Thursday, 12 July 2012

Frost/Nixon - Ron Howard - 2008

The moment when popular TV host David Frost talked ex-President Richard Nixon into admitting guilt in some part for the Watergate scandal has gone down in television history as great a dual of wills, an idea that writer Peter Morgan turned into a successful play Frost/Nixon and then reworked for this impressive film adaptation. Given that the script was essentially a dialogue between two highly intelligent men with opposing agendas, Morgan and director Ron Howard have done a fantastic job in opening the story out to feel more filmic, expanding the scope to examine both the build up and the aftermath of the interviews on a wider scale. Taking a good forty-five minutes before the pair come close to sitting down together the film is hardly the most kinetic of thrillers, but Howard uses this time wisely, carefully threading in the historical information that might be relevant and crucially building up the tension, using Frost’s team of researchers as mouthpieces to ram home how much is at stake both on a personal and a political level. Portraying Frost as not taking the interviews seriously at all and focusing entirely on the financial side isn’t completely believable, but this pays off when we finally get into the television studio and we can only join the researchers cringing in agony as Nixon calmly wipes the floor with Frost’s every effort. Having gone so far though the eventual turnaround is all the more gripping and here Howard is sensible enough to sit back and let Peter Morgan’s screenplay, adapted largely from the actual interview transcripts, to come to life in the capable hands of Michael Sheen and Frank Langella. No doubt helped by the fact that they had been playing these moments together on stage for months, the pair are electrifying together, trading questions and answers, accusations and defences back and forth like boxers in a ring and although their only weapons are words the sparks are just as tangible. Sheen the chameleon repeats the trick he already used with Tony Blair and disappears into the role of Frost until the two become synonymous; in his capable hands Frost’s legendary charm becomes an amusing front which at crucial moments he lets slip to hint at the fierce drive beneath the seemingly shallow exterior. Langella bears little resemblance to Nixon but he has such a strong presence and fierce integrity that the audience will be gripped instead by the complex emotional journey that this infamous figure goes through as he’s forced to think again about his actions for the first time. Ironically in this age where television screens are saturated with stupid people Frost/Nixon may not find the audience it deserves but as both an intense character drama and a recreation of a key piece of history, the film is a great success.  

Cinderella Man - Ron Howard - 2005

A biopic about Depression era boxer James Braddock, Cinderella Man dusts out every sports movie cliché that has since been celebrated and destroyed to retell the story that invented them all in the first place. Supporting a family with a steady boxing career in the late twenties, Braddock struggles dangerously close to the edge when his career and money disappear in the Crash before he’s offered one last fight and begins an inevitable comeback. Of course this whole plot is entirely predictable almost from the outset but being smart enough to realise this, director Ron Howard doesn’t try and force tension into the plot where there isn’t any but instead focuses in detail on the characters and their milieu, letting the tension spring naturally from the empathy the audience soon develops with them. Howard recreates the world at the bottom rung of the ladder in exquisite period detail, taking the time to explore every little problem besetting both the Braddocks and to some extent those around them, but the film’s real joys lie in the performances. Returning to work with Howard for the second time after the award winning A Beautiful Mind, Russell Crowe is outstanding as the embattled Braddock, embodying with tragic dignity the stubborn honour of a man determined not to let circumstances drive him down and bulking himself up to be convincing physical threat inside the boxing ring. In support Paddy Considine is cut short shrift with a character rather obviously signposted as ‘what might have been’ for Braddock but Renee Zellweger is perfect as Mae Braddock, torn between her family’s needs and terror of what might happen if James goes back in the ring, and Paul Giamatti is brilliant as ever playing tirelessly loyal manager Joe Gould. All this time Howard spends at home then goes towards the emotional payoff in the boxing ring as the climactic bout approaches and the stakes are raised even more by Braddock’s man-mountain opponent Max Baer, a figure built up to be such a dangerous physical threat that the clichéd outcome starts to appear doubtful. Howard has never directed anything remotely sporty before but in the ring he lets the camera dance confidently around the players capturing every blow in careful detail but crucially knowing when to cut away to the nervous listeners. Some of these which include people gathered in a church feel a bit forced, suggesting somehow that Braddock is fighting on behalf of all New York’s poor, but this is a minor aside; essentially we care about Braddock and therefore we are gripped enough by the fight not to focus on the obvious ending before it comes. Sometimes it seems an old cliché, if redone well, can be just as effective as a new idea.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Spider-Man 3 - Sam Raimi - 2007

The third and least popular Spider-Man movie from Sam Raimi’s trilogy, Spider-Man 3 isn’t really as bad as everyone makes out, it simply like all good franchise movies attempts to push the characters further and explore new territory but is hampered by the same faults that underpinned the previous films. Realising perhaps after the massive success of Batman Begins that the breezy tone of the previous films wouldn’t be taken so seriously anymore, Raimi attempts to explore Peter Parker’s dark side as the adulation that Spiderman brings him begins to go to his head and he begins to lose sight of his relationship with Mary-Jane. With the aid of a mysterious alien symbiote known already to devoted comic fans as Venom, Raimi manifests this new personality twist with startling literalness, giving Spiderman an all new black suit that does at least look pretty damn cool and making Peter… grow a stupid haircut and act like a dick. Raimi may have thought that dressing Peter in style, giving him an emo fringe when he’s being bad (just in case we can’t tell)  and making him dance down the street was cool but Maguire is such a callow presence that he just comes across as ridiculous. At least when Venom finally appears as a fully fledged villain he looks excitingly feral and dangerous, a beast-like anti-Spiderman, but by then the film has progressed so far that he barely has time to register before the climactic showdown. For all their faults the Green Goblin and Doc Ock were given time to grow as characters in their own rights, with Venom’s screen time stolen by new villain Sandman (Thomas Haden Church, doing a good job with what he can) and the need to finish the Harry Osborn/Goblin story arc, its hard not to wish Venom had been saved for a later film and the Peter’s dark side driven solely by good ol’ fashioned emotions. After two films of James Franco’s acting making everyone else look good it was clear that we wouldn’t be allowed to escape this time and sure enough, Franco returns to put more strain into both of his expressions and finally throw himself into some action as the new Goblin is unleashed. In fairness his fights with Spiderman are some of the most spontaneous and exciting but neither Maguire or Franco are strong enough actors to make us care about their broken friendship and the final resolution  can be seen coming half a mile away. Despite all the faults of both the film and the overall franchise though it did not deserve to end at this point when surely there is so much more source material to be plumbed. Sadly such are the whims of the studios.

The Witches of Eastwick - George Miller - 1987

The devil comes to small town America in this camp comedy horror vehicle for Jack Nicholson. As dashing and roguish new playboy-in-town Daryl Van Horne, Nicholson is perfectly cast with director George Miller happily giving him free rein to unleash his arsenal of manic twitches, grins and raised eyebrows as Daryl seduces his way into Eastwick’s collective pants. Of course there is a dark secret underneath this charming exterior which the ladies eventually cotton onto but unfortunately Miller feels obliged to resort to cheap CGI for the climax which is a shame since Nicholson is probably a strong enough actor to carry it all the way. Co-starring as the titular witches, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and Cher are all fun, sharp and sexy though they do occasionally fade in the force of Nicholson's grins. With a thrilling score from John Williams as well, it’s a shame then that the script and direction often fall short of the performances; despite being called The Witches of Eastwick the film fumbles the question of whether the girls actually have magical powers themselves or they simply develop Daryl's influence. Also Miller seems unsure about the tone of the film, often mixing farcical comedy with sub-Exorcist horrors (one memorable sequence sees Veronica Cartwright vomiting cherry stones) to the point that the audience is left unsure how it is meant to react. Apparently the original novel is a sharp satire of small-town American life but it seems that even with a strong cast Miller didn’t know how to translate this to the big screen. Much like Frank Oz’s recent remake of The Stepford Wives, The Witches of Eastwick rules out satire and just struggles for light comedy.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Me and Orson Welles - Richard Linklater - 2010

A fictional peek into the world of a very real genius on the cusp of his first success, Me and Orson Welles imagines the influence that a man such as Orson Welles could have had on a boy on the cusp of manhood. Zac Efron belies his annoying reputation and turns in a mostly credible performance as a student who stumbles into the Mercury Theatre just before Welles is due to open his legendary production of Julius Caesar. The mistake that director Richard Linklater makes though is to forget that Efron is really only our eyes in this world and as such his problems are far less interesting than everything else going on around him, a mistake that has irritating repercussions when the film becomes tied up with his romantic petulance when really it should be focusing on the run up to opening night. On the plus side Christian McKay makes a superb Orson, capturing the great man's presence, charm and bombast alongside the arrogance and sly cunning that made him so many enemies as well as fans on his way up. Such is his dominating presence though that between him and Efron's aforementioned growing pains, the world of the theatre and the play (beautifully recreated by Linklater) not to mention a whole eccentric supporting cast, don't get much of a look in which is a shame given the talent involved, both of characters and actors. It is undoubtedly interesting to watch a piece of dramatic history in the making but maybe because it is told from the perspective of an outsider rather than Orson herself, the film does not ultimately make any real emotional impact, which given the inherently emotional nature of the craft on display is a surprising disappointment.

Marnie - Alfred Hitchcock - 1964

Something a different from the master of suspense and the only film in the Hitchcock canon named after the main character (Rebecca is dead), Marnie as Hitch so astutely suggests in the trailer, resists classification. While still containing elements of a thriller (a scene in which Marnie breaks into the company safe is as nail bitingly tense as anything the director has ever done), Hitch eschews his usual tricks to try and delve into the psychology of Marnie and her captor/husband Mark Rutland. With Tippi Hedren relishing the chance Marnie afforded to follow up The Birds with a more complex character and Sean Connery pushing his newly minted Bond persona over into possible perversion by playing Mark, the pair's sexy yet often uncomfortable relationship provides most of the tension and the mystery throughout the film. Also, in a plus for a Hitchcock film, some of the supporting characters are more than just ciphers, with Louise Latham standing out in two scenes as Marnie's awkward mother and Diane Baker playing an excellent third to Hedren and Connery, often driving the plot forward when the film is in danger of sinking under the weight of all the relationship issues. It’s unfortunate that the second part of the film when Marnie and Mark are married feels rather sluggish at times, especially since the final revelation on which it hinges feels rather banal by Hitch's standards, but this shows that even towards the end of his career the director was capable of attempting something a little different, and for that Marnie should be applauded.