little more than skim the surface of Chess Records history (the company was nicknamed Cadillac Records because of Leonard's tendency to buy that brand of car for all of his employees), it does not gloss over the lives of anyone. Little Walter was a ferocious drunk and borderline crazy, James was a heroin addict who swore like a drunken sailor (this film is R rated for language since the Chess Records folks seem to love the word "motherfucker"), and Berry has a thing for underage white women, a fact that derailed his career at its peak. Leonard Chess himself was no alter boy and often would "borrow" from one artist who was doing particularly well to give money to those who weren't. I wasn't a fan of director Martin's choice to paint these people's very real problems as some sort of dysfunctional family, but in a way that's what the company was.
The smartest decision any director could make regarding a film about any record company (rather than a film about a particular artist) is to overload us with great music, and Cadillac Records does just that. I will own this soundtrack the day it comes out (actually, I think it is out already, so I own it!) because these renditions are stellar. The movie captures the musicians' sense of chaos, sexual awakening and racial injustice that was a part of their lives every day, and it does so with a clear love of the music and the times. Cadillac Records is by no means a great film, but there are great things about it (beginning and ending with Wright's performance, which is better than the movie itself) that make it worth checking out.
Earlier this year, an above-average little film called Bottle Shock came and went with little fanfare. It's actually not a terrible movie in any way, and parts of it (mostly the parts featuring Alan Rickman) are pretty good. Before making Bottle Shock, director and co-writer Randall Miller made another film, Nobel Son, featuring several cast members who went on to make Bottle Shock, including Rickman, Bill Pullman and Eliza Dushku. Whereas the more recent work about the 1976 competition that pitted California versus French wine had some degree of charm and humor, Nobel Son has none. In fact, it's the worst kind of independent film, the kind I thought they'd stopped making in the 1990s. This is the kind of film where people don't act, think, or talk like people. They maneuver through this pretentious plot like characters roaming around the mind of writers (Miller and Jody Savin) who think they are more clever than they will ever be and have just enough famous friends to tell them they have some degree of talent to keep them making shit movies like this one.
Nobel Son is about a family. Eli Michaelson (Rickman) is a professor who has just won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. He's a philandering ass, loathed by his coworkers, family and pretty much any one who crosses his path. His son, Barkley (Bryan Greenberg), is attempting to finish his PhD thesis in cannibalism and manages to screw up and seem like an underachiever to his father at every turn. Mrs. Michaelson (Mary Steenburgen) is somehow involved in law enforcement; maybe she's even an FBI agent. Like most things in this movie, this point is underdeveloped. While Eli is receiving his award in Stockholm, Barkley is kidnapped, with the ransom being the $2 million prize money. The kidnapper (Shawn Hatosy) claims to be Eli's illegitimate son by one of Eli's many conquests 20-some years earlier. The seemingly random collection of underwritten supporting roles including Dushku as a woman Barkley meets and sleeps with just before getting kidnapped, Pullman as a coworker of Steenburgen, Ted Danson as a fellow professor with Eli, and Danny DeVito as a man recovering from OCD, who just happen to rent a room from the Michaelsons. So many colorful characters, it makes you want to vomit a rainbow.
The plot of Nobel Son is unnecessarily complicated. Characters quote famous and not-so-famous works of literature to appear smarter. A couple of characters write poetry because, you know, they're deep and stuff. But mostly, Miller and company throw various combinations of actors into different rooms and let the magic happen... or not. I'm pretty sure the movie is meant to have a bit of suspense and intrigue, but what it actually is large silos of bullshit that cascade onto your head and make this already overlong two-hour affair feel like a never-ending playground slide made of sandpaper. In case you're having trouble reading between my lines, I fucking loathed this movie, and if you pay to see it, you deserve every horrible thing that happens to you in your life.