Friday, May 8, 2009

On DVD: "Fashion in Film"

On one hand, the Starz documentary Fashion in Film is pretty lightweight, barely scratching the surface and ticking off names and showing a smattering of clips. On the other hand, it concerns the intersection of two pretty shallow industries, so perhaps they’re getting the treatment they deserve. The concept is worth examination, though; fashion and film have a rich shared history, each one influencing and feeding off the other, functioning in both a complementary and competitive way.

The short (less than an hour) doc utilizes clips from films, red carpets, and cat walks, with commentary by a variety of interview subjects—models and actors, directors (well, Brett Ratner), film and fashion designers, historians, even store buyers. It’s decently constructed, using loosely defined sections to convey the history and future of the intertwining beasts.

“Fashion vs. Costume” examines the job of the costume designer, and how they can use high fashion in costume design. The expected examples are trotted out (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses, Legally Blonde), but some interesting points are made about the idea of the makeover/transformation—it’s a tool of storytelling shorthand in movies, but it’s often the entire message of the fashion industry (wear these clothes, and you’re a whole other person!). So when Anne Hathaway struts a killer outfit in Devil, it’s also savvy product placement for the designers who furnish those outfits; "I want to wear that and make that transformation too!" says the viewer. “Most people don’t watch fashion shows, they watch movies,” notes writer Ramin Setoodeh, “and movies are like long fashion shows.”

“Reel to Retail” takes a look at how movies (and stars' red carpet choices) influence what consumers choose to wear. The film uses, as an example, the classic green dress worn by Keira Knightley in Atonement, following it all the way to streamlined operations like Faviana, who make a specialty of replicating film fashions. Less obvious examples (like the films of Wes Anderson) are mentioned, leading nicely into the history of the “Stars of Style” section. In this (the film’s best segment), fashion icons are profiled—Katherine Hepburn, James Dean, Marlon Brando, and, of course Audrey Hepburn (specifically her iconic turn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s). We then breeze through the decades with the expected stops along the way: Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, Jennifer Beals (who is interviewed) in Flashdance (Starz apparently couldn’t get the rights to “Maniac,” so a terrible sound-alike song is used during those clips), Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan, and everyone in Clueless. A couple of these are a stretch (Madonna clearly brought her own look, already established in her music videos, to Susan), but it’s still a fun segment.

The next section, “Big Screen Boutique,” takes a closer look at the business end of the relationship—the influence of a show (and film) like Sex in the City, which is a buffet of branding and product placement; the fashion designers (like Armani and Gaultier) who do film work; and the rising value (in payments to actors and actresses) of wearing certain designers on the red carpet, a move which has led directly to the fall of the supermodel (“Kate Winslet is a lot more relatable on a magazine cover… we feel like we know her”). This leads into the final section, “Hollywood Glamour,” which follows this concept to its next logical step: celebs extending the idea of “branding” into creating clothing lines of their own.

Fashion in Film is a light, throwaway hour; it’s pretty well-put together, though the brief length means that many of the interesting themes are merely touched on (particularly the history section). It’s not quite as comprehensive or captivating as some of the other Starz docs (many of which sent me out to Netflix the films mentioned within), but it’s decent junk food.

"Fashion in Film" is currently available on DVD.

In Theaters: "The Limits of Control"

Jim Jarmusch has never been the most accommodating of directors, but he’s really gone off the reservation with his new film, The Limits of Control. Oh, he’s made films that were obtuse, or alienating. But he’s never made one this self-defeatingly dull. It begins strongly enough, with a series of short, crisp, deliberate images, and there’s some promise in its opening passages, even if you do wonder exactly how long it can get by on cool music, striking visuals, and the chiseled features of star Issach De Bankole. Jarmusch apparently thinks that’ll do for 116 minutes. You keep waiting for the movie to start, and then it’s over.

Here’s what happens: The “Lone Man” (De Bankole) goes somewhere, via a plane or a train. He checks into a hotel. He meditates. He then meets a contact, who greets him by saying “You don’t speak Spanish, right?” They proceed to either spout New Age-y non-sequiturs at him, or give him oblique instructions followed by New Age-y non-sequiturs. They exchange boxes of matches, he reads a note inside the box, he eats the note, and then he gets on the next plane or train, and the whole thing starts over again. This happens like ten times, and then he goes to kill Bill Murray, and then we can go home.

What the hell is Jarmusch up to here? He gives us nothing (no names, no motivations, no characterizations), aside from the most inactive action movie of all time—which is something, I suppose. Occasionally people we know pop up, and we hope something will happen, but we’re wrong. They’re like guest stars that come by to play the same tired scene and fail at drumming up some interest. Tilda Swinton turns up in a trenchcoat, cowboy hat, white fright wig, and clear umbrella, and our hearts sink, because when you give someone a costume that odd and elaborate, it’s because they don’t have a character to play so you have to give them something—for them to do, and for us to latch on to. It’s the only way we remember anyone; she’s the cowboy hat lady, he’s the Mexican guy, she’s the naked lady, etc. It doesn’t help that Jarmusch has everyone utilize the same kind of odd, flat, disaffected line readings; the only actors to make any impression whatsoever are Murray and John Hurt, and they’ve each got two to three minutes of screen time.

The monotony, meanwhile, is downright numbing; when De Bankole changes his suit a third of the way in, we’re so itchy for something to happen, it plays like a seismic event. By the time the film crawled into its third act, I was honestly wondering if Jarmusch just wanted an excuse to go to Spain, so he pounded out a script on a rainy Sunday. It’s full of irritating repetition and inexplicable moments; in one of the endless parade of café scenes, Swinton starts talking about old movies, and says “Sometimes in films, I like it when people just sit there, not saying anything,” so of course they then have to do that for a while; it’s an embarrassingly obvious and phony beat in a picture full of them.

Much of it is the kind of self-consciously “arty” cinema that keeps regular filmgoers out of the art houses. “Everything is imaginary,” poor Gael Garcia Bernal has to say, “I think this reflection is more present than I am.” This is the kind of junk that first-year philosophy students say when they’re stoned and trying to sound like deep thinkers. It would seem it’s easier to make a film full of pseudo-metaphysical epigrams than to construct a smart, well-structured narrative with some snap and something for an audience to engage in.

It is worth noting that the cinematography, by the great Christopher Doyle, is just lovely—the color is smashing, from the blood red elevator to de Bankole’s cool blue suit. Likewise, the music has to do much of the heavy lifting, and the cues are perfect. But it’s at the service of nothing. I was excited about The Limits of Control; in his last two features (Ghost Dog and Broken Flowers), Jarmusch really seemed to be on to something, bringing his distinctive, off-kilter style to traditional stories and making something fresh and new. I liked that the trailer didn’t give the whole film away, as so many trailers do. I showed that trailer to my wife, who said, “It looks interesting. What’s it about?” I told her I didn’t know. Come to find out, neither does Jarmusch.

"The Limits of Control" is currently in theaters.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

On VOD: "The Girlfriend Experience"

It’s been twenty long years since Steven Soderbergh took Cannes by storm and proved that independent films could make money with his debut feature, sex, lies, and videotape. That loaded title, with all of its scandalous implications, played no small part in the film’s buzz; those who bought a ticket, however, would be disappointed to learn that it wasn’t really about sex at all, but about intimacy and honesty.

The casting of hardcore star Sasha Grey in the leading role of Soderbergh’s new picture The Girlfriend Experience is the 2009 equivalent of that dirty title; it promises more raunch than the movie itself delivers. It, too, is about intimacy and honesty. But the director isn’t repeating himself; much as Scorsese did with The Departed, Soderbergh is making a film that is, in many ways, a culmination of his recurring themes and unique style, and is also something altogether new.

From the opening moments (an intriguing montage of ambient music and striking visuals), we’re watching a mature, accomplished filmmaker who is in absolute control of his material. His confidence and maturity have never been clearer—nor has his efficiency (The Girlfriend Experience clocks in at a brisk 77 minutes, in a stark contrast to his last picture, the two-part, four-plus-hour Che). And the damn thing is just beautifully shot; using the Red high-def video camera, Soderbergh (lensing under his usual pseudonym, Peter Andrews) creates a series of elegantly composed tableaux; he seldom moves his camera for effect, so when he does, it actually means something.

And yes, it stars a porn star. I’m not sure what exactly the director saw in Grey that made him think she could carry a real drama (something not really hinted at in any of her, ahem, other work). Whatever the reason, his risk pays off big. It’s not stunt casting; she’s terrific, incredibly natural, altogether believable, and this is not a lightweight role. It could just be that old saw about everyone being capable of one great performance (playing themselves), but I doubt it; this is an actor, and a good one.

Grey stars as Chelsea, a high-priced Manhattan call girl. We’re introduced to her when she’s on a date; after many of these dates are seen, we hear a voice-over of her taking a quick and businesslike inventory of what she wore, what they did, and whether another date was made. We also meet her live-in boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), who works as a personal trainer and seems to be okay with what she does, provided she doesn’t break their rules. No prizes for guessing if she does.

It seems strange to relate the plot as if it’s some sort of linear narrative; it minimizes the experience of the film. Screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who, improbably, also penned Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 13) and editor Mary Ann Bernard (whoops, that’s another Soderbergh alias) scissor the story into shreds, hopscotching around in the timeline, the cuts drawn organically from key words or ideas. They’re shaking up the form here; a fairly standard narrative is being told, but in an unexpected and unpredictable way. As a result, we don’t see the familiar gears of the three-act structure grinding, the strings being pulled; they take the air out of the mechanics of the plot, and manage to skip some of the triter scenes altogether, since we’re not seeing things in order so we can fill in the gaps.

If all of this sounds disorienting, fear not. Yes, there are stretches (particularly towards the beginning) where you’re not quite sure what’s going on and what Soderbergh is up to. But even when you’re in the woods a little, the film always keeps your attention, and the pieces ultimately come together beautifully.

Soderbergh’s 1999 effort The Limey was much the same way; the editing of that film was even more jagged, but in its own quiet way, the cutting was a revelation that, frankly, I expected to literally change the way we made movies, or at least the way Soderbergh made them. I ended up being wrong on both counts until now—The Girlfriend Experience is the closest film he’s made to that one, stylistically, in the decade hence. But again, this film is its own beast. That said, it continues his tradition of subverting expectations and making films that are boldly, and sometimes inaccessibly, experimental. Previous projects in that vein (Full Frontal, Solaris, Bubble) have met with everything from indifference to outright hostility, and if you didn’t like those, you won’t like this one either. You’ve been warned.

"The Girlfriend Experience" is currently available for download on Amazon. It will be released to theaters later this month.


JCVD is Being John Malkovich for kickboxing fans, a cleverly stylish and scrappily well-done slice of meta-moviemaking that causes us to rethink Jean-Claude Van Damme, a screen presence who most haven’t considered in any terms for the better part of a decade. Few could more reliably open a movie in the early-to-mid 1990s, but Van Damme has fallen out of favor recently, with most of his films taking a quick (and deserved) path directly to DVD.

Van Damme plays “Jean-Claude Van Damme,” and surmising as to how much of the character is autobiography is one of the voyeuristic pleasures of the film. To be sure, this is not a vanity project—this Van Damme is a washed-up, past-his-prime action star who can’t get a decent job anymore. He’s lost a custody battle with one of his many former wives, and he seems forever stuck in straight-to-DVD hell. He returns to Brussels to try to get his life back together, but a banking errand finds him inadvertently walking into a robbery in progress—and when police misinterpret him as the ringleader, the whole thing turns into a bit of a circus. Inside the bank, however, Van Damme the action star is faced with a crisis in real life, and the dichotomy between the on-screen hero and the flesh-and-blood man provides further fodder for this surprisingly thoughtful and entertaining picture.

It sounds like a crackpot idea, but it somehow works—and not just as a joke or a gimmick. Now, it works on those levels too; Van Damme is admirably game and clearly has a sense of humor about himself, as evidenced by the self-referential material (including a running joke about him losing a role to Steven Seagal, who was willing to cut off his ponytail). And the idea of an action star sending himself up is a good one, though clearly not enough to sustain a film by itself (see Last Action Hero or Sidekicks—or, better yet, don’t).

But JCVD also stands on its own two feet as a smart and engaging indie flick. It is, first and foremost, a cool-looking film; director Mabrouk El Mechri has a terrific visual sense, and cinematographer Pierre-Yves Bastard (yep, that’s his real name) uses a blown-out, bleached-film look (complimented by hot pools of white light) to give the film a distinctive feel. Mechris’ compositions and camera choreography are equally impressive—particularly in the opening sequence, an action sequence in a single unbroken shot that is both thrilling (for the gymnastics of both Van Damme and the camera) and hilarious (in a nice extra layer of story set-up, the low-budget film-within-the-film that it’s part of is just a little off, with some badly staged punches, overdone foley work, and extras just a beat or two too late).

Mechri also (wisely) chooses not to cut during Van Damme’s finest acting moment, a brutally honest monologue, straight into camera, that serves as not only an effective kick into the third act (establishing, as it does, some real stakes and therefore genuine suspense and interest), but as a forceful poke in the eye to an industry that may have been underestimating the big lunk. This is a honest-to-God performance (in spite of the autobiographical overtones), and should be respected and acknowledged as such; clearly more comfortable speaking in his native tongue, Van Damme is likable, believable, and surprisingly sympathetic and charismatic.

Supporting performances are serviceable, while the screenplay (by Mechri, Frederic Benudis, and Christophe Turpin) is ingeniously constructed, and helped along by Gast Waltzing’s terrific 70s-style score. JCVD isn’t Oscar fodder, but it is a lot of fun—a decent little no-frills action movie that may pump a shot of adrenaline into a career that we, perhaps unfairly, had written off.

I originally saw JCVD in the theater, and I can report that it holds up—perhaps even improves—on second viewing. With the giggle-factor of Van Damme’s self-parodying performance out of the way, I was able to better appreciate the skill with which Mechri assembles this most unorthodox indie action/comedy. It’s a smart, funny, inventive and unexpected flick.

"JCVD" is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.

In Theaters: "Outrage"

Documentarian Kirby Dick is a rabble-rouser, and an unapologetic one. His last film, the ridiculously entertaining 2006 nose-thumber This Film Is Not Yet Rated, was an exposé of the hypocrisy and lack of transparency in the MPAA rating system, and included the disclosure of the secret members of that organization’s ratings board. He goes a step further in his new film, Outrage (or, as it is cleverly designed in the title sequence, Out Rage), which freely and openly discusses the rumors of homosexuality that have long swirled around several prominent lawmakers.

Those disclosures are certainly what will get the most attention in the coverage of Outrage, but the movie is about much, much more than that. Dick sets the stakes high at the beginning of the film, when he (or the text on his screen, anyway) alleges a “brilliantly orchestrated conspiracy” that has kept gay lawmakers in the closet and has kept the media from investigating why it is that the very same men who are reportedly in the closet work so very hard to advance the anti-gay agenda. “There is a right to privacy,” notes openly gay Representative Barney Frank early in the film, “but not a right to hypocrisy.”

The jumping-off point for Dick is the 2006 arrest of Larry Craig (his interrogation tape audio is brilliantly used in the film’s opening credits). The director digs up news footage of Craig vehemently defending his heterosexuality during the House Ethics Committee’s 1982 investigation of Congressional sex scandals and takes a good, close look at his voting record on hot-button gay rights legislation. Other recent politicians that come under Dick’s microscope include Florida governor Charlie Crist, Virginia representative Ed Schrock, California representative David Dreier, and Louisiana representative Jim McCrery (though surprisingly, disgraced Florida representative Mark Foley is only mentioned in passing).

Dick doesn’t just focus on current politicos, however; for context, he dips clear back to Roy Cohn and profiles NCPAC co-founder and chairman Terry Dolan, a closeted gay man who died from AIDS complications, though he openly criticized the gay rights movement and discouraged the Reagan administration (to which he was closely tied) from showing any acknowledgment of the disease. “That closet can kill people,” one of his critics in the film notes, “and it has.” Former New York City mayor Ed Koch comes under some of the same scrutiny; his rumored relationship with Richard Nathan is here confirmed by a mutual friend, and activist Larry Kramer alleges that Koch’s own fears about being outed prevented him from confronting New York’s AIDS epidemic during his time in office.

“Everyone loves a good outing,” notes a commentator in the film, and while this is probably true (these allegations and the examination of them is fascinating), Dick doesn’t make light of what he’s doing. He spends a good deal of the film with Mike Rogers, the blogger who has investigated and outed several of these politicians, and gives voice to those who object to this practice. And Dick isn’t just making a gossipy whisper-fest. He doesn’t short the themes of sexual identity and the importance of coming to terms with one’s own self—particularly when denying that can hurt so many others. It is here that the participation of former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevy is so valuable; he talks about living a double-life and draws parallels to the “spinning” of politics and of one’s own personal life. Dick ingeniously intercuts this with particularly potent interviews and news images of Governor Crist and his campaign girlfriend (she doesn’t go on camera, but her off-camera statement about Dick’s line of inquiry is quite the bombshell).

Dick also floats the compelling argument that voting against gay issues is, for these closeted politicians, analogous to joining in on gay bashings as a young man. That guilt, and the burden of carrying around that kind of psychological weight, clearly took a toll on former Arizona representative Jim Kolbe; his story, and the footage of his speech on the House floor condemning the Federal Marriage Amendment, provide a surprisingly emotional climax for the film.

Outrage is beautifully constructed; the director-as-investigator motif used (more literally) in This Film serves Dick well again, particularly when he tracks down the (seemingly credible) sources for many of the rumors. Archival footage, stills, and interviews are convincingly assembled to make Dick’s case, which becomes more persuasive and bitter as the film draws to a close. It’s not as much ballsy fun as This Film, primarily because the more serious subject matter doesn’t allow as many opportunities for snarky bomb-tossing (though I could all but hear Dick rubbing his hands gleefully as he uses the on-screen text “Now, here’s where it gets interesting” in a key moment). But this is a more important film—it’s funny, yes, but it’s also angrier and timelier, and with a vital, imperative story to tell.

"Outrage" opens in limited release on Friday, May 8.

In Theaters: "Rudo y Cursi"

Rudo Y Cursi is a reunion, of sorts; it co-stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, who previously shared the screen in Y Tu Mama Tambien, and it is directed by Carlos Cuarón, who co-wrote that film with its director, his brother Alfonso. For much of its running time, it shares much of that film’s off-the-cuff energy and charm, complimenting its sharp screenplay with the same kind of intimate, subtly handheld photography that helped give that film its immediacy. And then it all falls apart.

Bernal and Luna play the title characters, two brothers from a poor Mexican village who work as banana farmers and play soccer in their free time. One day, a talent scout (Guillermo Francella) rolls through town, sees the pair play, and offers to take one of them back to Mexico City with him to try out for the pros. There’s a bit of bad blood between them over which one gets to go, but soon they’re both making their way in the big-time world of professional soccer.

The first hour or so of Rudo Y Cursi has a terrific momentum; it’s beautifully paced, the scenes zip by, and the performances are just right. Bernal and Luna have the bitter sibling rivalry thing down pat—one wonders if their off-screen relationship has helped color the history of these two men. Cuarón’s screenplay develops stark contrasts between the pair and rides them out. Rudo (Luna) is high-strung, bitter, frequently angry, while Cursi (Bernal) is more of a carefree, childlike innocent. He doesn’t even really want to play soccer—his heart is in music, and one of the film’s most inspired comic sequences comes after he’s become a soccer superstar and has the cachet to make a record: a cheeseball Tejano cover of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me,” complete with a lousy, poorly made music video. That’s a funny idea, although it’s subsequently trotted out two more times, and nothing’s worse than a good joke told too often.

As the brothers become more rich and famous, a few cliché beats start to creep in—drugs, gambling, women, and other distractions—but, at first anyway, they’re played with freshness and spontaneity, and we don’t lose hope for the picture. The trouble comes around the top of the third act, when Cuarón takes an unsuccessful turn on his material and starts to take it too seriously.

You see, Rudo is deep in gambling debt—so deep that he’s weighing an offer to throw an important match. And guess who’s playing against him in that match? Cursi, who has let a recent heartbreak throw him into a losing streak. It’s his last chance for a comeback! The whole thing is too damned contrived, and it’s at this point that we start to realize that the script is building up quite a pile of worn-out sports movie devices.

Rudo Y Cursi starts out as such a unique and quirky movie, it’s hard to believe that it degenerates into a story that is resolved with not just a Big Game, but the final Big Play at the Big Game. Cuarón is doing clever things right up through this miserable cliché of an ending (and even in the somewhat unexpected beats that follow), but it’s become a final Big Play at the Big Game movie nonetheless, and you can’t steer out of that. It’s disappointing when a movie with this much talent involved doesn’t land, when it gives itself over to ancient, rusty storytelling conventions, because when they allowed themselves the leeway to tell a story and have some fun, they were really on to something.

"Rudo Y Cursi" opens in limited release on Friday, May 8.

On DVD: "Frost/Nixon: The Complete Invterviews"

David Frost’s 1977 interviews with former President Richard Nixon were, at one time, merely the most viewed (and arguably most important) political interview in history. These days, they’re a cottage industry. Writer Peter Morgan dramatized the interviews (and the events leading up to them) in his brilliant play Frost/Nixon, which had successful and critically acclaimed runs in London and on Broadway. The play featured Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon; both men reprised their stage roles for Ron Howard’s excellent film adaptation last year. Sometime in between, Frost published a book (with the same title) of his reflections on the events, while Vivendi Entertainment hurried out a DVD of the Watergate portion of the interview, timed to coincide with Frost/Nixon’s theatrical release. Now, as the film hits DVD, Vivendi has gone back to the well and released the full, six-plus hours as Frost/Nixon: The Complete Interviews.

Even that title is a bit of a misnomer, since 28 hours of interviews were filmed in March of ’77; what they mean is that these two discs present the full six-plus hours that were broadcast as “The Nixon Interviews with David Frost.” They are presented in five parts, each tackling a different topic and running about 75 minutes (90 minutes minus commercials); the first four aired in May of that year, with a fifth assembly of additional material airing later.

The first part is the most famous: “Watergate.” It begins with a 1982 introduction by Frost for a public television airing that year (the gloriously kitschy 70s graphics that follow are the only introduction for the other four parts). Frost the does some set-up, using a voice-over accompanying archival footage and photos, and then the interview begins.

The entire series of chats were shot in the Monarch Bay, California home of Nixon supporters Mr. and Mrs. Harold H. Smith; the original hope was to shoot in Nixon’s San Clemente home, but nearby Coast Guard transmitters would have interfered with the television equipment. However, Mr. and Mrs. Smith appear to live somewhere near a major flight pattern; several times in each interview, the sound of commercial airplanes flying overhead can be clearly heard, sometimes to such a degree that Frost and Nixon raise their voices slightly to remain audible. That issue aside, it makes for a looser and more conversational environment than shooting in a conventional television studio.

Part one begins with Frost suggesting a “blow-by-blow” account of the Watergate cover-up and all that it entails. Nixon is almost immediately on the defensive, explaining the difference between a “good” cover-up and a “bad” cover-up—you see, it’s only a cover-up if it’s covering up something illegal, and it’s only obstruction of justice if justice is successfully obstructed. Frost is at his absolute best in this segment, skillfully negotiating the spin of his formidable opponent, who refers to him, without sarcasm, as “the attorney for the prosecution.” For his part, Nixon certainly plays the part of the defense attorney, frequently adding in extra language and saying things like “I would argue that I meant…” as opposed to just saying “I meant.” Frost asks tough questions (“Why didn’t you stop it?”); Nixon mostly keeps his cool, changing uncomfortable subjects with pronouncements like “You’ve stated your conclusion, and I’ve stated my view. Now let’s get on with the rest of it.”

The segment is fascinating on its own, even more so having seen the dramatization and having some knowledge of what was happening off-camera; at one point, my wife pointed at the screen and noted, “That’s the thing, that’s the breakthrough,” as seen in the play and film. That “breakthrough” is the moment where Frost reveals a heretofore unreported conversation between Nixon and Charles Colson about payoffs to Watergate burglar Howard Hunt; as Frost clicks off no less than sixteen different references to “the money,” the camera holds on the former President’s face, and then Nixon loses his shit. He’s clearly rattled and angry, and you see him try to make a joke in the moments afterwards because he realizes how he’s coming off. It’s an intense, dramatic moment.

Even more remarkable is the closing section, where Frost all but implores Nixon to make the apology that the American people want and need. Throughout the interview, Nixon has made slight reference to “mistakes,” but Frost asks, “Would you go further than ‘mistakes’?” He leans forward in his chair, speaking openly and plainly to him. “I think that people hear it, and I think if you don’t say it, you’ll be haunted for the rest of your life.” Nixon’s “confession” is preceded by a litany of qualifiers and stutter-steps, but the words are there: “I let you down… I let the American people down. And I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life.” It’s an exhaustingly personal moment. This is riveting television.

The remaining interviews can’t help but suffer in comparison to the tremendous emotion and power of that first part, and frankly, this might be the set’s only serious misstep. I understand why Frost and associates chose to air the Watergate segment first—it was the biggest draw, and since they were self-syndicating and taking a huge financial risk, they had to hook their audience right at the beginning. But both on-screen and (if Morgan’s writings are to be believed) off, the Watergate interview is the climax of the piece, and Nixon’s candor was quite possibly the result of the hours and hours of footage shot before it. To watch it first robs it of some of its considerable power. The only other warning about this piece (and the entire interview, really) is that it might not hurt to brush up on your history beforehand; Americans were so intimately familiar with the tiniest details of Watergate, with exactly who everyone was and what they did, that Frost and his producers didn’t need to bring them up to speed. Modern audiences, however, might need a quick refresher course.

The second part of the interview, “Nixon and the World,” feels, in places, like what it is—an opportunity for Nixon to trumpet his considerable achievements as a world traveler and statesman in order to offset all that troublesome talk of Watergate and resignation. We see and hear about his trips to China, his visits with Mao, his dealings with Brezhnev (and comparisons of that Russian leader to Khruschev, his predecessor), his relations with Israel and Pakistan. This section does get a little “inside baseball,” and the viewer’s enjoyment and interest in it is, in all probability, directly proportional to the breadth and depth of said viewer’s knowledge of world affairs in that period.

The former President, however, is at his best here. We sometimes sense him enjoying the dropping of names, but he does spin a good yarn; he’s a gifted storyteller (see his impressions of Mao and his decreasing health), a keen observer, and occasionally quite witty (as when he quotes The Godfather while talking about Israel). And, in some ways, he does what he wanted to do here; as we listen to his exhaustively detailed explanations for his strategies of international relations, he puts himself into an indisputably stronger light. Part two isn’t nearly as dramatic as part one, but it is quite valuable as an oral history from someone who was there; it also puts the Watergate interview into valuable context (both in terms of the presidency and the interview itself).

Part three deals with “War at Home and Abroad,” and basically asks the key question of Vietnam: was it worth it? Nixon and Frost talk at great length about that war, and the specifically troubling elements of it (particularly the expansion into Cambodia). This is one of the few places in the final cut of the interviews where we see the discomfort and unpreparedness of Frost that is such a major element of the Frost/Nixon play and film; during the debate on Cambodia, Nixon cannily puts Frost on the defensive by questioning the skill of the reporter’s researchers (he says he’d “be very surprised” if they missed some facts he feels to be relevant “because you pay those fellows a lot of money”). It clearly rattles Frost; you see him squirm a little.

He fires back by hitting harder in the second half of the program, particularly when Nixon tries to compare his Presidency to Lincoln’s during the Civil War (“the nation was torn apart, ideologically”), an analogy that Frost rightfully challenges. They discuss intelligence gathering against dissenters and protestors (the “Huston Plan”), which laid the seeds for black ops, burglaries, “the plumbers,” and the targeting of Daniel Ellsberg (who Nixon spitefully refers to as a “punk”). For all the vile territory that’s covered, Nixon is refreshingly honest about his own paranoia and temper—and how much of both are fueled by his personal insecurities (“there’s a love/hate complex in all of us,” he notes). But he doesn’t do his reputation any favors when he proclaims that protest and dissent prolonged the war—“had it not been for the division in America, the war would have ended one to two years sooner.” So he kept the war going out of, what, spite? It’s a sad commentary on Nixon’s legacy that this is a perfectly probable explanation.

“The Final Days,” part four, deals with not only Watergate but some of the other ugly scandals of Nixon’s aborted second term, including the U.S.-supported Chilean coup d'état of 1973 and the investigation and resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew (Nixon claims Agnew was singled out because he was a conservative and critical of the media). The interview’s juiciest segment is his bitter condemnation of the media—particularly Woodward and Bernstein, whom he never mentions by name. He takes a quick and bitchy dig at the duo in the Watergate interview; here, he dismisses them as “those who write history as fiction with third-hand knowledge,” calls their work “contemptible journalism,” and tries to blame their book The Final Days for his wife Pat’s stroke. I would imagine that he couldn’t have been the reporters’ biggest fan, but in snipping at them, the former President makes himself look, somehow, even more petty and small.

The most interesting passages of the fourth interview come near its close, as he tells, in his own words, the famous story about praying with Kissinger and vividly recalls the day of his resignation. He also touches on being pardoned—how it happened, what it meant, and if it was a proper punishment for his admitted mistakes (“No one can know how it feels to resign the presidency. Is that enough? Probably not”).

The final show, “The Last Roundup,” aired after the first four; in his introduction, Frost explains that “there was a great deal of material that we felt shouldn’t be excluded from the record” merely because it didn’t fit into the themes of the first four shows. It begins with a key moment from the Frost/Nixon film—the first question of the first day, “Why didn’t you burn the tapes?” We see, as portrayed in the film, how Nixon fillibusters here, but we also see him sweat. His attempt to explain away the 18 1/2 minute gap gets a lot of play here, as does an extended, slightly ridiculous conversation about the choice of Senator John C. Stennis to review the tapes (Stennis was “slightly deaf,” as Frost delights in saying more than once). This exchange leads to a priceless moment where Frost repeats a joke about Stennis; Nixon’s stone-faced reaction is worth the cost of the disc alone.

Nixon also gets the chance to further grind his axe against the press (“The greatest concentration of power in the U.S. today… is in the media. And it’s too much”); when Frost asks him why he thinks the Eastern Establishment media was against him, he replies, “I’m not a very lovable man.” There are also intriguing discussions of how the China visit came to be, his thoughts on Russia, and his relationship with Kissinger; his story about John and Martha Mitchell is interesting, but an oddly anticlimactic choice to close out this epic interview.

It may peak a little early, but Frost/Nixon: The Complete Interviews is a penetrating and important piece of television history. Well-shot (director Jørn Winther and his camera operators always seem to know when to push in slow for maximum effect) and seamlessly assembled, this is a fascinating portrait of one of our young nation’s most tragically flawed figures—and it’s an invaluable companion piece to Ron Howard’s terrific film.

"Frost/Nixon: The Complete Interviews" is now available on DVD.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Tribeca Wrap-Up

So the award winners for this year’s Tribeca Film Festival have been announced, and keen prognosticator that I am, only one was part of my film going schedule. That one was Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi, which won the Best New Documentary Filmmaker award for director Ian Olds. About Elly, an Iranian feature from director Asghar Farhadi, won the Best Narrative Feature award, while Marshall Curry’s Racing Dreams won Best Documentary Feature (Defamation, which also managed to sneak into my view, got a Special Jury Mention).

Rune Denstad Langlo won the Best New Narrative Filmmaker award for North. Ciarán Hinds won Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film for The Eclipse, while Zoe Kazan took Best Actress honors for The Exploding Girl. In the “New York Competition,” Darko Lungulov’s Here and There won Best New York Narrative, with Honorable Mention going to Entre nos; Danae Elon’s Partly Private won Best New York Documentary. Congratulations to all the winners; I guess I’ll see your movies in theatre and on video, when everybody else does. On reviewing the schedule, I see that I missed both Here and There and Racing Dreams so I could see Hysterical Psycho. Good call, Bailey.

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In spite of a few duds, I think this year’s festival was pretty well-programmed. There were the usual duds that seemed to have only been booked because they had stars in them (Stay Cool, for example), but clearly there were plenty of quality pictures unspooling (seeing’s how I at least liked nearly everything I saw, and I only saw about a third of the features).

One of the pleasures of the fest was how there seemed to be thematic links between certain films; if you were into, say, New York art in the 70s and 80s, you could see an 80s art doc (Con Artist), a 70s and 80s punk rock doc (Burning Down The House: The Story of CBGB), a 70s and 80s punk film doc (Blank City), and a seminal New York indie film from the period (Variety). These were fun to watch as a group, to watch the various figures from each scene floating into the others (and therefore, into their documentaries).

And a sidebar, I saw another common theme that was quite encouraging: brevity. It seems like I’m always complaining about films—even indies—that overstay their welcome; even some of the year’s good films, like State of Play or Observe and Report, are about ten minutes too long, minimum. At this festival, I only saw one film that ran over two hours and only a couple that topped 100 minutes; the average running time seemed to be an hour and a half, and I saw three that ran less than 80. It may sound like pure pragmatism, but as far as I’m concerned, there are not a lot of movies that are too short, and most movies I saw here were just about as long as they should have been.

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As for the movies I did manage to see…. Well, here’s some thoughts:

1. The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh’s latest low-fi digital film was unexpectedly daring—not in terms of subject matter, but for its style and structure, which are unique and immensely rewarding. Plus, it’s fun to watch.
2. Moon. Stylish, hypnotic, and memorable, Duncan Jones’ indie sci-fi mindmelt is thrillingly literate, often moving, and frequently funny.
3. Outrage. My favorite documentary of the festival (and there were many, many good ones) was Kirby Dick’s incendiary examination of the closeted hypocrisy of secretly-gay lawmakers.
4. In the Loop. Armando Iannucci’s delightfully smart British comedy (with the able, gleeful participation of James Gandolfini, Anna Chlumsky, and others) was a piercingly funny examination of modern-day politics on both sides of the pond.
5. Playground. No film at the fest was tougher to watch than this disturbing, heartbreaking examination of the child sex trade in America.

RUNNERS-UP: Other good films included PoliWood, Kobe Doin’ Work, American Casino, Blank City, Con Artist, Burning Down The House, Defamation, Departures, An Englishman in New York, Fixer, Queen To Play, and Vegas: Based on a True Story.

WORST FILM OF THE TFF: Without question, Dan Fogler’s excerable Hysterical Psycho shouldn’t have seen the light of a DVD laser, much less the screens of a reputable film festival like this one.

GREATISH PERFORMANCES: Sam Rockwell in Moon, Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, John Hurt in An Englishman in New York, Kevin Kline and Sandrine Bonnaire in Queen To Play, Bryan Greenberg in The Good Guy, Colin Firth and Kristen Scott-Thomas in Easy Virtue, Anna Chlumsky in In The Loop and The Good Guy, Peter Capaldi in In The Loop, Meg Ryan in Serious Moonlight, Hillary Duff in Stay Cool, Raymonde Amsalem in Seven Minutes in Heaven, Jonas Inde in The Swimsuit Issue, and Zach Thomas in Vegas: Based on a True Story.

NOT-SO-GREATISH PERFORMANCES: Sean Astin in Stay Cool, Jessica Biehl in Easy Virtue, and the entire ensemble of Hysterical Psycho.

I had a great time covering the festival, soaking up so many great films in such a short period of time; thanks again to John at DVD Talk for working to get me in the door, and all of the nice folks at Tribeca for putting this bad boy on. See ya next year!

Tribeca Report No. 10

The opening sequence of Ducan Jones’ Moon sucks you right in; this is how you start a movie. The exposition is handled, quickly and efficiently, with a slick commercial for “Lunar Industries,” which has solved the energy crisis by harvesting an energy resource from the moon. We then go to their lunar base, manned by a single astronaut: Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), who is at the tail-end of a three-year contract and counting the days. This opening is stylishly shot and powered by an intense, driving Clint Mansell score; I was all but bouncing in my seat with giddy enthusiasm.

Thankfully, the film lives up to its promise. Moon is a rare sci-fi flick with a brain and a heart, and while some of it is clearly inspired by other material, director Jones spins this yarn into something unique and fresh and new and exhilarating. You give yourself over to it as it hurls intriguingly from one scene to the next, occasionally obtuse but never detached.  Moon works as the best sci-fi does—by using technology and special effects and cool sets to compliment a genuine, thought-provoking, human narrative. Throughout Sam’s story, he is faced with questions about life and death and memory and the difficulties of his own personality; he sees things in himself that he doesn’t like.

But what’s refreshing about the picture is that it’s got its head in the right place. To a degree, it apes the look and feel of a 2001, but without all that deadly solemnity. Moon is a film with a sense of humor; part of that is in the script, part of that is in the ingenious casting of Rockwell (an actor who can turn on a dime from good-natured goofball to morose manic-depressive), part of that is in the screenplay and direction, which are full of little throwaway asides that give the film a lived-in, grimy feel. The sparkly white uniforms are discolored and a little dirty; so is Rockwell’s brilliant performance.

Some will complain that its tonal shifts could be smoother, that too much of the material is familiar from other films, or that the philosophical and psychological elements of the story are skimmed but not explored. Strangely, I was aware of those problems, but not bothered by them. Good films do that to you—things that might drive you mad in a film that isn’t working are forgivable, perhaps even enjoyable, in a film that does. I, for example, didn’t mind the cribbing from 2001 and Solaris and Outland and Alien—it’s a picture that knows its roots and knows our expectations, and sometimes (in the case of the HAL-ccenteric GERTY), Nathan Parker’s screenplay slyly subverts those expectations. That’s good storytelling, and Moon—involving, hypnotic, and altogether spellbinding—announces the arrival of a major new talent.

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Caroline Bottaro’s Queen to Play is a charmingly low-key seriocomic drama from France; its primary selling point here in the States is that it features Kevin Kline in, surprisingly enough, a French-speaking role. His character, Dr. Kröger, is one of those cranky, bleary-eyed professorial types that he’s played so well over the last few years. Our heroine, Hélène, cleans Kröger’s house, and she discovers his chess set on a shelf and asks him if he’ll teach her how to play. “Why does this game mean so much to you?” he asks. “I don’t know,” she replies, convincingly, but something in the way she says it captures him, and he begins to teach her the game.

The extended chess metaphor is a little on the clumsy side, as those things go; she informs us that “The queen is the most powerful piece,” and you don’t need a masters in English lit to figure out what they’re driving at here. That complaint aside, Bottaro does a marvelous job of showing how her love of chess subtly but completely takes over Hélène’s life—one great shot reveals her mopping a floor that is covered in checkered floor tiles, and it’s not much of a leap for her to imagine that she’s on a giant chess board.

The picture’s only possible trouble is with its pace; there are moments where it threatens to become a glacial French chamber piece, though Bottaro’s script is mostly too nimble for that. What it can’t manage to avoid is the idea that any film dealing with a sport (no matter what the sport) must end with a big competition of said sport; when Kröger suggests that Hélène enter an upcoming tournament, my soul died a little. This soon after Rudio y Cursi, was I about to see another distinctive indie bury itself in a painfully standard ending?

And the tournament does feel like a construct, but you know what? It kind of works anyway. It’s undeniably involving and certainly helps pull the story towards a conclusion; perhaps it’s unfair to discount the third act just because it goes to a predictable place (after all, I reminded myself, Searching For Bobby Fischer—the greatest chess film ever—also, in fact, ends with a chess tournament). Queen to Play takes a bit too long to get going and drags periodically throughout. But it has some lovely scenes and charming performances, and its closing shots are really something.