Sunday, January 04, 2009

Movie Reviews - Oscar hopefuls edition

I've been a movie-watching madman lately, trying to sneak in all the Oscar-worthy ones I can. I'm going to try and review three of them I've seen in the last week all in the same post. Here goes:

Carrying off as suspenseful a TV interview from over 30 years ago is a feat in and of itself. Making it relevant - even more so. Frost/Nixon and the exchange that it chronicles has a lot to say about the hubris and the feeling that they are above the law that modern politicians have. Frank Langella is deservedly getting a lot of accolades and most certainly will get an Oscar best actor nomination. But I believe that Michael Sheen, in the role of David Frost, is every bit as good. He captures the vocal mannerisms of Frost, but more importantly catches the breeziness, the charm and complicated nature of him as well. Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt and Matthew Macfadyen are all outstanding in supporting roles.

This may very well be Ron Howard's best directing yet. Instead of the expansive and exotic sets of Europe (Da Vinci Code), he has the interior of a mid-century modern LA house. Instead of a cast of hundreds, it's pretty much just a battle of two people. But he makes it interesting.

It's got a surprising amount of dynamics and one of those A Few Good Men-type ego-driven moments by the main character ("You're goddamned right I ordered the Code Red!"), except it this instance, it was:

David Frost: Are you really saying the President can do something illegal?

Richard Nixon: I'm saying that when the President does it, that means it's *not* illegal!

David Frost: ...I'm sorry?

Ironically, Kevin Bacon is in both of those films, in a similar role. But, I guess that's why the game is Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

You don't have to know a lot about these interviews, or even Watergate, to enjoy this movie. The back and forth between the actors playing Frost and Nixon create a battle of wills that keeps the viewer interested. I loved this movie and it will definitely be in my year-end top 10 (which I'm wrapping up right now).

"I was born under unusual circumstances." And so begins 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,' adapted from the 1920s story by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a man who is born in his eighties and ages backwards: a man, like any of us, who is unable to stop time. We follow his story, set in New Orleans from the end of World War I in 1918 to the 21st century, following his journey that is as unusual as any man's life can be. ... tale of a not-so-ordinary man and the people and places he discovers along the way, the loves he finds, the joys of life and the sadness of death, and what lasts beyond time.

I don't mind a sentimental movie occasionally, as long as the director puts the work in first. Don't cut straight to that tearjerker moment without first working your ass off on characterization and a good story. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seems to be getting a lot of flack for being too like Forrest Gump. You have a simple-minded protagonist who is the mostly-detached observer of a rapidly changing 20th Century. It's a plot device that allows the story to encompass disparate elements such as racism, war, and cultural changes without going too far off the tracks.

I liked Forrest Gump. I liked It's a Wonderful Life. So sue me. I'm as dark as the next guy but I like a movie that has its heart in the right place without being maudlin. And ... Benjamin Button certainly has its heart in the right place.

This is among Brad Pitt's best work and will surely get him an Oscar nomination. It's not garish or overdone. The strength of his performance is in his face and not necessarily in what he says. When he looks at his mom Queenie, or his friend Daisy, you can see what's going on behind those eyes. Cate Blanchett (his co-star in Babel), in the role of Daisy, is great as always.

... Benjamin Button makes you think about how we spend each day and who we spend it with and that it's never too late to change.

The special effects are subtle, only there to help the story. That's a lesson to you, Mr. George Lucas --- special effects shouldn't be the point of the movie ... they should just be a tool for telling a story. It's a bit of a shock that a movie of such grace and subtlety comes from David Fincher. Now, I love David Fincher movies, most notably Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac, but one would definitely not suspect a movie like Button from the director who has pretty much defined "dark" over the last decade.

Not all people know the story of Harvey Milk, but it's relevance cannot be overstated in the wake of the current Prop 8 controversy (and similar propositions across the country). Our country has been there before. In the 70's, it was Proposition 6, or the Briggs Initiative, that sought to ban gays from working in California public schools.

Harvey Milk was the "first openly gay non-incumbent man in the United States to win an election for public office". After serving for less than a year, he and San Francisco mayor George Moscone, were assassinated by fellow supervisor Dan White. Milk not only championed gay rights, but those of the elderly, small businesses, unions, etc. and his loss hit the city and the state hard. 40,000 San Franciscans marched in a candlelight vigil the night the mayor and Milk were killed.

In the role of an openly gay man, you would think most actors would make the choice of a flashy and showy performance. Sean Penn, in one of his most understated roles, does not. And that's to his credit. And director Gus Van Zant, who tends towards the artsy end of film generally, goes fairly straightforward with the movie. It's a not very stylized biopic of the last 8 or so years of Harvey Milk's life. It's a great ensemble cast with the highlights being fellow Into the Wild alum, Emile Hirsch, and Josh Brolin in the role of Dan White.

I think all three of these films will get nominations for best picture, best actor and best director. There's a very good chance that a lot of the supporting actors, including Sheen in Frost, Blanchett in Button, and Brolin and Hirsch in Milk, will get nominations also. I liked all three films immensely and recommend them.

Frost/Nixon: Grade: A

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Grade: A

Milk: Grade: A-

"Hope will never be silent." -- Harvey Milk


Laura said...

I want to see Frost/Nixon and Milk, but I really have no interest in Button. It just looks to sappy.

Incidentally, you might be interested in the Oracle of Bacon

Sadie Lou said...

Great reviews and all three of these movies are on my list to see.
Do you think Sean Penn is a kook? I mean, you have to be on some level to be that talented and diverse as an actor--I saw him at an awards ceremony (People's Choice?) and he didn't seem to "act" like "himself" like he almost had trouble NOT being someone else...

Also, I feel a little sorry for Nixon. I watched a series on Nixon with my husband--it was on channel 6. It was fascinating. The man was the one of the best foreign policy presidents we've ever had. He got paranoid. He had a leak in his cabinet--he grew so mistrustful of his staff and the media that he went nuts-o
It's kind of sad--sad and wrong of course.

Sadie Lou said...

Oh, and by the way, could you turn on your "Follow This Blog" feature? It's super convenient to just click "follow" and then you go into my cool blog roll updates on my dashboard. It's in your widgets.
Pretty Please?

dbackdad said...

Sadie - Just turned the feature on.

Sean Penn is a little odd but I'm a big fan of his. His acting is stellar and his directing is underrated. Into the Wild was the best thing I saw in '07 and one of my favorite movies of the last few years.

Most actors like the spotlight but I think the more serious ones would rather it be focused on the work. Numerous times, Penn has not went to the Academy Awards, including the year he won Best Actor.

Antimatter said...

Looking forward to seeing all three of these. Oh, and I loved Into the Wild as well, terrific film!

dbackdad said...

Laura - That Oracle of Bacon was pretty cool. Just about every actor I could think of had a Bacon number of 2 or less. I'd try and think of someone obscure only to find that it wasn't that long of a link to Bacon.

how to download movies for free said...

I saw Milk a while back, I was really looking forward to it because I had written a paper in my history class on Harvey Milk.