Then again, Samuel Byck wasn’t like most people either…in fact, that may be the biggest problem with this otherwise haunting film. Played for laughs in the Sondheim Assassins, Byck here is portrayed as a beaten-down American Everyman of the Willy Loman/Travis Bickle school, albeit one with a Pulp Fiction-like problem with authority and a frozen run of luck like you read about. But, while the film’s hold lies in Sean Penn’s powerful portrayal of a down-on-his-heels, borderline-stable guy who gets one too many doors slammed in his face (to Penn’s credit, his performance never really feels like a stunt, as it might have with a lesser actor), the real Samuel Byck was an even stranger bird than this film lets on. For example, there’s no mention of Byck’s protesting outside the White House in a Santa suit here, and the whole tapes-to-Leonard-Bernstein angle is played as straight as it possibly can be.
But, historical veracity aside, The Assassination of Richard Nixon still makes for a grim and compelling 90 minutes of darkening gloom, anchored by Sean Penn’s slow, fidgety burn. (Watts, Don Cheadle, Michael Wincott, and Jack Thompson all do good character work here, but the film is Penn’s, and he’s the only one to leave a mark.) The movie’s unrelenting downward trajectory is clear from the opening titles, and the final scene at BWI airport probably played a few minutes too long, particularly as Byck awaits boarding for his final destination. All in all, though, The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a somber inquiry into a life of quiet desperation, and a sad reminder that, regardless of what our American dream may promise, there are no guarantees in this world, and all too often no respite for the damned.
20th Century Fox tries to counter that burning train wreck smell (the latest word: $20 million in additional effects and a de-Incredibles script rewrite) by offering a behind-the-scenes look at Fantastic Four with Stan Lee. Nope, still not feeling it.
One part Herge, two parts Cousteau, and all parts Wes Anderson, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, alas for Bill Murray’s thwarted post-Lost in Translation Oscar hopes, doesn’t really work. In fact, at times it seems like someone’s parody of a Wes Anderson movie. But, if you dig Anderson’s penchant for artfully constructed shots crufted over with kitsch so precious it’d make Belle & Sebastien blush — and, frankly, I find it mildly endearing — then you’ll probably have a decent time aboard the Belafonte. The movie’s a complete non-starter, but it is a rather pretty and innocuous non-starter, a bland pleasure cruise of a film.
At least the cast appears to be having fun…except for Murray, who’s doing yet another amusing variation of the resigned, laconic, vaguely crestfallen wiseass that’s his signature. I never thought I’d see Willem DaFoe out-ham his turn as the Green Goblin, but by golly I think he’s done it. Cate Blanchett is luminous again, although she (and these seamen) are a world away from The Aviator. Owen Wilson doesn’t add much to the equation (and he’s a bit overexposed in my book these days anyway), but Michael Gambon, Bud Cort, and Noah Taylor are all enjoyable in brief supporting turns.
That being said, these actors are all dressed up in authentic Team Zissou gear with no place to go. The story — ostensibly an Ahab-like quest for a carnivorous jaguar shark — never amounts to much, and we are instead treated to a series of episodic vignettes of life at sea (albeit on a boat with a spa, interns, a recording studio, and a Brazilian Davie Bowie fan). Many of these individual scenes are diverting, and I remember smiling through a lot of ’em, but, to be honest, they don’t really add up to a movie. By the time The Life Aquatic starts trying to gain some dramatic headway at the end, it feels forced and unearned. Ultimately too clever by half and probably the least engaging of Wes Anderson’s films so far, Aquatic is cute but not very resonant. All in all, it makes for a blithe but instantly forgettable two-hour tour.
As you can see, I’ve tweaked the design around here for 2005…and there’s probably more to come. The rotating title image is a trick I’ve seen at much better-designed sites such as High Industrial and Donkeymon, so I was pleasantly surprised to see I could basically cut-and-paste my way to coding prowess via this helpful article. All title pics are used without permission and intended as homage…how’s that for a useless disclaimer?
Arguably the goofiest scene in the film is in the opening moments, as we see the child Hughes being bathed by his mother and forced to spell Q-U-A-R-A-N-T-I-N-E…it plays like exactly the same type of ham-handed Freudian shorthand that so marred Alexander a couple of weeks ago. But, soon thereafter, the movie jumps to 1927 and the set of Hell’s Angels, and The Aviator settles into cruising altitude. Watching Hughes indulge his passions for fast planes and starlets against a backdrop of New Era glitz is great fun…at times, the movie even feels like Oceans’ One or Two, with Jean Harlow, Kate Hepburn, Errol Flynn, and Ava Gardner all holding court in Old Hollywood.
Only later in the film, when the madness begins to come upon Hughes and the interminable handwashing begins, does one start to feel the drag. I found myself looking at my watch long before Hughes begins finding unsavory uses for milk bottles. Still, despite the turbulence, The Aviator is kept aloft through the compulsive years by a number of solid performances, including (but not limited to) Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner (Surprisingly after drek like Van Helsing and Underworld, she’s pretty good here), Matt Ross as Hughes’ long-suffering aeronautics #2 Glenn Odekirk, Alec Baldwin as Pan Am head/Hughes rival Juan Trippe, and Alan Alda as the unctuous anti-Hawkeye, Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster. (di Caprio, for his part, is excellent throughout.) And, flying head and shoulders above them all is Cate Blanchett’s uncanny turn as young Katherine Hepburn. Alive, acerbic, and adorable, Blanchett’s Hepburn walks away with every scene she’s in, and the film misses her dearly after her second act exit. (Damn you, Tracy.) With a gal like Cate’s Kate by his side, it’s little wonder Hughes found a way, however briefly, to soar amongst the clouds.
Well, there may be 48-72 hours left in 2004 (good riddance — I’ll be remembering this year as pretty much a lamentable waste, orals and prospectus notwithstanding), but my twenties ended about an hour ago…and, y’know, I really wouldn’t have minded if they’d lasted a mite longer. 😉
But, life marches on, so here’s to 30. I’m back in NYC as of late this evening, and will probably celebrate by checking out one last wave of movies before the end-of-year round-up. So, see y’all on the flipside.
In a boon for conspiracy theorists the world over, Rumsfeld refers to the 9/11 Pennsylvania plane as “shot down.” Said Rummy during one of his usual rambling Two Minutes Fear-type screeds, “I think all of us have a sense if we imagine the kind of world we would face if the people who bombed the mess hall in Mosul, or the people who did the bombing in Spain, or the people who attacked the United States in New York, shot down the plane over Pennsylvania and attacked the Pentagon, the people who cut off peoples’ heads on television to intimidate, to frighten — indeed the word ‘terrorized’ is just that.” Freudian slip or slip of the tongue? Either way, it was a bonehead mistake.