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Frank Langella

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Lawyers, Guns, and Money.

Lots of catch-up to do in the Trailer Bin…

Finally out of The Master‘s clutches, a lonely Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with, for all intent and purposes, Siri (Scarlett Johansson) in the first trailer for Spike Jonze’s Her, also with Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, and Rooney Mara. I believe this is called going the full-Lars. (Also, I’m never not going to hear the name of this film as “Her?”)

Alan Rickman and Donal Logue — now there’s one of the best buddy pairings on film since Ray Winstone and Brendan Gleeson in Beowulf — meet a lot of 24 Hour Party People American-style in our first look at CBGB’s, with Ashley Greene, Freddy Rodriguez, Johnny Galecki, Bradley Whitford, Rupert Grint, Justin Bartha, Stana Katic, and Malin Ackerman (as Debbie Harry?) I see Severus is now teaching young Mr. Weasley a completely different set of Dark Arts. Hrm, maybe.

Michael Fassbender finds he’s taken a wrong turn into Cormac McCarthy land in the newest trailer for Ridley Scott’s The Counselor, with Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Goran Visnjic, and Dean Norris. Looks very McCarthyish, and no mistake. The good news is Ridley Scott still owes Fassbender a solid film after Prometheus.

It belongs in a museum! WWII soldiers George Clooney and Matt Damon put together a crack team to save priceless art and artifacts in the first trailer for Clooney’s The Monuments Men, also with John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, and Cate Blanchett. As one wag aptly noted on Twitter, this is basically an Elseworlds Ocean’s movie, but I trust Clooney’s choices. Still, here’s hoping it works out better than Clooney & Blanchett’s last trip to Germany.

Over an unfortunately poppy soundtrack, Idris Elba and Naomie Harris channel Nelson and Winnie Mandela in the first trailer for Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. This looks a bit standard-issue-biopic-y, I’ll admit. But I’ll watch just to see Elba as Mandela — just no Henley poems, k?

Team Silver Linings Playbook joins forces with Team Fighter (sans Wahlberg) to dabble in the luxurious world of art forgery in this brief trailer for David O. Russell’s next, American Hustle, with Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Louis CK, Jack Huston, Alessandro Nivola, Michael Pena and Elizabeth Rohm.

Lowry? Has anybody seen Sam Lowry? Er, sorry, that would be Mitty, as in Ben Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt, and Shirley MacLaine. I have to admit, this looks much fresher than I anticipated. Definitely maybe.

A terrible accident, an unexpected boon, and A Simple Plan all add up to another bad day for Sam Rockwell in the trailer for David Rosenthal’s A Single Shot, also with William H. Macy, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Wright, Kelly Reilly, Ted Levine, Melissa Leo, and W. Earl Brown. A great cast through and through, but you had me at Rockwell.

And if you need another reason to worry about Found Money, Alice Eve gets into trouble with the Russian mob, in the form of Bryan Cranston, in the trailer for Cold Comes the Night, also with Logan Marshall-Green. If nothing else, it’ll be good for Cranston to get some more menacing reps in before signing up with LexCorp (although, in that department, Mark Strong’s a solid choice as well.)

Where’s a mermaid when you need one? Tom Hanks is in considerable peril on the sea in our second look at Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, also with Catherine Keener, Max Martini, Yul Vazquez, Michael Chernus, Chris Mulkey, Corey Johnson, David Warshofsky, John Magaro and Angus MacInnes.

I thought Greengrass’ most recent film, 2010’s Green Zone, was an overly preachy dud — I get annoyed with edutainment that aggressively berates me to endorse opinions I already hold. (I’m looking at you, Aaron Sorkin.) But Greengrass has a lifetime pass after United 93, Bloody Sunday, and the Bournes, so hopefully this is a return to form.

Thor Odinson, meet Clarice Starling: In a tight spot with a new Big Bad, Earth’s mightiest Asgardian (Chris Hemsworth) is forced to enlist help from his brother in the joint in the second trailer for Thor: The Dark World, also with Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Christopher Eccleston, Idris Elba, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, and Ray Stevenson.

After The Dark Knight, Skyfall, and ST:ID, I’m not sure we need any more villains unfolding their master plans from behind prison bars this decade — Heck, even Loki himself was doing this same shebang in The Avengers last year. Still, the first Thor was better than expected, and Marvel’s on a pretty consistent streak at the moment. I’m in.

I also thought the Nick Stoller’s 2011 reboot of The Muppets was decent enough, but I’m not getting good vibes at all from this first teaser for James Bobin’s Muppets: Most Wanted, with Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, Salma Hayek, Frank Langella, Till Schweiger, Debby Ryan, Danny Trejo, Ray Liotta, and Christoph Waltz. Early yet, and I do like Stoller and Bobin’s prior output, but right now this looks like it’ll hit at about Smurfs 2 level.

So, yeah, Harrison Ford hasn’t gotten all that much better at voiceovers since Blade Runner, has he? Anyway, there’s also a new trailer for Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game, also with Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, and a ridiculous number of clich├ęs (the Inception BWOMP, “We’re running out of time,” etc.) Everyone wants a Ford comeback, but it’s hard to imagine this one getting my money, even if Orson Scott Card wasn’t a jackass. Oh well.

Sympathy for the Devils.

Like W before it, Oliver Stone’s peppy, decently enjoyable, and ultimately far too convivial Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which I caught as the first leg of a three-film swing two weeks ago, suggests the director has moved out of the near-decade-long nadir that brought us Any Given Sunday and World Trade Center. (Rock bottom was, without a doubt, Alexander.)

Wall Street 2 turns out to be a brisk two hours, and its ability to explain some relatively complex financial goings-on in a crowd-pleasing format is admirable. Still, the movie also ends up feeling like a missed opportunity. Bringing 80’s corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) back to comment on the amoral rapacity of today’s financial sector could be a stroke of genius, and the movie is most entertaining when it shows how the greed and corruption of today’s Wall Street has outpaced anything Gekko could ever have imagined back in the American Psycho era. (“Someone reminded me I once said, ‘Greed is good.’ Now, it seems it’s legal.“)

But even more than W, a movie which treated the many foibles of our 43rd president with kid gloves, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a film that seems lacking in sufficient indignation. I mean, those venerable and self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe, the Titans of Wall Street, managed to plunge the entire American economy into a death spiral and pass the bill off to the increasingly jobless American taxpayer. And yet, they still managed to avoid any seriously damaging regulation as a consequence, and, at the end of the day, they give themselves record bonuses for two years running. And all Stone can muster up about it is this? Where’s the outrage?

To be fair, avarice and plunder are central to Stone’s story here, bubbles abound (Stone does love to beat a metaphor to death), and the film does dramatize the September 2008 collapse and subsequent bailout, with Wall Street tycoons Josh Brolin and Eli Wallach, among others, worriedly communing with Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner lookalikes in a darkly-lit Federal Reserve antechamber. The problem isn’t the content so much as the tone. Eventually, you get the sense that, despite all their bad behavior, Stone likes and looks up to these guys. (This may be because Stone’s father was a Wall Street banker, so this may be the film where a director who continually relies on characters with daddy issues is now trying to work out his own.)

As a result, Wall Street feels confused — It doesn’t really seem to know which tale it wants to tell. On one hand, we have the story I just mentioned — the obvious sickness and eventual collapse of the financial sector. But then we also have the story of our protagonist, Jake Moore (Shia LaBoeuf) — a savvier operator than Charlie Sheen ever was — who shuffles through various potential father figures (Gekko, Brolin, and, in the early going, Frank Langella) and woos the professional-blogger daughter of the fallen Gekko king (Carey Mulligan — By the way, Stone doesn’t seem to have a handle on what blogging’s about. We wear pajamas all day, and we don’t have sleek Facebook-looking offices.)

And then we have the Return of Gordon Gekko himself. Now on the CNBC book and lecture circuit, a seemingly chastened Gekko wants Jake’s help to reconnect with his prodigal daughter. In the meantime, he teaches Jake a thing or two about the way the Game is played at the top. And hewatches today’s unsustainable financial shenanigans with wry bemusement — he likes to discourse on tulips — and perhaps a little jealousy. Does Gekko want a seat at the table again? Well, he’s Gordon Gekko. What do you think? (For what it’s worth, Douglas is great fun here — let’s hope it’s not his last performance — but his character is getting a bit of the Ridley Scott’s Hannibal treatment. To my mind, Gekko makes for a better villain than he does an anti-hero.)

In any case, Stone has a lot of balls in the air throughout Money Never Sleeps and as the film goes on they become more and more clumsily handled. This flaw becomes glaringly obvious in the final reel, when the film suffers from more endings than Return of the King, including one — in front of Lady Gekko’s apartment — that comes out of nowhere and feels exceedingly cheap. (The movie even has three closing-credit sequences — one focused on time, one one family, and one on money — Four if you count all the bubbles floating around. Stone apparently couldn’t decide what his film was about.)

There’s a lot of upside to Money Never Sleeps — It’s a surprisingly fun movie at times, and the acting is solid across the board. (People like to hate on Shia LaBoeuf, but I actually think he’s a pretty good actor. Here, he even starts to seem a bit like his father from a more ill-conceived sequel, Harrison Ford — although with less finger and family issues.) Still, I wish the movie weren’t so confused about its purpose, and I definitely wish it took a more aggrieved stance towards its bankster subjects. I don’t want to watch these jokers having totally random Ducati races. I want to see them in jail. (Then again, be careful what you wish for: Gekko says several times here that it’s the next collapse we really need to worry about, and that could happen at any time…like, say, now.)

The Biggest Loser(s).

Ok, so there definitely is a Plan B. In the trailer bin this week, the Comedian, Stringer Bell, Johnny Storm, and Neytiri, among others, give The A-Team a run for their money in the trailer for Sylvain White’s The Losers, based on the DC comic and starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Idris Elba, Chris Evans, Oscar Jaenada, Columbus Short, Zoe Saldana, Jason Patric, and Holt McCallany.

And, speaking of big losers, Gordon Gekko has done his time and wants back in the big game — maybe with a new cellphone — in the teaser for Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, also with Shia LaBoeuf, Carey Mulligan, Josh Brolin, Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon, Vanessa Ferlito, Frank Langella, and — word has it — Charlie Sheen. Might have to give the first one another whirl beforehand.

Do NOT Press This Button.

To start with the good news, Richard Kelly’s moody, convoluted, and unwieldy adaptation of The Box — previously a Richard Matheson short story (“Button, Button”) and a memorable episode of the ’80s Twilight Zone reboot — is definitely a better movie than his nightmare last outing, Southland Tales. So there’s that, I guess. But then again, pretty much every movie I’ve seen in the past ten years, with the probable exception of Ronald Maxwell’s Gods and Generals, is a better movie than Southland Tales.

And, once you get that subterranean standard out of the way, The Box is sadly more of the same. Pretentious, overwrought, interminable, unnecessary…The Box is just irritatingly bad at times, and it makes the original Donnie Darko look more and more like a random fluke (or, given the lesser state of the over-explained director’s cut, an actual case of timely intervention by the studio suits.) I like The Twilight Zone, I like science-fiction, I like NASA, and I like most of the other things Kelly throws into the blender here. But, after an hour in this inane, sophomoric Box, I’m sorry to report, I wanted to push a button myself — fast-forward.

If you’ve never read or seen the story before, Kelly’s version goes like this: It’s 1976, and a young Virginia couple (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz) — he’s a NASA physicist, she’s a schoolteacher — are barely making ends meet in the ‘burbs. Then, one winter night, a plain-wrapped box appears on their doorstep. Accompanying this mysterious receptacle eventually is a visit from one Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), a courtly gentleman with a horrible (CGI-enhanced) disfigurement. For reasons that are not immediately clear, Steward makes this couple a horrible proposition: Push the red button on the box, and they will receive one million dollars. Also, somebody they don’t know will die. Should they press the button? Well, it’s a lot of money, and people die every day. I dunno…would you?

That’s the basic gist of Matheson’s story (Marsden’s character does make a brief nod to the original, biting ending) and the Twilight Zone version (different ending, but still decent). But here, there’s more. Much, much more. Y’see, Mr. Steward may or may not be a visitor from another realm. And, when I say “another realm,” I could mean Mars, where NASA’s Viking probes just kicked up a lot of dust, or I could mean the Hereafter –After all, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” so the converse probably applies as well. And he can possess dozens or hundreds of people at a time, at the risk of giving them nosebleeds, and have them do things like babysit and hector people in libraries. Steward’s wife is also running around, and she, as Convert #1, presumably, can create watery teleportation doors when the need arises — like, when you want to play Let’s Make a Deal for no reason at all. Ah, yes, and did I mention there’s a follow-up corollary to the original deal? It actually has nothing to do with the “someone you don’t know” part of the equation, or, really, with anything that’s come before. But, hey, that’s apparently how we roll in the Kellyverse.

In essence, Richard Kelly here has taken an eerie and perfectly self-contained 30-minute story and overburdened it with ninety more minutes of half-baked riffs on The Abyss and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, grandiose allusions to Sartre’s No Exit and Clarke’s Profiles of the Future, and oodles of quasi-scientific Trek-speak like “the altruism coefficient” and vaguely threatening flimflam like “the Human Resources Exploitation Manual.” The end result is subtraction by addition — the longer Kelly ties himself and his characters up in nonsensical knots, the more and more ludicrous the whole enterprise becomes. (Apparently, the first cut of this film was over three hours long — baby Jesus wept.) In fact, Kelly throws so much at the wall here to see what sticks that he completely forgets about the money. Once the million is paid out, our couple locks it in their safe and never mention it again…um, ok.

Sure, there are a few moody images interspersed throughout The Box, as well as solid performances by Marsden and Langella and brief, enjoyable turns by wily veteran hands James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, and Celia Weston. (For her part, Cameron Diaz seems off.) But, otherwise, The Box is eminently missable — it would probably seem an even worse disaster to me, were it not for the lingering stench of Southland Tales. Here’s a proposition for you: Keep your ten bucks and go let someone else see it — preferably someone you don’t know.

Button, Button.

Decision time: The trailer for Richard Kelly’s The Box is now online, with Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, and Frank Langella. Hmm, I dunno. I liked the Matheson short story, and the Twilight Zone version from the ’80s was solid enough. But I’m not sure how you’d pad this out to feature-length and not make it ridiculous. And, besides, Kelly still owes me money for Southland Tales.

2008 in Film.

Well, now that we’re in the second month of 2009, and since I’m *mostly* caught up on last year’s prestige crop, it seems arguably the last, best time to write up the belated Best of 2008 Movie list. (I did see one more indy film of 2008 Sunday morning, but as it was after my arbitrarily-chosen 1/31 cutoff, it’ll go in next year’s list.) Compiling the reviews this year, it seems my October hunch was correct: For a combination of reasons, I went to the movies a lot less than usual in 2008. (The review count usually clocks in around 45. Last year, I only saw 30 films on the big screen.) And, looking over the release schedule, I see lots of movies I had every intention of viewing — Appaloosa, Be Kind, Rewind, Blindness, Choke, Leatherheads — and never got around to.

At any rate, given what I did see, here’re the best of ’em. And here’s hoping the 2009 list will be more comprehensive. As always, all of the reviews can be found here. (And if a movie title doesn’t link to a full review, it means I caught it on DVD.)

Top 20 Films of 2008

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007]


1. The Dark Knight: Yes, it’s the obvious fanboy pick. And, admittedly, TDK had pacing problems — it was herky-jerky at times and the third act felt rushed. Still, in a not-particularly-good year for cinema, Christopher Nolan’s operatic reimagining of the Caped Crusader and his arch-nemesis was far and away the most enjoyable experience i had at the movies in 2008. And if Candidate Obama was America’s own white knight (metaphorically speaking) this past year, Heath Ledger’s Joker was its mischievous, amoral, and misanthropic id. If and when the economic wheels continue to come off in 2009, will stoic selflessness or gleeful anarchy be the order of the day? The battle for Gotham continues, and everybody’s nervously eyeing those detonators. Let’s hope the clown doesn’t get the last laugh.


2. Milk: What with a former community organizer turned “hopemonger” being elected president — while evangelicals, conservatives and sundry Mormons inflicted Proposition 8 on the people of California — Gus Van Sant’s vibrant recounting of the tragedy of Harvey Milk was obviously the timeliest political movie of 2008. But, in a year that saw entirely too much inert Oscar-bait on-screen in its final months, Milk — romantic, passionate, and full of conviction — was also one of the most alive. While it extends some measure of compassion even to its erstwhile villain (Josh Brolin), Milk is a civil-rights saga that harbors no illusions about the forces of intolerance still amongst us, and how far we all still have to go.


3. The Wrestler: Have you ever seen a one-trick pony in the fields so happy and free? Me neither, to be honest, but Aronofsky’s naturalistic slice-of-life about the twilight days of Randy “the Ram” Ramzinski was likely the next best thing. I don’t know if Mickey Rourke will experience a career resurrection after this performance or not. But he won this match fair and square, and nobody can take it from him.


4. Let the Right One In: As if living in public housing in the dead of a Swedish winter wasn’t depressing enough, now there’s a nosferatu to contend with… My Bodyguard by way of Ingmar Bergman and Stephen King, this creepy and unsettling tale of a very unsparkly pre-teen vampyrer will leave bitemarks long after you step out into the light.


5. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days: A 2007 release that made it stateside in 2008, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days is a movie that I probably wouldn’t ever want to watch again. Still, this grim, unrelenting journey through the seedy hotels and sordid back-alleys of Ceaucescu’s Romania is another hard one to shake off. And, tho’ I caught it early on, it remained one of the very best films of the year.


6. WALL-E: If you saw one movie last year about a boy(bot) from the slums meeting — and then improbably wooing — the girl(bot) of his dreams, I really hope it was WALL-E. Hearkening back to quality seventies sci-fi like Silent Running, Andrew Stanton’s robot love story and timely eco-parable is a definite winner, and certainly another jewel in the gem-studded Pixar crown. I just wish it’d stayed in the melancholy, bittersweet key of its first hour, rather than venturing off to the hijinx-filled, interstellar fat farm. Ah well, bring on Up.


7. Iron Man: Much better than I ever anticipated, Jon Favreau’s (and Robert Downey Jr.’s) Iron Man kicked a summer of superheroes off in grand fashion. In the end, I preferred the gloomy stylings of Gotham in 2008, but there’s definitely something to be said for this rousing, upbeat entrant in the comic movie canon. It delivered on its own terms, and it was a much better tech-fetishizing, boys-and-their-toys type-film than, say, 2007’s Transformers or (I suspect) 2009’s GI Joe. Bonus points for the Dude going all Big Jeff Lebowski on us here…now quit being cheap about the sequel.


8. Man on Wire: 4:40pm: Two foreign nationals and their American abettors successfully navigate past the guard checkpoint of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. Their fanatical mission: To use the WTC as a symbol to transform the world…through an act of illegal, death-defying performance art. Although it never explicitly mentions 9/11 (of course, it doesn’t need to — the towers themselves do most of the work, and reconstructing its story as a heist does the rest), the stirring documentary Man on Wire, about Phillipe Petit’s 1974 tightrope-walk between the towers, gains most of its resonance from the events of that dark day in 2001.

After seventy minutes or so, just as it seems this unspoken analogy is starting to wear thin, Petit finally steps out onto that ridiculous wire, and Man on Wire takes your breath away. Nothing is permanent, the movie suggests. Not youth, not life, not love, not even those majestic, formidable towers. But some moments — yes, the beautiful ones too — can never be forgotten. (Note: Man on Wire is currently available as a direct download on Netflix.)


9. U2 3D: One of two 2008 films (along with #16) which seemed to suggest the future of the movie-going experience, U2 3D was both a decently rousing concert performance by Dublin’s fab four, and — more importantly — an experimental film which played with an entirely new cinema syntax. Just as students look back on D.W. Griffith films of a century ago as the beginnings of 2D-movie expression, so too might future generations look at this lowly U2 concert and see, in its layering of unrelated images onto one field of vision, when the language of 3D really began to take off. At which point someone might also say, “Man, I wish they’d played ‘So Cruel’ instead of some of these tired old dogs.”


10. The Visitor: I wrote about Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor (which I saw on DVD) some in my Gran Torino review, and my criticism there stands: As with Torino, the central thrust of this story is too Bagger Vance-ish by half. Still, it’s fun to see a likable character actor like Richard Jenkins get his due in a starring role, and he’s really great here. And, if the “magical immigrant” portions of this tale defy reality to some extent, McCarthy and Jenkins’ vision of a life desiccated by years of wallowing in academic purgatory — the humdrum lectures, the recycled syllabi, the mind-numbingly banal conferences, all divorced from any real-world interaction with the issues at hand — is frighteningly plausible.


11. Synecdoche, New York: Long on ambition and short on narrative coherence, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is the There Will Be Blood of last year’s crop, in that it’s a film that I think will inspire a phalanx of ardent defenders among movie buffs, who will argue its virtues passionately against all comers. For my own part, I admired this often-bewildering movie more than I actually enjoyed it, and ultimately found it much less engaging than Kaufman’s real magnum opus, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Still, I’m glad I made the attempt, and it’s definitely worth seeing.


12. Frost/Nixon: Two man enter, one man leave! More a sports movie than a political one, Ron Howard and Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon is a decently entertaining depiction of two hungry down-and-outers locked in the debater’s version of mortal kombat. That being said, I kinda wish the stakes had seemed higher, or that the substance of the issues at hand — Vietnam, Cambodia, Watergate — had been as foregrounded as the mano-a-mano mechanics of the interview. Plus, that scene where Tricky Dick sweeps the leg? That’s not kosher.


13. Snow Angels: David Gordon Green’s quiet, novelistic Snow Angels is an early-2008 film I caught on DVD only a few weeks ago, and it’s been slowly sneaking up the list ever since. Based on a 1994 book by Stewart O’Nan, the movie depicts the intertwined lives of a small New England community, and recounts the tragic circumstances that lead to two gunshots being fired therein one winter afternoon. (If it sounds like Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, it’s very close in form, content, and melancholy impact.)

In a movie brimming over with quality performances — including (an ever-so-slightly-implausible) Kate Beckinsale, Nicky Katt, Amy Sedaris, and the long-forgotten Griffin Dunne — three actors stand out: Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby fall into one of the most honest, believable, and affectation-free high school romances I’ve seen in a movie in ages. And the always-watchable Sam Rockwell sneaks up on you as a perennial loser who tries to be a good guy and just keeps failing at life despite himself. At first not much more than an amiable buffoon as per his usual m.o., Rockwell’s gradual surrender to his demons — note his scenes with his daughter, or in the truck with his dog, or at the bar — gives Snow Angels a haunting resonance that sticks with you.


14. Burn After Reading: As I said in the original review, it’s not one of the all-time Coen classics or anything. But even medium-grade Coen tends to offer more delights than most films do in a given year, and the same holds true of their espionage-and-paranoia farce Burn After Reading in 2008. From John Malkovich’s foul-mouthed, (barely-)functioning alcoholic to George Clooney as a (thoroughly goofy) lactose-intolerant bondage enthusiast to, of course, Brad Pitt’s poor, dim-witted Chet, Burn introduced plenty of ridiculous new characters to the brothers’ already-stacked rogues’ gallery. This is one (unlike The Ladykillers) that I’m looking forward to seeing again.


15. Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Another catch-up DVD rental, this was Woody Allen’s good movie last year (as opposed to the woeful Cassandra’s Dream), and a smarter-than-average relationship film (as one might expect from the man behind Husbands and Wives and Annie Hall.) There’re some definitive Allen tics here that take some getting used to in the new environment of Barcelona — a very Woody-ish omniscient voiceover, some Allenesque quips emanating from Scarlett Johannson and the striking Rebecca Hall (late of Frost/Nixon and The Prestige), and, as per Match Point and Scoop, some rather outdated depictions of the class system. (Hall’s fiance, played by Chris Messina of Six Feet Under, is basically a caricature of the boring, born-entitled Ivy League grad, circa 1965.)

Still, if you can get past all that, Vicky Cristina is quite worthwhile. (And, as far as the Oscar buzz goes, I’d say Javier Bardem makes more of an impression here than does Penelope Cruz.) Whether you’re as old as Woody or as young as Vicky and Cristina, the story remains the same: love is a weird, untameable thing, and the heart wants what it wants.


16. Speed Racer: Easily the most unfairly maligned movie of 2008 (and I’m not a Wachowski apologist — I thought Matrix: Revolutions was atrocious), Speed Racer is an amped-up, hypercolorful extravaganza of the senses, and, this side of the original Matrix, one of the more interesting attempts I’ve seen at bringing anime to life. Critics derided it pretty much across the board as loud, gaudy nonsense, but, then as now, I’m not sure what they went in expecting from the film adaptation of a lousy sixties cartoon involving race cars and silly monkeys. This is where some readers might ask: “Um, are you really saying Speed Racer is a better movie than Revolutionary Road?” And I’m saying, yes, it’s much more successful at what it aimed to accomplish, and probably more entertaining to boot. Sure, Racer is a kid’s movie, but so was WALL-E. And, given most of the drek put before the youths today, it’s a darned innovative one. Plus, I’ve seen a lot of filmed laments about quiet-desperation-in-the-suburbs in my day, but for better or worse, in my 34 years of existence, I had never seen anything quite like this.


17. Gran Torino: Alas, Speed Racer, it seems, grew old, got ornery, and began fetishizing his car in the garage instead. Good thing there’re some kindly Hmong next door to pry open that rusty heart with a crowbar! Like The Visitor, Torino suffers from an excess of sentiment when it comes to its depiction of 21st-century immigrants and their salutary impact on old white folks. But, as a cautionary coda to a lifelong career glorifying vigilantism, Eastwood’s Gran Torino has that rusty heart in the right place, at least. And while Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski may be a mean old cuss, Eastwood’s performance here suggests that the old man’s got some tricks in him yet.


18. A Christmas Tale: I wrote about this movie very recently, so my thoughts on it haven’t changed all that much. A bit pretentious at times, Arnaud Desplechin’s anti-sentimental holiday film has its virtues, most notably Chiara Mastroianni eerily (and probably inadvertently) channeling her father and the elfin Mathieu Amalric wreaking havoc on his long-suffering family whenever possible. It’s a Not-So-Wonderful Life, I guess, but — however aggravating your relatives ’round christmastime — it’s still probably better than the alternative.


19. Tropic Thunder: Its pleasures were fleeting — I can’t remember very many funny lines at this point — and even somewhat scattershot. (Tom Cruise as Harvey Weinstein by way of a gigantic member was funny for the first ten minutes. Less so after half an hour.) Still, give Tropic Thunder credit. Unlike all too many comedies in recent years, it didn’t try to make us better people — it just went for the laugh, and power to it. And when the most controversial aspect of your movie turns out not to be the white guy in blackface (or, as we all euphemistically tend to put it now, “the dude disguised as another dude“), but the obvious Forrest Gump/Rain Man spoof, I guess you’ve done something right.


20. W: Nowhere near as potent as Stone’s early political forays, JFK and Nixon, W still came close to accomplishing the impossible in 2008: making the out-going president seem a sympathetic figure. I suppose several other films could’ve sat with distinction in this 20-spot — In Bruges or Benjamin Button, perhaps — but none of them would’ve afforded me the opportunity to write these lovely words once more: So long, Dubya.

Honorable Mention: It wasn’t a movie, of course. But 2008 was also the year we bid farewell to The Wire. Be sure to raise a glass, or tip a 40, in respect. (And let’s pray that — this year, despite all that’s come before — a “New Day” really is dawning.)

Most Disappointing: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Worth a Rental: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, In Bruges, Revolutionary Road, Valkyrie

Don’t Bother: Cassandra’s Dream, Cloverfield, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Doubt, Hellboy II: The Golden Age, The Incredible Hulk, Quantum of Solace, Slumdog Millionaire, Wanted

Best Actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler, Sean Penn, Milk, Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Best Actress: Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Lina Leandersson, Let the Right One In, Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight, Josh Brolin, Milk, Jeff Bridges, Iron Man, Sam Rockwell, Snow Angels
Best Supporting Actress: Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler, Tilda Swinton, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Unseen: Appaloosa, Australia, The Bank Job, Be Kind, Rewind, Blindness, Body of Lies, Cadillac Records, Changeling, Choke, The Class, Defiance, Eagle Eye, The Fall, Funny Games, Hancock, Happy Go Lucky, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo, Leatherheads, I Loved You So Long, The Lucky Ones, Miracle at St. Anna, Pineapple Express, Rambo, The Reader, Redbelt, RockNRolla, The Spirit, Traitor, Waltz with Bashir

    A Good Year For:
  • Billionaire Do-Gooders (The Dark Knight, Iron Man)
  • Lonely Old White Guys (Gran Torino, The Visitor, The Wrestler)
  • Magical Immigrants (Gran Torino, The Visitor)
  • Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona, Frost/Nixon)
  • Richard Jenkins (The Visitor, Burn after Reading)
  • Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man, Tropic Thunder)
  • Romance at the Junkyard (WALL-E, Slumdog Millionaire)
  • Sam Rockwell (Choke, Frost/Nixon, Snow Angels)
  • Teenage Vampirism (Let the Right One In, Twilight)
  • Tosca (Quantum of Solace, Milk)
    A Bad Year For:
  • GOP Ex-Presidents (Frost/Nixon, W)
  • Political Do-Gooders (The Dark Knight, Milk)
  • Pulp Heroes (The Spirit)
  • Vigilantism without Remorse (Gran Torino, The Dark Knight)
  • Would-Be Assassins (Valkyrie, Wanted)
2009: Avatar, The Box, Bruno, Coraline, Duplicity, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Knowing, The Lovely Bones, New York, I Love You, Observe and Report, Push, Sherlock Holmes, The Soloist, State of Play, Star Trek, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Terminator: Salvation, Up, Where the Wild Things Are, The Wolfman, Wolverine and, of course,

Hrm.

Mano-a-Mano.

Ron Howard’s version of Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon, the first of many 2008 prestige films I caught over this past weekend, is a solid two hours of decently diverting edutainment. It’s not an earth-shattering, must-see film or anything, and Morgan (and Michael Sheen)’s last recent “mini-history,” The Queen, is ultimately a more memorable moviegoing experience. Still, Ron Howard’s film has its merits. It’s much better about opening the space and feeling less play-like than John Patrick Shanley’s recent reimagining of Doubt. And it has considerably less of the dry, “Will this be on the test?” feel of much of Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie, which sometimes seemed designed as a go-to staple for high school history teachers feeling under the weather. Throw in two highly watchable performances by the main sparrers in this tale, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen as Nixon and Frost respectively, and some scene-stealing buffoonery by Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell in the margins (Think Rosencrantz/Guildenstern), and you’ve got a keeper here with Frost/Nixon. And, fwiw, it’s probably Howard’s best film since Apollo 13, perhaps ever.

As you might expect, the movie begins with a brief recap of the Watergate crisis, culminating in the memorable departure of Richard Nixon (Langella, beady-eyed and furtive) from the White House grounds on August 9, 1974. And, while the mid-Seventies unwind, Nixon licks his wounds, and Rocky Balboa trains on the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for his one shot at Apollo Creed, another challenger — this time from across the pond — begins his own preparations for taking on the champ. In this case, the challenger is David Frost (Sheen), a talk show host and television personality whose American show failed in syndication and who has since been relegated to covering stupid-human-tricks Down Under. Hungry to get back into the Stateside game, Frost sees immediate opportunity in a series of interviews with Nixon, and, by dint of sheer ambition, manages to rope in his BBC producer friend (Matthew MacFadyen of Pride and Prejudice), two down-and-out researchers (Platt and Rockwell), and a leggy brunette he meets on the plane (Rebecca Hall of The Prestige and Vicky Christina Barcelona) into his audacious proposal.

At first, it seems, Frost is in luck. When not dying a slow death on the lecture circuit, the former president has been languishing in San Clemente, and he and his handlers (most notably Kevin Bacon) have been looking for a way to get back in the game themselves. So after Nixon’s agent (Toby Jones) extracts from Frost a price the television “performer” can’t really afford, and it is deemed by all involved that Frost is a certifiable lightweight, who can be molded as needed to fit the president’s new media strategy, the interviews are agreed upon. In the early rounds — and rounds they are, with points scored, corner men, sweat towels (no 1960 redux for Nixon this time) and the like — everything proceeds according to plan, with Nixon pontificating presidentially and Frost (and his increasingly exasperated researchers) completely hemmed in. Will this spirited but out-of-his-depth newsman manage to break out of the corner and land a few punishing blows himself? I dunno, but we’ll definitely need a montage

To be honest, I don’t think Frost/Nixon ever really succeeds in selling us on the purported importance of the Frost interviews. Granted, I’m too young to remember how they played at the time — I was sorta more focused on Electric Company and Star Wars right around then. But for all the talk of much-needed national catharsis throughout the film, the world-historical stakes here seem rather small. Coming after all the investigations into the break-in and subsequent cover-up, the congressional hearings on Watergate, the ultimate resignation of the president, and the pardon by Ford, it’s hard to see these 1977 talks as much more than a coda to the main event. And, while Langella is exemplary as the 37th president and definitely deserves his recent Oscar nod, I actually think Oliver Stone’s Nixon did a better job of humanizing Tricky Dick and animating his demons. (In fact, there’s a midnight drunk-dialing episode here in Frost/Nixon (an obviously fabricated event) which wouldn’t seem out of place in Stone’s film.)

Still, once you move past its historical pretensions and realize that, for all intent and purposes, Frost/Nixon is basically just the political debater’s version of a boxing movie, there’s still some good fun to be had here. And, hey, he may now seem like a piker when compared to the intelligence-falsifying, torture-happy shenanigans of 43 — can we expect Lauer/Dubya just around the corner? — but at least we’ll always have Nixon to kick around some more.

Update: David Frost, Michael Sheen, and others talk about the film here.

The Curious Case of Benjamin’s Oscar Love.

The powers-that-be announce the nominees for the 81st Academy Awards, with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button garnering 13 nominations (it helps when your Oscar Bait is FX-heavy), Slumdog Millionaire grabbing ten, and Milk and The Dark Knight notching eight apiece. (That being said, TDK was frozen out of the main awards, Ledger’s inevitable Supporting Actor bid notwithtanding.)

Also in the running for major stuff: The Reader (picture, actress, director), The Wrestler (actor, supporting actress), Doubt (actor, screenplay, actress, supporting actress), Frost/Nixon (director, actor, screenplay), and WALL-E (screenplay, animated film). And the happy semi-surprises: Richard Jenkins for The Visitor and Robert Downey, Jr. for Tropic Thunder.

I’ll make my picks with the GitM 2008 list, which should be coming up within the next week or two. (The movies I’ve been waiting for — Frost/Nixon, Revolutionary Road, and The Wrestler — all open here tomorrow.) And, don’t worry, 2009 isn’t being slighted all that much: I highly doubt Paul Blart: Mall Cop was going to make the cut anyway.

Frost Specced.

When the president does it that means that it is not illegal.” The new trailer for Ron Howard’s film adaptation of Frost / Nixon is now online, starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Oliver Platt, Matthew McFadyen, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, and (naturally) Clint Howard. I’m intrigued by this project (haven’t seen the play), but this, sadly, is a pretty poor trailer (“In a world where the president blah blah blah, these men stood up for the truth…”) And, while I know he played the part on Broadway, Langella’s Nixon-voice sounds even more distracting to me than Christian Bale’s bat-rasp.

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