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Oliver Platt

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Not Great, Starts with an Earthquake…

As you no doubt expected, Roland Emmerich’s bloated disaster flick 2012 is a colossal, gimongous, world-sized ball of stupid. I guess I sort of admired its “disaster movie to end all disaster movie” gumption at first. That being said, the film is predicated on an erroneous and ultimately movie-killing assumption: That, after witnessing catastrophic, CGI-enhanced carnage that would mean the deaths of billions of little CGI people, the audience will still care one whit whether the cardboard cutouts played by John Cusack, Amanda Peet, et al manage to survive this fiasco. You won’t, or, at least, I didn’t. And, as such, the film basically ends up being, as Stephanie Zacharek memorably labeled Pirates of the Caribbean 3, a overly long, drawn out “movie tax” — “See it and like it…or you’ll be out of step with the whole universe!

Well, I’ve been better than usual this year about taking a flyer on obvious crap — I skipped Wolverine, Transformers 2, and GI Joe, for example. But, yes, I did plunk down for this one…sigh. I kinda figured going in that actors like Cusack (slumming it, a la Con Air), Chiwetel Ejiofor (much better than the material), Oliver Platt (typecast), and Tom McCarthy (obviously paying for his next indie project), among others, would help sustain some level of enjoyment from these proceedings. And, if they failed, well, there was always the massive doses of CGI-enhanced obliteration to fill the void. I mean, I like video game cutscenes as much as the next guy. (Which reminds me the DC-in-ruins level of the recent Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is vastly more entertaining that the similar chaos here.)

But sadly, 2012 doesn’t even work as a popcorn film — I should know, I tore into a jumbo-sized barrel-full about the time California bought the farm, just to see if it improved the experience. For one, two hours and forty minutes is way too long to hold people’s interest when you’re dealing with a script this bad and characters this fundamentally boring. For another, 2012 is just lazily written and weirdly repetitive. Planes have to take off before an imminent cloud of destruction — and, phew, just make it! — not once, not twice, but three times, ah ah ah. (At least automobiles — well, a limo and an RV — only have to just outrun the encroaching ruin twice.) And, when given the End of the World as We Know It as their subject, Emmerich and co-writer Harald Kloser somehow thought it would be a grand idea to spend 2012‘s last 35 minutes focused on a malfunctioning hydraulic door. (This scene, by the way is, a blatant ripoff of Kurt Russell’s farewell in the so-so Poseidon remake, except 2012 doesn’t even have the fortitude to follow through.)

Admittedly, the film does show some promise at first — in part because it leads with its strong hand, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Brilliant Scientist-with-a-Heart Adrian Helmsley, and in part because the science at first sounds slightly more plausible than usual for these sorts of films — See, for example, The Core. Basically, as a result of solar activity, neutrinos are suddenly bombarding Mother Earth and cooking her insides, causing serious trouble along various fault lines (buh-bye, Golden State) and at the (legitimately frightening) Yellowstone caldera. (I’m a sucker for this explanation, as I *almost* spent a summer in high school scrounging for elusive neutrinos in a well in Italy as part of a mandated research internship — The project fell through, so instead I spent the summer in Columbia SC, scrounging for fractal patterns in COBE DMR maps of the universe. Hey, it was 1992 — fractals were sexy back then.)

I digress. So anyway, our Brilliant Scientist does the math and rushes to warn Sleazy Govt. Official (Oliver Platt), who then takes the information to the Noble President (Danny Glover — and if he’s meant to be Barack Obama, he’s “too old for this s**t.” But I guess he does provide another data point for this guy.) The Noble President — who by the way has a Beautiful Daughter (Thandie Newton) that may or may not cotton to Ejiofor at some point — is forced to consider drastic measures to preserve the species, and so he surreptitiously takes a desperate plan for survival to the world’s other leaders. After all, for this Hail Mary for Humankind to work, they’ll need the secrecy and manpower that only the People’s Republic of China can currently provide. (As it turns out, the Three Gorges Dam…isn’t.)

Cut to Working-Class Joe (Cusack) — formerly a novelist, now a limo driver estranged from his Ex-Wife (Peet), her New Boyfriend (McCarthy), and his two Quirky Kids (Liam James, Morgan Lily.) But, while on a “hey your old man’s still cool” camping trip to Yellowstone — now overrun by scientists and the Feds — Working-Class Joe randomly runs into Brilliant Scientist and a Dead-on Conspiracy Nut (Woody Harrelson), both of whom lead him to realize that everything’s about to hit the fan. And, when his Russian mafioso employer (Zlatko Buric) starts acting frantic and making noise about some kind of Golden Ticket…well, maybe it’s time to pack up the extended family and get the hell out of Dodge.

At which point, all Hell breaks loose, and various world landmarks get systematically destroyed while the above characters gape awkwardly at the carnage — You can just imagine the green tennis ball they were forced to look at with awestruck despair, before the CGI-techs took over for six months. Like I said, all of this is fitfully entertaining in a video game kinda way for a little while — the Yellowstone eruption is particularly ‘splosiony — until Emmerich pours it on for way too long and it all gets to seem a bit misanthropic, even sadistic. (He seems to take particular relish in destroying the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel — not otherwise involved in this tale — as if to say “Where’s your God now?”) Like I said, I’m all for Stuff Blowing Up — why else sit through a movie like 2012? But, after the umpteenth scene of thousands of CGI-people dying horribly, I began to question the moral economy of it all. (And, frankly, Emmerich’s moral economy has been in question with me ever since his transposing of Nazi war crimes into The Patriot. That was sha-dy.)

But, I don’t want to overstate the case. Ultimately, 2012 is too banal to really take much umbrage at. It isn’t even aggravatingly bad like The Box, it’s just deeply meh, and not worth the effort it would take to get worked up over. Not one of the characters here is interesting on their face — they’re all just boring stereotypes, doing boring, stereotypical things, and we’ve seen them all before in Emmerich’s other disaster flicks, Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. To take ID4, the “Brilliant Scientist” then was Jeff Goldblum, the “Working-Class Joe” was Will Smith, the “Noble President” was Bill Pullman, the “Sleazy Govt. Official” was James Rebhorn, the “Estranged Wife” was Margaret Colin, the “Dead-on Conspiracy Nut” was Randy Quaid…you get the picture. They even went so far to as get another ex-Star Trek actor (John Billingsley, formerly Dr. Phlox of Enterprise) to recreate Brent Spiner’s cameo (“Nerdy Sidekick Scientist”) from ID4.

So, as you expected, 2012 is indeed mindless crap…but, alas, it’s not even vaguely enjoyable mindless crap. It’s dull, it’s redundant, it goes on for far too long, and all of the characters, despite the best efforts of Ejiofor in particular, are hollow men. This is the way Emmerich’s world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

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


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,



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.

Midnight Agents, Superhuman Crews.

Among the bountiful harvest that is the Quantum of Solace trailer crop…

  • Trailer rights to use Philip Glass and Muse? Several thousand dollars. Lawyers to haggle out an armistice among warring studios? Millions. Finally getting a Watchmen film up and made? Priceless. Costumed heroes (the Voice-of-Mastercard among them) investigate the death of a Comedian in the story-heavy second trailer for Zack Snyder’s Watchmen.

    I’m all over the place on this one. There are some real red flags here — all the Snydery slo-mo shots of Malin Ackerman’s hair, for example — and some of the dialogue feels as stiff and expository as the ponderous take-a-meeting scenes in 300. Then again, as with the first trailer, I’m still having trouble just wrapping my mind around the fact that they finally made a Watchmen movie. So I’m inclined to be charitable, and the little flourishes throughout (Rorschach’s mask moves!) appeal to my inner fanboy regardless. (Also, while Jackie Earle Hale’s Bale-Batman-growl may be a tad distracting, it’s hard to imagine Rorschach with any other kind of voice.) For now, I’ll call it a push.

  • Bad Boy Kirk! Angry Spock(?)! Alluring Uhura! Villain with Ridges on Face! J.J. Abrams introduces his new-and-improved Enterprise babies in the crowd-pleasing trailer for the Star Trek reboot. I can’t say I’m expecting all that much from this venture, and this clip, particularly in its 2 Fast 2 Furious opener, doesn’t shy away from bringing the summer movie dumb. Still, I’m forced to admit this looks more fun than I’d earlier envisioned, and I’m looking forward to more of Simon Pegg’s Scott and Karl Urban’s Bones. (And Bruce Greenwood (Pike) and Eric Bana (Big Bad) are generally a welcome touch of class in any event.)

    Also out of late:

  • A stiff, robotic alien promises to destroy life on Earth in order to save it…oh yeah, and he brought Gort along too. Keanu Reeves get threatening in the new action-centric trailer for next month’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, also with Jennifer Connelly and Jon Hamm.

  • Speaking of threatening, Harrison Ford looks to uncork the finger of doom for the cause of immigration reform in the trailer for Wayne Kramer’s Crash-like Crossing Over. (I hope his wife and family are ok, at least.) Joining Indy on this border-crossing adventure: Summer Bishil, Alice Braga, Cliff Curtis, Alice Eve, Ashley Judd, Ray Liotta, and Jim Sturgess.

  • Immigration, Schmimmigration. According to the teaser for Roland Emmerich’s next forgettable summer jaunt, 2012, we’ve only got four years left anyway…and it’s all Dubya’s fault. Strangely enough, John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Woody Harrelson are all along to surf this improbable Himalayan-swamping wave, but I wouldn’t expect much of a splash at the box office.

  • Finally, the revolution may not be televised, but it’ll soon be hitting at least a few screens here in America anyway: Witness the a international teaser for Steven Soderbergh’s Che (or, more to the point, Ches — I believe this project is still two films.) Word of mouth on this one has been highly variable, but I remain curious to see what Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro have come up with. Still, this strangely disjointed teaser — Ken Burns by way of Oliver Stone — doesn’t really get the job done.

  • 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.

    Lloyd Dobler makes the rounds.

    The Cusacks have been busy of late, as several new trailers attest: John Cusack the crack assassin flounders in the Emerald City in the new preview for War, Inc. (a.k.a. Grosse Point Blank meets Lord of War), also starring sister Joan, Marisa Tomei, Hillary Duff, and Ben Kingsley. John Cusack the cranky sci-fi writer adopts a problem kid with a heart of gold in the trailer for Martian Child (a film you’d have to pay me to see), also starring sister Joan, Amanda Peet, Richard Schiff, and Oliver Platt. And, though it’s been on the web awhile now, John Cusack the depressed seeker of paranormal activity bites off more than he can chew in the trailer for Mikael Hafstrom’s 1408 (from the Stephen King story), also starring Samuel Jackson, Mary McCormack…and sister Joan? Well, not this time. Perhaps they can add her as a CGI ghost or something.

    Silent Night, Deadly Night.

    Coming as it does from the director of Caddyshack and Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis’ The Ice Harvest is a surprisingly mordant and misanthropic piece of work. If your tastes run along such lines (as mine do), it’s an enjoyable neo-noir reminiscent of Blood Simple, one that’s fitfully amusing but rarely laugh-out-loud funny. But, particularly after seeing Goblet and Syriana, The Ice Harvest also feels somewhat unrealized and, for the most part, instantly forgettable. As 2 Days in the Valley and Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead are to Pulp Fiction, this movie is to Fargo…at best, it’s the type of movie you might find yourself watching on cable one thoroughly miserable holiday evening.

    In a nutshell, The Ice Harvest plays like Grand Theft Auto: Wichita. (Or, put another way, it answers the question, “What if Kansas were more like Oz?”) As the film begins, we meet up with the Pushing Tin duo of John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton — here a mob lawyer and pornographer respectively — soon after they’ve acquired over $2 million of ill-gotten loot from the coffers of the local mafioso (Randy Quaid). All they have to do is wait out the night — Christmas Eve — on account of an ice storm (which doesn’t seem to prevent them from driving around much), before skipping town for warmer climes. So, Cusack decides to hit up various strip clubs and nightspots — including one run by Wichita femme fatale Connie Nielsen (as always, deserving of better roles) and another frequented by Cusack’s alcoholic buddy (and second husband to his ex-wife) Oliver Platt (doing a variation on his Huff character) — all the while evading the mob’s muscle (Mike Starr, playing to form).

    The first half of The Ice Harvest moves languorously, but it feels like it’s building to something. But…unfortunately, it’s not. Around the midway point, right when we seem to be achieving narrative momentum, the movie instead starts somewhat remorselessly killing off many of the characters we’ve recently met. Indeed, entire plotlines seem jettisoned (Cusack’s ex-wife, the incriminating photograph) in favor of a high body count. And, frankly, by the time the last folks standing get to the final, bloody shootout, I had pretty much checked out. There are definitely some amusing episodes along the way, and special marks go to Oliver Platt’s comic lush and Billy Bob Thornton’s usual brand of weary resignation (particularly involving his wife). But as a whole, The Ice Harvest just doesn’t hang together. I’m as up for a Christmas dish served ice-cold as anyone, but this harvest, despite signs of early promise, comes up fallow.

    Murrow, Mines, Mobsters, Menage, and Monkey.

    Soon after posting the last entry, I found a new cache of trailers for films around the corner over at Coming Soon: First off, Edward Murrow takes a journalistic stand against McCarthyism (with much explicit contemporary relevance) in the trailer for George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck, starring David Strathairn, Clooney, Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Daniels, and Frank Langella. Then, Charlize Theron braves borderline winds, the mining life, and sexual harassment in the preview for North Country, also with Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek, Woody Harrelson, Sean Bean, and Richard Jenkins. Meanwhile, law partners John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton look for the big score in Harold Ramis’ The Ice Harvest, with Randy Quaid, Connie Nielsen, and Oliver Platt. And, finally, journalist Alison Lohman looks into the racy reasons behind the demise of comedy team Bacon & Firth in Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies (recently saddled with a NC-17), and video gamer Allen Covert pays respect to his elders in the trailer for the Adam-Sandler produced Grandma’s Boy. (To be honest, I’m only blogging this last one for the “don’t judge me” monkey bit and the too-brief glimpse of the lovely Linda “Lindsey Weir” Cardellini.) Update: Ok, one more: Tilda Swinton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vince Vaughn, Benjamin Bratt and Keanu Reeves try to help newcomer Lou Pucci stop a nasty habit in the trailer for Thumbsucker, due out in just over two weeks.

    Sex Education.

    Hoo boy, the Red Staters obsessed with “moral values” out there are just gonna love Kinsey. With its unflinching recognition of myriad forms of human sexual behavior, its intimations of bisexuality and wife-swapping among team Kinsey, and its occasionally graphic (albeit antiseptic and not at all titillating) depictions of the act of coitus (to channel Maude Lebowski), Bill Condon’s biopic of Indiana’s famous sex statistician is the closest movie we have this year to a Passion of the Christ for science-minded free-thinkers. In fact, the film seems almost genetically designed to get under the skins of the abstinence-firsters and moralist types who’ve decried Kinsey’s studies for fifty years.

    That being said, the strength of Kinsey, and what elevates it to being a better-then-average biopic, is the way it ultimately gets under everybody’s skin. Alfred Kinsey is not simply white-washed as a martyr to science and a hero of sexual enlightenment (although, in its most conventional moments, such as the last ten minutes, the movie hammers those particular points pretty hard.) Rather, Kinsey is portrayed as a man whose relentless pursuit of sexual knowledge often leads him down some troubling and morally ambiguous roads. Even the most open-minded libertines in the audience may find themselves feeling that things seem to have gotten a little out-of-control around the home office in Indiana by the end, and get extremely discomfited when Liam Neeson’s Kinsey sits down with an even creepier than usual Bill Sadler, a pedophile and sexual predator who’s taken some notes of his own.

    Kinsey is at its best when it rides this razor’s edge, honoring the professor’s undeniable contributions to science and society while recognizing that his dispassionately treating sexual behavior as he earlier treated gall wasps ultimately opened the door to immense personal pitfalls, particularly for the men and women around him who had trouble maintaining such a scientific distance. Speaking of which, while Neeson is solid and Laura Linney is Laura Linney as usual, the supporting character work in Kinsey is particularly good. Special marks go to a fearless Peter Saarsgard as Kinsey’s #2 (Watch out, Ewan – you’ve got a competitor now for the full-frontal roles), John Lithgow for his bleary final scene as Kinsey’s father (which redeemed an otherwise one-note character), and Dylan Baker as the long-suffering Rockefeller Foundation point person (who must partly have been picked here for his memorable role in Happiness.)

    In sum, although it ends with a rather bland huzzah for the march of science, Bill Condon’s Kinsey is for the most part an intelligent, nuanced, and multifaceted appreciation of one man’s probing (and occasionally perilous) quest to illuminate humankind’s most intimate frontier. (And as such, it’ll probably go over like a lead balloon in American Pie country.)

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