Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, February 27, 2009

2008 Film Roundup: The Oscars and the Year in Review

(Welcome to the annual post-Oscar film roundup, a pre-blog tradition. It's split into four posts, starting with this one and scrolling down.)

2008 was an odd, uneven year for film, even accounting for the usual summer spectacle and Oscar bait seasons. For the first time in a few years, we had summer blockbusters that were actually good. But while there was a respectable crop of films that were above average, very good, or otherwise worth seeing, the number of really superlative films was underwhelming. (That's a subjective call, of course, but I thought WALL-E remained head and shoulders over virtually everything I'd seen all year until surprisingly late in the fall. Devoted Dark Knight fans can add it to the list.)

Oscar nominations typically have a "usual suspects" element, but it seemed more pronounced this year. Her for Best Actress? That for Best Picture? Really? A mystifying thirteen nominations for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? It felt like the Academy was scrambling more than usual to fill out even some major categories. It was nice to see underdogs such as actor Richard Jenkins nominated for great work, and some of the more celebrated performances definitely deserved their nominations, but it was hard to get too enthusiastic over the selections as a whole. I liked The Dark Knight, but didn't think it was the runaway best picture of the year. Despite that, I thought it received the biggest snub. Each film of The Lord of the Rings series, while being showered with nominations, still had to overcome significant bias that it was somehow juvenile fare, and that a movie featuring effects-heavy spectacle and hobbits couldn't also produce great acting and perhaps the most depth and artistry of any film that year. Well, hobbits may have eventually gotten their due, but superhero flicks, even if they possess far more substance than the average blockbuster, will have to content themselves with box office receipts. Similarly, I agree with the sentiment that WALL-E should have been able to contend for Best Picture in addition to Best Animated Feature. All that said, Slumdog Millionaire was one of the best films of the year and the best of the nominees. It earned early praise as a film to seek out, and then the inevitable backlash. But while it has fairy-tale elements, it also depicts poverty and class issues in a stark and memorable way that's rare for Hollywood to honor outside of the documentary categories. It was also one of the most energetic, innovative and emotionally-engaging films of the year.

As always, the fun in watching the Oscars lies in mocking the excesses, booing the injustices, and cheering on the worthy winners. Hugh Jackman did a good job overall as Oscar host. Consensus at the Oscar party I attended was that not being a comedian helped him. He didn't need to come out and deliver a real comedy set, as other hosts have. There was much less pressure on him to be funny (although he was at points); he just needed to be charming, which he handled with ease. If all else failed, he could just say, "Meryl Streep, ladies and gentlemen!" as he did a couple of times. But his opening number was lively and creative, with some good gags – singing to Kate Winslet about swimming in excrement, joking about renting The Reader, and making Anne Hathaway surely the prettiest actor ever to play Richard Nixon. Despite the immense venue, the staging was very intimate, at least for Jackman and the acting nominees in the first few rows. (But where was Jack Nicholson? Isn't this the second Oscar ceremony in a row without the King of Hollywood? I also see I shouldn't have cut the "Aniston to Jolie and vice versa reaction shot" category from the Oscar Drinking Game.)

I really could have done without the 'Salute to Musicals' number later on (although I was in the minority on that one at the Oscar party). Jackman and Beyoncé performed well, though. Less welcome was the High School Musical duo, and ABC/Disney's repeated attempts to further flog its juggernaut franchise. I would have preferred giving that time to the Oscar songs, which were presented in a medley and limited to 65 second snippets each. Peter Gabriel bowed out of performing for that reason, although he got his desired Gospel choir replacement, and John Legend sang Gabriel's lead part nicely.

On the music front, this was a strong year. I was happy to see A. R. Rahman's wins for his energetic, infectious score and song-writing, especially because they played such an important role in Slumdog Millionaire. He was certainly the most original choice for the Academy. Danny Elfman's score for Milk was quite good, and Thomas Newman continues to show why he's one of the best out there with his soaring work on WALL-E. Apparently, there was an eligibility issue for the score for The Dark Knight by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer. Their Joker's theme, using a single, extended cello note, was eerie and extremely effective (more in the Dark Knight entry below). For the songs, no nomination for Hamlet 2's "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus" was unfair but unsurprising, while not including Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler" was a glaring omission. It and two of the actual nominees provided the capstones to their respective films. Normally, I'd be pulling for my man Peter Gabriel to win, and his song "Down to Earth" offered a nice exit for WALL-E. But "Jai Ho" from Slumdog was a celebratory explosion for that film, so it deserved the edge. Still, I think even "Jai Ho" paled to the role Springsteen's "The Wrestler" played for its movie – a haunting, simple soliloquy that put the entire preceding film in perspective and lingered far after.

The Dark Knight had some good sound editing work by winner Richard King – the sequence with the Bat-Bike was breathtaking. But I thought WALL-E's editing and mixing were just extraordinary, one of the best sound jobs I've heard in at least a decade, and Ben Burtt got robbed. Since both Burtt and King have won before, it's less of a concern. (And maybe I'd feel differently myself if I were privy to the nomination "bake-offs" that precede some of the more technical awards.) I continue to wish the Academy would better explain the difference between sound editing and sound mixing to the general audience, because as someone in my film buff Oscar party crowd pointed out, even most of them weren't sure. I just wish the arduous and important task of sound design was better understood and appreciated. On a similar note, NPR station KCRW ran a good story on the Oscars' Sci-Tech Awards, given out by this year's virgin sacrifice, Jessica Biel (it's always a gorgeous young actress – past presenters have included Jessica Alba and Jennifer Garner). Only Gordon Sawyer Award winner and geek king Ed Catmull got shown at the Oscars this time, whereas in past years they've flashed brief video clips of the other honorees.

The most welcome award was the always good and versatile Kate Winslet finally winning her Oscar. Her warm shout-outs to deceased Reader producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack were especially nice, and the requested whistle from her father was fantastic. (I would have liked to have seen Sally Hawkins get a nomination for Happy-Go-Lucky, though.) Heath Ledger's untimely death locked in his win, but it was a remarkable performance, and his family's acceptance was one of the most emotional moments of the evening. I thought Penelope Cruz was the least deserving of the Best Supporting Actress nominees, and won mainly due to past nominations (as is often the case). Cruz serves ably in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but it's a performance consisting of only a few notes, and mostly one ("feisty senorita," as a friend of mine put it). Both Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall deliver better performances in the same film. I'd have given the award to the multitalented, always superb Amy Adams, who had the most screen time and the most substantial performance of the lot. I would have been satisfied with any of the other nominees winning, too. Viola Davis really only has one scene, but it's a long one, full of shifts and discovery, and she's fantastic in it. Taraji P. Henson is very good in Benjamin Button (several people were shocked to discover that the young Henson, looking gorgeous at the Oscars, played Queenie in the film). And Marisa Tomei gives a layered performance that moves her role in The Wrestler away from that beloved Oscar trope, the stripper (or prostitute) with a heart of gold. For Best Actor, I would have been happy with either Sean Penn or Mickey Rourke winning, but would have given the edge to Rourke on the merits and because Penn's already won. (I would have really cheered for Richard Jenkins – and while Brad Pitt deserved his nomination for 12 Monkeys, I don't think he merited one for Benjamin Button.) The debate among our crew was on the tipping points – what role was played by lingering resentments toward Rourke in Hollywood, and extra support for Penn because of Prop. 8? Was this also delayed appreciation for Brokeback Mountain? Rourke said he wanted Penn to win, since he was a good friend to him during his dark days. Rourke did get several nice shout-outs at the awards, and his rambling, profanity-laced acceptance speech at the Independent Spirit Awards is pretty entertaining. So he's gotten his moment, his "return to the ring," as Ben Kingsley put it. And Penn did do a terrific job, submerging himself into the role of Harvey Milk. As with Meryl Streep, it's easy to take him for granted because he's always good (I know people who think of him as a scenery-chewer, but he's not in Milk). Penn's speech was unsurprisingly political but on-target, and also fairly funny and restrained for him. (It was hard not to like "You commie, homo-loving sons of guns" – but dude, remember to thank your wife!)

I'd have given the endlessly inventive and elegant WALL-E best original screenplay, but Dustin Lance Black's winning script for Milk was solid and above average for a biopic, and he gave one of the most heartfelt, memorable speeches of the night. Manic leprechaun Danny Boyle gave a sweet speech after winning Best Director, and his apology to the choreographer was classy (it's very easy to leave someone out of the credits, especially on a major production). Tina Fey and Steve Martin, both writers and witty performers, made the screenplay presentations the most entertaining of the night. The device of showing some of the script and the film was last done (to my memory) in 2002 (In the Bedroom, Fellowship of the Ring), and it works wonderfully, so I hope it endures this time (something similar for the sound awards would be harder, but fantastic). Jack Black was very funny presenting, joking about making his money by working for Dreamworks Animation but betting on Pixar, and claiming he only watched movies with himself in it – like most actors. Ben Stiller's Joaquin Phoenix impression was pretty funny, although he let it go on a bit too long, so that the names of the cinematography nominees were obscured by laughter. Queen Latifah did a really lovely job singing "I’ll be Seeing You” during the "In Memoriam" section, although the camera cutting was excessive. The Paul Newman clip was a perfect closer, though (Heath Ledger was featured last year, if you missed it, and they added Roy Scheider this year after forgetting him last time). Man on Wire star Philippe Petit provided some fun balancing an Oscar on his chin and performing a magic trick. Best Animated Short winner Kunio Katô's speech in halting English, unexpectedly closing with "Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto," might have been the funniest (and most unexpected) bit of the night.

I was wary of past acting winners giving a little speech to each of the nominees, but warmed to it. (It went over well at our Oscar party.) The problem was that the first set of tributes, for Best Supporting Actress, were overly somber and dragged. The last crew, for Best Actor, had much more fun, particularly DeNiro: "How did he do it? How did Sean Penn get all those roles as straight men?" (Cuba Gooding, Jr. speaking to Robert Downey, Jr. was funny on the one hand, but on the other - Cuba - Snow Dogs? Daddy Day Camp? Boat Trip, the straight-guys-on-a-gay-cruise flick?) Assuming the Oscars broadcast can keep things tight, this tribute device gives past winners a spotlight and continuity with the present, and it gives all of the nominees a moment of appreciation, with less focus on the actual winner. This comes at the expense of clips of the performances, though, so I wonder about this. The nominees clearly appreciated it, but are their films and their work better promoted with brief footage? As it is, the awards are awfully actor-centric, even if actors are understandably the main focus. If nothing else, the tributes do up the odds for teary eyes, and the Oscars may not like unrestrained, unintelligible sobbing, but they loooove weepy!

The montages were also surprisingly good this time, celebrating all the films of the year and trying to place the Best Picture nominees in the tradition of past winners. Having Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen put together a comedy montage was smart (laughing at The Reader was surreal). The animation, action and Best Picture montages featured some very slick and inspired editing. (Besides the great motion and thematic edits, there was a brilliant cut during the animation montage between doggie hero Bolt shooting laser beams from his eyes to Anakin Skywalker deflecting a laser blast. I'd like another look at these segments, actually.) One problem during the rest of the ceremony was the occasional blue frame made up of film clip loops. It wasn't a horrible idea, but one of the most prominent looped clips was Po the Kung Fu Panda leaping to eat a wonton. After you spotted it, it was hard not to laugh, distracting from the more serious speeches.

In any case, the Oscars have always made for problematic viewing outside the dedicated, and this year's ceremony was uneven, but made some good choices to build on for next year. Some deserving winners also made it worthwhile.

On to more general issues – AMC had a smart promotion allowing people to watch all five Best Picture nominees the Saturday before the Oscars in a marathon viewing. It would be great for some chain to offer a Oscar film card, good for two weeks, say, to see any of the nominees at an overall discount. Movie theaters make most of the money at the concession stand, and they'd be sure to make a decent profit and potentially win some new or more frequent customers, while allowing people to catch the films they'd missed.

On the critic front - a pet peeve of mine with "best of" lists is when critics are late to the party and list films that came out the previous calendar year with no acknowledgement of that fact. I know most critics are expected to deliver such lists before the end of a calendar year, or not long into the new year, and the Oscar bait deluge can make it hard to see everything before deadlines. Generally, it's especially difficult with the major foreign films. I have an advantage with my roundups of having the extra two months before the Oscars to catch up, and almost everything will be out by then. But many reviewers have access to free screenings and/or screener DVDs. For American critics, it's ridiculous to say There Will be Blood was one of the best films of 2008. The same goes for The Counterfeiters, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days, when all were in major award contention as 2007 films, and The Counterfeiters won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. A critic in a fairly prominent publication named The Lives of Others his best film of 2007, when it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of 2006 – and won. Did these critics (who shall remain nameless) miss all this? The worst remains listing There Will Be Blood for 2008 - seriously, Daniel Day Lewis accepting his Best Actor award wasn't a clue you're a year late? Just add a special note to the list, and by all means honor a good film or two you missed earlier, since highlighting good work is one of the key reasons to review films in the first place. Plenty of critics add such notes and also list honorable mentions. Another solution for more casual reviewers is simply to list 'the best films I've seen this year,' rather than describing (for instance) 2007's The Diving Bell… as one of 'the best films of 2008' in December 2008. It's just that it's jarring when said film was already being discussed at some length 10-14 months ago (it was in limited release, reviewed, on many 2007 lists, discussed on Charlie Rose etc.). It's a bit like talking to football fans, praising the New York Giants' great Super Bowl win, and wondering aloud if they'll repeat this year. Where were you? (For foreign films released in America a year/years later, I try to include the original release date, too.) Of course, since the biggest troublemakers are foreign-language films, maybe I'm being unfair on the front. With There Will Be Blood, I've been told the studio was uncooperative about showing it to some reviewers, and that cost the studio. Still, it just looks ridiculous to list such a celebrated film a year later - and as the fourth best film of 2008. Oh, and naming as your top film of the year something you and fewer than a dozen people saw at a private residence does not give you indie cred; it just means you're really obnoxious (I have actually seen that done, a few years back).

In any case, on to the films themselves. Per tradition, I've split the films into three tiers, but I wouldn't put too much stock in the divisions, especially this year. I've linked a number of interviews throughout. And as usual, I've tried to avoid any spoilers and/or labeled them near the end of each entry. If you'd know it from watching the trailers, I figure it's safe to mention. (I'll also pass on The Daily Show's post-Oscar episode, with John Oliver insulting Jon Stewart in comparison to Hugh Jackman. It's pretty funny.)

2008 Film Roundup: The Top Five

Slumdog Millionaire: Jamal Malik, an orphan from the slums of Mumbai, gets on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? He has to use a lifeline on a simple question, but uncannily gets the other questions right. He's suspected of cheating, so the police grab him and really work him over. During his interrogation, he explains how he knew each answer, and we flash back to those sections of his life. We see that Jamal and his older brother Salim grew up very poor, and were soon orphaned. They meet up with another orphan, Lakita, who Jamal grows devoted to and Salik doesn't much care for – initially. They progress through a series of adventures, including a harrowing escape from some supposed benefactors. Salim occasionally looks out for his younger brother (especially at a few crucial junctures), but he's got a mean streak and also torments him. All three orphans are played by three different actors apiece at different ages. Even though the orphans live in astounding squalor at times, they're very clever at surviving, and manage to eke out some small triumphs (a poor, hungry kid is still going to enjoy riding the train). Salim finds his way out by allying himself with the toughest criminal on the street, and the worst parts of his nature flourish. Jamal takes a different route – the unglamorous life of a chaiwalah (tea server) at an Indian call center. He's still desperately trying to find Lakita, who he hasn't seen in years – and the reunion may not be what he's expecting or she wants.

Even when he's portraying dire and disturbing subject matter, there's a joy to director Danny Boyle's filmmaking (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) that's irrepressible. The camera style here is run-and-gun, the soundtrack is driving and infectious, and Jamal is a scrawny, underdog hero who's nonetheless clever, gutsy, occasionally reckless and always determined. The film definitely has fairy tale elements, but I found these far more palatable because Jamal is put through the ringer, from torture by the police, to horrible poverty and misuse as a child, to degradation at his job and on the TV show, to betrayal and disappointment by those most dear to him. It's hard not to root for him and his stubborn faith that somehow, he might be able to have something better. Dev Patel was cast as Jamal in part because he wasn't a muscle-ripped leading man (apparently, many Indian actors work out obsessively so they can take their shirts off in musical numbers). Patel plays Jamal with naïveté but also a sarcastic wit, as a quiet scrapper who also has an endearing vulnerability. Salim as played by Madhur Mittal is mostly set on being a badass but does show some flashes of conscience and self-sacrifice. Lakita, played by Freida Pinto in her film debut, starts mostly as a fantasy object of Jamal's affections, but also points out to Jamal how unrealistic his expectations are. Pinto gives Lakita a mournful feel, but also sells her excitement and an openness in key moments. She's got a gorgeous smile that sells one of the signature, recurring shots. Slumdog Millionaire does have some disturbing scenes that may upset some viewers, but the torture scenes are brief, and the mistreatment of children is tastefully shot. You will care about these characters, and the overall mood is celebratory. I wouldn't show this one to young kids, but unless you're really wary of the darker scenes, check it out.

I've heard that some people didn't like the explosive "Jai Ho" ("Victory to You") Bollywood number that celebrates the end of the movie, but they seem to be far in the minority. It works really well, this is a film set in India, and the cast is all having so much damn fun! The biggest reservations I have about Slumdog are its fantastical, double happy ending (boy gets girl, gets very rich) and its suggestion that fate exists. But again, when you put the hero and heroine through the ringer first, I'm much more willing to accept or even cheer a happy ending. The strengths of the film far outstrip its flaws. I'm not ready to rank Slumdog with Satyajit Ray’s tragic and joyful Pather Panchali, but there are some connections. Slumdog is also a bit like City of God in its slum setting, its elliptical storytelling, and sheer energy. But it's definitely its own film. I've seen a few takes on it that strike me as particularly obtuse (it's 'poverty porn!') or as tired, contrarian scolding (anyone who calls "Jai Ho" a "limp dance number" is pretty laughable). If you don't like the film or it's not your thing, fine. (And if the film motivates certain detractors to spend more time at the soup kitchen to prove their poverty-fighting bona fides, great, but I doubt that'll happen.) Maybe the false rumors of child exploitation on the set got to these critics. I don't know. But I have seen more sincere and measured concerns and criticisms, so we'll address them.

As Ken Levine notes, "Hollywood loves SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE ...now... Of course a year ago that same Hollywood was ready to send it direct-to-video." It was an underdog production about an underdog. Slumdog is obviously something of a fairy tale, but outside of documentaries, it's pretty rare to see poverty, especially this abject, portrayed on screen. Slumdog also critiques class divisions and depicts bigotry, but in a way that's organic and not sermonizing. The cruelty here in no more an aesthetic trick than is the blinding in King Lear. Several reviewers have called Slumdog Dickensian, which isn't a bad comparison. (Oliver Twist doesn't celebrate workhouses and child abuse, either.) Some viewers will see Slumdog mostly as an entertaining film with some harrowing scenes and some substance. But I highly doubt anyone's seeing it and saying, "Hooray! I don't need to worry about poverty in India because the movie has a happy ending!" Just as with Dirty Pretty Things (slight spoiler), Slumdog is a celebration of the underclass and their victory – it's not saying that the underclass have suddenly disappeared or are no longer being exploited. It's sure as hell not excusing or celebrating that exploitation! Personally, I found the scenes of squalor were some of those that stuck with me the most, and I've heard plenty of people mention them and praise the film overall. I thought the blinding scene, tastefully shot, was one of the most horrific and evil things I've ever seen depicted on film. (In Moscow, the beggar children will feign injuries but aren't actually maimed.) There aren't many routes out of the slum, and Jamal could have chosen Salim's life of crime, but he didn't (shades of Tuco and his brother in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). But Jamal's prospects in his more honorable job are pretty lousy. One of the elements I like is that one of the police inspectors (Irrfan Khan), starts off abusing Jamal, but gradually comes to believe his story, telling him he's an idiot but no liar. And if Jamal can win over him, he can win over just about anybody.

(Here's Danny Boyle on Fresh Air, on The Treatment, with Rob Vaux, and playing DJ. Here's A.R. Rahman on Morning Becomes Eclectic discussing the music for the film. The New York Times solicited three reactions on the root of protests to the film in India. Kalpana Mohan has a great piece on why most Indian filmmakers would have had difficulty making Slumdog. Sudip Mazumda writes in Newsweek about his childhood in the slums, and how they're no fairy tale. On To the Point (43 min. in), Gunjan Bagla explains why the film is 'a great acknowledgement of Indian culture.' A.R. Rahman also explains why he identifies with Jamal and his tough life story, and tells critics of the film to take it as a challenge and make their own. Fran passes on more on the face of poverty. The Constant Gardener crew did a fair amount of benefit work for the towns where they filmed, the Slumdog crew has apparently done the same, and I hope that and greater attention continue.)

WALL-E: Endlessly inventive, creative and charming, WALL-E is Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire (albeit in a post-apocalyptic landscape). It's easy to take what Pixar does for granted because they make it look so effortless and the end result is so entertaining. Think about all that's packed into the film - WALL-E, a trash-compacting robot left behind on a horribly polluted future Earth keeps at his Sisyphean task, watches musicals, and hangs out with his cockroach pal – he gets a visitor, a sleek lady robot (Eve) packing serious heat, who captures his heart – he winds up on the strange new world of a spaceship carrying the descendants of Earth's human survivors – and all that's within the first hour. The first section of the movie is also told with very little dialogue, the two robots only say a handful of words throughout the entire movie, and our hero basically has a pair of binoculars for a face. It's really amazing how much WALL-E tells us with body language, sound effects, reactions, looped ads in the background, piles of trash, and music – we're introduced to a pretty novel and complex world very elegantly. Yeah, this is a great film for kids, but as with all the best Pixar films, it's also phenomenal filmmaking, period. (As I mentioned before, Ben Burtt's sound design is exceptional, especially when joined to Thomas Newman's soaring score.)

I tend to dislike schmaltzy musicals, but it's a great device for WALL-E. WALL-E may be a robot without a proper face, but we see him imitate Hello, Dolly, take Eve (comatose or not) out on the town, try to rescue her on the ship, and they engage in a thrilling dance in space to "La Vie En Rose." WALL-E certainly provides plenty of witty social satire (although the filmmakers didn't want to be too political), but it also winds up being a surprisingly touching love story. The filmmakers studied plenty of silent movies, especially the comedies, and the charm, fun and magic of some old classics really come alive here. Chances are you've already seen this one (and if you have kids, you'll be seeing many, many more times). If you haven't seen WALL-E yet, certainly do (and a big screen and good sound system can only help). I've met people who didn't absolutely love it, but no one who didn't like it. A varied film diet makes room for everything from gritty realism to gems like this from writer-director Andrew Stanton and the Pixar gang.

(Here's Andrew Stanton on Fresh Air and on The Treatment. Here's the Design and Architecture interview with production designer Ralph Eggleston. I should also throw in this great NPR piece on Darth Vader and Ben Burtt's sound design for the character. )

Rachel Getting Married: Rachel Getting Married is not for all tastes, but Jonathan Demme's latest will have its deserved fans. Its greatest strengths are its willingness to linger on long scenes full of revelations and reverses, its layered depiction of one family's dynamics, and its realistic, documentary-like feel. Ann Hathaway gives her best performance to date as Kym, a troubled young woman let out of a psych ward to attend the marriage of her older sister Rachel. Kym is at times sympathetic and at others comes off as an insufferable brat. As we get to know her and the family history better, it becomes clear her personal demons are formidable, and her erratic behavior seems more forgivable – we hear a bit more, and really feel for her - but then we see still more and are left stunned. In all this, Rachel, who's been the 'good' daughter and is wonderfully played by Rosemarie DeWitt, is something of an audience surrogate, alternately conciliatory with and infuriated at her sister. Paul, the dad, beautifully played by Bill Irwin, is the peacekeeper and diplomat, but winds up being confronted as well as old issues resurface. (Anna Deavere Smith as stepmom Carol and the other cast members are uniformly excellent, too, and Jenny Lumet's script is very sharp.)

There are times the scene length seems excessive – are we really going to hear another rehearsal dinner toast, or watch so much of the wedding ceremony? But I think it works in the end. Rachel's marriage is in fact a huge event for this family (as a marriage is in many families), it adds to the you-are-there feel, and the normalcy off-sets the more explosive scenes. After we've heard a series of wedding toasts, Kym's self-conscious, rambling attempt sticks out all the more. A dishwasher-loading duel (you'll see) seems to be getting an awful lot of time, but highlights that slightly awkward but earnest desire to bond with the in-laws, and has a very effective, unexpected payoff. There's an extended confrontation between Rachel and Kym with Paul looking on that's fantastic precisely because Demme allows it to play out at length, with all its jabs and ripostes.

Our views on these characters and the family dynamics continue to shift. In some dysfunctional families, one person becomes the scapegoat even though the problems run deeper, but between Kym and Rachel, it's harder to gauge. How much of Kym's behavior is sincere effort versus self-absorption and selfishness? How much is Rachel deflecting, or is she at all? She seems to have it mostly together, and while she loves her family, also is happy to be getting out. It's the ambiguities and the swings that I found so intriguing. Debra Winger as Abby, the mother of Rachel and Kym, and Paul's ex-wife, changes our views further. She's really only in a few scenes, most of them late in the film, but her scenes with Kym become nothing short of revelatory, less for what's said but for what isn't. Still, I don't want to give the impression that Rachel Getting Married is completely dour, because it has some funny and charming moments, plenty of hopeful characters, and a ton of music (plus several musicians in the cast – groom Sidney, played by Tunde Adebimpe, is an actor but also in band TV on the Radio).

I found one of the last scenes, when Abby just will not follow up with Kym, to be remarkable. And Rachel picks up on the dynamic. It made me think back through the film, and what proceeded the events we've seen. Many marriages do not survive losing a child. Abby clearly never really talked through what happened with Kym on an honest, emotional level, and while she's apparently quite successful in the outside world, her preferred mode for personal issues appears to be denial. Imagine her married to Paul, a peacemaker, with Kym tormented and Rachel just trying to keep her own life together and not add to the mess. It's not a surprise they got a divorce. Kym asks after her mom multiple times earlier in the film. When you see how Abby handles Kym, it becomes clearer why Kym both can't forgive herself, and goes around jabbing at everyone around her (not that it's terribly productive). Abby was a presence even when she was absent – just as the brother was. Anyway, that's my take. And while I found the film engaging as I was watching it, it was the way it made me think back through it afterwards that I found the most interesting. It's not a casual viewing film, and I'm not going to pore over it relentlessly, but I do want to see it again for that reason.

(Here's Jonathan Demme and Jenny Lumet on Fresh Air, which includes her description of the real-life "psychotic, disturbing" 90 minute dishwasher duel between her father Sidney Lumet and Bob Fosse. Here's Jenny Lumet on The Treatment.)

The Class (Entre les Murs/Between the Walls): Director Laurent Cantet makes a film out of teacher François Bégaudeau's book of the same name, with François Bégaudeau, other teachers and students essentially playing versions of themselves. Winner of the Palme d'Or, the film is 128 minutes long but briskly paced. It follows François (as he's always called, except by the students) through a year of teaching French at a school with a diverse population on the outskirts of Paris. (The kids would be in junior high in the United States and range from 13-15.) François is a very good teacher, and the kids aren't horrible per se, but in addition to some racial issues in the classroom, François has to contend with the usual immaturity, lack of focus, testing of boundaries and great sensitivity to slights real and imagined. There are days when no one's done the homework, days when home life or the school yard come crashing in, and many days where the kids would rather not being studying the finer points of French grammar. It's a tough gig, and burnout's always a threat – a few of François' colleagues have pretty much given up on reaching their students, and at least one frustrated veteran is ready to quit. Throughout, François keeps up his energy and sense of humor, and does an admirable job of coaxing and challenging the kids to learn something about both the material and themselves. But he inevitably has his tough spots, too. François seems to be one of the strongest advocates for the kids at the school, so he's especially stung when his words at a student review are thrown back in his face out of context, and he snaps. Rather than apologizing and defusing things, he holds fast. This incident becomes tied up with one of his most inconsistent and disruptive students, who winds up facing a disciplinary hearing. The film raises the question of how the system serves such students, and offers a candid glimpse at the small joys and many challenges that come with teaching.

There are a few well-regarded documentaries featuring teaching I still need to see, but the greatest strength of The Class is its realism, and the "docudrama" label seems apt. I doubt any teachers or former teachers (or maybe just former students) will see it without some moment of recognition. (Viewers less interested in teaching, parenting or teenage life might not find it as interesting.) I've read that director Laurent Cantet had several HD cameras rolling simultaneously, and several of the scenes are improvised. Regardless, we-are-there. The Class is too honest to offer pat answers, but it does raise plenty of questions, and offers an authentic look at an important slice of life.

The Wrestler: Easily the best film to date from both lead actor Mickey Rourke and director Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler starts with an opening credit montage of programs and newspapers showing us how big Randy "The Ram" Robinson is – and then cuts to the present day, 20 years later. He's still entertaining the crowds, but it's in much smaller venues and for less cash. He can't even keep up with the rental fee on his trailer. It doesn't help that he spends so much on booze, strippers and an alarming amount of drugs, mostly serious pain medication. His hours working the stock room of a supermarket help, but not much, and he has to keep the weekends free for wrestling matches and poorly-attended signing sessions. He seems like a pretty nice guy, very supportive of his fellow wrestlers, and happy to play with the kids at the trailer park. But we infer from his very estranged daughter and his circumstances that he was a really crappy dad, and handled the money of his heyday very poorly. He's also pretty stuck in the past, down to playing an old video game from the 80s featuring himself. Externally, he's in great shape, even if in addition to the gym he has to hit the tanning booths, goes the salon to have his long hair colored, and shaves his armpits. But as the Indiana Jones line goes, it's not just the years, it's the mileage. He's aging, aching, and experiences a serious health scare after a big match that imperils his career. All that accentuates the emotional and spiritual hole inside. He's realistic enough, especially after seeing older and even more battered wrestlers, to consider retirement. But he seems to have little else. It looks like he has a connection with a local stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, who's very good), but he's a customer. His daughter absolutely hates him. He manages to make progress with both of them, but has a knack for botching everything. He puts on a brave face, but he's got a lot of shame underneath, and it fuels his self-destructive streak. As his challenges mount, the allure of the ring, with its promise of restoring some of his pride and faded glory, becomes more appealing despite the high risk. Part of him is willing to pick up the pieces of his broken life, but another part urges him to go out swinging in a blaze of glory.

Cassidy compares what Randy does to The Passion of the Christ, and it's an apt comparison. Even though wrestling is fake, it's stage combat that delivers plenty of pain and bruises to the wrestlers. The most gruesome section is Randy's match with a wrestler who goes by Necro Butcher on the real life wrestling circuit and uses staple guns and barbed wire. It's brutal to watch, as is the aftermath as Randy is patched up. The whole spectacle is very sadomasochistic, but Randy believes in giving the fans their money's worth, and he lives for the crowds. Cassidy and Randy connect in part because they're both putting on performances, selling their flesh to customers who are increasingly uninterested. The difference is that Randy prefers his stage life, and that may be why he has trouble making the real-life-versus-persona distinction that Cassidy (Pam in real life) sees much more clearly, and guards ferociously. Rourke is superb here, and Tomei gives a nuanced performance (thankfully, it's not just a Hollywood stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold role). I was less sold on Rachel Evan Wood as Stephanie, the daughter. If there's a flaw to The Wrestler, it's that while some of Randy's woes are just life hitting him, and others are self-inflicted, some of his setbacks feel forced by the demands of the script. He forgets something important, and late in the film, he says he has trouble remembering things, but we didn't see that before the incident. The consequences of his interactions, particularly with the women in his life, seem out of proportion with the circumstances. Regardless, this is a very good film. The Wrestler reminded me of Raging Bull, in the physical abuse the character takes, in his self-destructive streak, but also the joy of being in the ring, whether it's accompanied by Mascagni's soaring music (in Raging Bull) or Bruce Springsteen's humble, haunting end credit song here. The Wrestler provides a sober look at the downtrodden, but also poetry of the wretched.

Maybe I'll feel differently after a second viewing, but I wasn't completely sold on Randy's rejection by his daughter Stephanie, nor the less certain rejection by Pam/Cassidy. In Stephanie's case, I found it hard to believe that when she meant so much to Randy that he would forget to show up. It just wasn't set up enough earlier. (Lost on the cutting room floor? They did at least set up his lack of a cell phone.) And having known some very sullen teens in my time, I felt the violence of her reactions seemed a bit unrealistic and forced. There's a difference between saying you never want to see someone ever again and meaning it in that moment, and really meaning it. (That's basically demonstrated in his blowout with Cassidy at the strip club and its follow-up.) I can fully buy that Randy would take Stephanie's words to heart, so maybe it's just that I didn't fully buy Wood's performance and what felt like a script contrivance to get us to that point. (Nowhere as bad as Lars von Trier in that department, though.) Meanwhile, Randy's last interchange with Pam/Cassidy was a little odd. No "just this one last time"? I bought that Pam couldn't stand to watch him get pounded and possibly die. I found it harder to believe that she'd expect Randy to refuse to go out at the last minute, given basic professionalism and how important the match is for him. And Randy seems pretty blasé about potentially passing up what's probably the best offer he'll get. No bargaining? No recognition? It gave the scene a whiff of delusion versus the "this is who I am" feel I thought it was going for. The last shot is great, and Aronofsky leaves things a bit open-ended. Does Randy die right there? Does he die later at the hospital? Does it matter, if he keeps going with wrestling? Stephanie probably wouldn't visit him in the hospital, but Pam very well might. Still, it's a very good movie.

I disliked the ads constantly running for The Wrestler out here on TV, because it was a solid bet they were misrepresenting the film, and they were: giving away the emotional climax of a key scene, making the film seem more touchy-feely than it is, heavily hitting Springsteen's involvement, and awkwardly splicing his song to boot. It's a great song, especially in context at the end of the film, but I was getting sick of hearing, "Ya evah seen a one-legged dowggg..." followed by that bad, "And you see meeeee," let's-pretend-this-is-an-upbeat-flick splice. But I hope the ads at least got the film more viewers.

(Here's Darren Aronofsky on Fresh Air and on The Treatment. Here's Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke with Rob Vaux. Here's a 2005 Fresh Air interview with Bruce Springsteen on his early influences.)

2008 Film Roundup: Noteworthy Films

The Visitor: Writer-director Tom McCarthy follows up his first feature, The Station Agent, with another impressive effort. Richard Jenkins plays economics professor Walter Vale, a quiet, reserved man who travels down to New York City for a conference. But when he stops off at an apartment he keeps there, he discovers a young immigrant couple living there as an illegal sublet. They didn't know, apologize and leave, but Walter offers to let them stay until they can get things in order. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), who's Syrian and a very good drummer, is especially grateful, since he has a talent for getting on the wrong side of his girlfriend, Zainab, played by Danai Gurira (Tarek's broad and easy smile also bails him out plenty). As the film progresses, we learn more and more about Walter – he's a widower, his wife was outgoing and well-liked, and he's been stuck in a drab routine. Tarek in particular helps him break out of that rut. We've seen that Walter has no talent for the piano, but he takes much better to the drumming Tarek happily teaches him. Unfortunately, Tarek and Zainab are in the country illegally, and that leads to complications. The Visitor doesn't wrap up everything tidily, but that's because it's a realistic film. (And can you imagine all the bad white-guy-ain't-got-no-rhythm jokes some Hollywood films would have?) The Visitor does a good job of capturing the joy of playing music, and how it and human connection can open a person up. McCarthy, a working actor, gets great, natural performances from everyone (Hiam Abbass as Tarek's mother Mouna is lovely in several later scenes with Walter). The centerpiece of the film, though, is character actor Richard Jenkins' subtle, understated leading turn here, which earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination. If you like this sort of indie film and missed it, do check it out.

(Here's Richard Jenkins on Fresh Air and on The Treatment.)

The Dark Knight: Batman Begins may be the best superhero movie ever made, but the same team attempts to one-up themselves with this lengthy, ambitious sequel. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is still fighting crime assisted by loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and technical wizard Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), but now he has to contend with copycat vigilantes and increasingly desperate criminals. Batman's true love Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is now with Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham City's upstanding, courageous District Attorney. Along with police detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), they're trying to clean up the city as best they can, but the corruption runs very deep and wide. Into this situation saunters the Joker (Heath Ledger), a genuinely creepy "agent of chaos" who's more intelligent, ruthless, unpredictable and insane than anything they've seen before. He always seems to be a few steps ahead, and both Batman and Harvey Dent are tempted to go to extremes in pursuit of him. The Dark Knight holds up well to repeated viewings thanks to some spectacular action sequences but also a strong focus on character. I was a bit concerned when I heard Ledger was cast (in some films, he loved to mumble), but every time he's on screen, he's riveting. Similar to Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, the Joker is unnerving because could snap and kill someone at any moment – although the Joker has much more fun. The unsettling score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard (more in the links below) and vertiginous close-ups are masterful for ratcheting up the tension when the Joker's on-screen. But it's still up to Ledger to sell it, and boy, does he. Katie Holmes wasn't that bad in Batman Begins as Rachel, but Maggie Gyllenhaal still is quite an upgrade, providing the wit, moxie and vulnerability the role requires. The film presents its heroes with a host of moral dilemmas, mainly due to the Joker's ability to pull off elaborate schemes and willingness not to play by anything approaching the rules. The superhero genre has always held that good vigilantes bend the law but serve justice, yet the Dark Knight dials up the stakes, and the Joker taunts his pursuers to cross the line in hopes of nabbing him. If The Dark Knight has any flaws, it's that it seems there's less focus on Wayne/Batman than the Joker and Harvey Dent, or maybe it's just they overshadow him. Also, I wasn't entirely convinced by Dent's shift late in the film, which the last section and the finale depend upon. Christian Bale's raspy Batman voice works great for short lines (especially threats), but becomes a bit unintentionally comic during longer exchanges. Still, The Dark Knight succeeds as both a blockbuster and a more serious, dramatic film. Writer-Director Christopher Nolan, co-writers Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer and the rest of the team have something good going on, and continue to set the standard the genre will (and should) be judged by.

As if you haven't seen this one! Late in the film, I began to wonder when the hell the Joker found time to wire half the city with explosives. It veers into infallible boogeyman territory. This became more of an issue as The Dark Knight flirts with the idea that only extremism will defeat the Joker's extremism. If we treat the film as mere escapism, it doesn't matter as much, but the film certainly seems to be asking us to take its moral issues seriously. Predictably, right-wingers tried to claim the film as their own, and as a validation of George Bush, which was pretty silly. The Batman of The Dark Knight, like 24's Jack Bauer, is fictional, has nearly infallible judgment and can be trusted with unchecked, awesome powers, and not only takes full responsibility for his actions, he takes the blame for things he didn't do (something the Bush gang and their fans have never done). The Dark Knight also highlights Batman's transgression in spying on the whole city to find the Joker – Lucius says it's wrong because it's too much power for anyone, and says he'll resign after helping Batman if the system stays. Batman (by wiping the computers at the end) apparently agrees. Batman stops Harvey Dent from torturing and killing a mentally ill member of the Joker's gang, pointing out that it won't accomplish anything (even if it feels satisfying) and will in fact undermine everything good that Dent has done. Batman does lose it himself in beating up the Joker, but gets played in the process (as does one of the cop guarding the Joker). The Joker's plot depends on him making others lose their cool and surrender to fear and rage. Plus, in the end, Batman doesn't break his no killing rule, and brings the Joker to justice. Meanwhile, despite their panic, the citizens (and prisoners) of Gotham on the ferries choose to reject fear and barbarism. As Rob Vaux puts it:

It's worth noting that the film's most important moment comes not from any of the main characters, but from an unnamed man beneath them played by Tiny Lister. His simple, pointed gesture perfectly encapsulates the need for heroes like Batman, and acts as an all-important reminder in this grim near-masterpiece that everyone is capable of redemption.

(I wondered during the ferry sequence that no one seemed to consider that the Joker would have switched detonators, so that if one group tried to save themselves, they'd actually kill themselves, but that would make the dilemma more of a mind game and less of a moral one.)

All that said, part of me questioned if Dent would really lose it. I bought that he'd kill off crooked cops and criminals, but not that he'd threaten Gordon's family. I also wondered if Batman really had to take the rap for Dent's killings, given the number of scoundrels running around and the enormous body count at that point. In all that chaos, would anyone really question a few more deaths? But Dent's own death would be a bit hard to explain. Yet wouldn't the surviving crooked cop spill the beans anyway? Oh well, The Dark Knight wants its ending, that of a brooding Rick Blaine with an armored fist.

There seem to be a few nods to Alan Moore's graphic novel The Killing Joke. Moore gives us a compelling origin story for the Joker's insanity and the Joker sets out to prove that everyone, given the sufficient push, will go over the edge as he has. Besides sheer chaos, that's the Joker's overall goal in The Dark Knight, and by capturing the Joker alive, Batman and the good guys refute him. There's another great script choice in the story of the Joker's scars. In Moore's tale, the Joker doesn't have scars, but was driven insane by great personal tragedy (and psychotropic chemicals). The Dark Knight's Joker flirts with this idea as he explains the origins of his scars to different people, but it seems he ultimately rejects any "reason" for his behavior because he keeps changing the story. He tells it for psychological effect, even as a taunt, not as a confession. It's an inspired device. As the police discover when the Joker's locked up, his real identity is completely unknown, and can't be traced – he's a cipher. He's a truly frightening figure, all the more so because his actions have no discernable motive save wanting "to watch the world burn" (as Alfred puts it), and it seems he's taken this destructive path entirely by choice. (It also made me think of Auden's "The Joker in the Pack" on Iago and "motiveless malignancy", as well as another Shakespearean villain who declares, "I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.") Final notes – it's sad to realize that Heath Ledger died so young and with so much promise. The film, and Ledger's acclaim for it, make for fine testaments, although it's doubtless slight comfort to his loved ones.

(Here's Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale on Fresh Air, and Nolan on The Treatment. Here's composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard on Morning Becomes Eclectic. Here's a 1990 Fresh Air interview with Batman creator Bob Kane.)

Doubt: John Patrick Shanley directs this adaptation of his own play, with excellent results. It's 1964 at a Catholic school in the Bronx. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is a hard-nosed, discipline-obsessed head nun, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a popular and slightly unconventional new priest, and Sister James (Amy Adams) is a young, idealistic and somewhat naïve nun teaching there. Aloysius doesn't like Flynn, and asks her nuns to keep an eye on him. One day, Father Flynn asks to see one of Sister James' students, Donald Miller, during class, and she notices something's off when Donald returns. Sister James reports it to Sister Aloysius, who fears the worst, and arranges a meeting with Father Flynn. Sister Aloysius is convinced Flynn's molested the boy (although everyone's guarded in their language) and is determined to see him leave. Father Flynn protests his innocence, sometimes forcefully. Sister James is caught in the middle, wanting to believe Flynn but also troubled by misgivings.

What makes Doubt work well, besides superb performances all around, is Shanley's splendid balancing act of a script, that constantly leaves us in doubt about the central question or at least significant details. The steely Sister Aloysius is quite the battleaxe, and so opposed to change she opposes singing "Frosty the Snowman" at the Christmas pageant because she feels it endorses a pagan belief in magic. Her perception may be heavily skewed because she had to deal with a pedophile priest once before, and so she may be seeing phantoms this time. Her "certainty" sometimes seems to rest on gossamer and prejudice. But she's also a woman in a man's world, and she fiercely protects the nuns in her care. She's also looking out for Donald Miller and the other students, even if her ego's involved as well. She's not a nurturing figure at all, and only has a narrow range as a teacher, that of a strict disciplinarian. But she views herself as the sole defender of tradition, the faith, and decorum, and it's a lonely perch. Some of Father Flynn's explanations makes sense, most of all that Donald's the only black student at school, he's a sensitive kid and having a rough time, and Flynn has been mentoring and protecting him. Father Flynn also wants the school and church to change a bit with the times, and the dour Aloysius just doesn't like him, as Sister James points out.

While the Aloysius-Flynn conflict forms the core of the film (and Streep and Hoffman dive into their battle of wills with relish), the moral center of the film is Sister James. After Flynn's first explanation of his private meeting with Donald, Sister James expresses strong relief, but doesn't fully believe it herself. As Aloysius tells her, "You just want things to be resolved so you can have simplicity back." Sister James is naïve enough to believe a student faking illness to get out school (and no one does guileless like Amy Adams), but she's in tune enough to realize when there's something wrong with her students, such as Donald. (And there's at least one detail she observes that she doesn't share with Aloysius, but later confronts Father Flynn on.) Our sense of what did or didn't happen changes further when Sister Aloysius shares her concerns with Mrs. Miller, Donald's mother (Viola Davis). Mrs. Miller is really only in one substantial scene, but it's a long and remarkable one, filled with shifts and surprises, and basically a short one-act play on its own. I've read that the last exchanges between Sisters Aloysius and James were delivered with a different feel on stage - more ambivalently, I believe. I don't know. But it does seem like Shanley's penned one of his best scripts, possibly a contemporary classic for the stage. His directing isn't that flashy, but that's fine, and it looks like he was the right choice to direct his own work. The Oscar nomination for his screenplay and the four nominations for acting (even if Hoffman should have been up for lead and not supporting actor) says a great deal about the strength of the material and the skill of the execution.

Did he do it or not? What exactly happened? Is Donald better off if nothing is done, per her mother's request, given his situation? Even if that's the case, would anything excuse Father Flynn's abuse of his position if he did do something? Sister Aloysius' ploy with Father Flynn, the fake out with the phone call, does indeed suggest that something happened at his previous parish. His reaction, of asserting his authority versus arguing the substance of the matter, also supports that. On the other hand, that "something" could have been an affair with a nun or getting drunk or something else disreputable versus molesting a kid. Even the iron-willed Sister Aloysius has her doubts. The school and church will have to change with the times at some point, and that's the greatest loss with Flynn leaving - but he's not the best spokesman for that movement. It's hard to see Flynn leaving as too much of a tragedy - except that he's moving to another parish where, if Aloysius' suspicions are true, the same pattern will likely repeat all over again - especially since, as a modern audience, we know the church history on such things. Even for viewers certain of Flynn's guilt (or innocence), there's plenty to leave one unsettled. I'll be interested in seeing this one again, with the last few scenes in mind, and wish I had seen the original stage production. Sister Aloysius is terrified that if she lets her guard down, civilization will fall, and while she can be something of a bully, there's little question she accomplishes some good. She's clearly stuck in a battle of wills, but there's also principle driving her. I do think the last scene is a bit surprising, but it and the last images have a certain loveliness, because if anyone represents forgiveness, it's Sister James. In the end credits, Shanley thanks Sister James' real-life counterpart (I'm assuming a beloved teacher he had as a kid), and also Cherry Jones, who won a Tony Award for playing Sister Aloysius on stage.

(Here's Philip Seymour Hoffman on The Treatment, although he's limited in that he can't reveal the central question, which he naturally discussed with Shanley but not the other actors.)

Happy-Go-Lucky: Mike Leigh delivers another slice-of-life film, this time focused on primary school teacher Poppy, in a wonderful performance by Sally Hawkins. Poppy comes off alternately as a charming free spirit or annoying dingbat. There's little doubt she's got the energy and creativity to be a good teacher to young kids, and she's a loyal friend to her little circle of gal pals, but it's less clear how together she is in the rest of her life. She's not irresponsible as much as a bit naïve and scattered. Or so we think. What makes Happy-Go-Lucky very interesting is that Poppy has greater depths that aren't immediately apparent, and we slowly glimpse these over time. After her bike is stolen (she didn't bother to lock it up), she starts taking driving lessons, and with her hyperactive laughing and joking is the absolute nemesis of her anal-retentive and bitter instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan, who's excellent). Their relationship shifts over time, and she also meets a handsome social worker at school she hits it off with. Her married sister pressures her to settle down, but Poppy insists she's quite happy. As with most Mike Leigh films, the plot is fairly slight, this is more of a character study, and the movie gently ends rather than concludes. But it's very good on those terms. The acting in Doubt is fantastic but more flashy, with big speeches and more quotable lines. There are some memorable exchanges and moments here, too, but this is more Chekhov and Eric Rohmer than O'Neill and Arthur Miller.

(Here's Sally Hawkins on The Treatment. I still need to see many of Mike Leigh's films, but I can strongly recommend Secrets and Lies if you like his style of filmmaking.)

Milk: An above-average biopic, Milk chronicles the life and death of late-bloomer Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected to major office in California, in his case a city supervisor in San Francisco in the late 70s. Director Gus van Sant opens with real news footage of Milk's assassination (and that of mayor George Moscone). At least one reviewer didn't like this device, but I thought it worked pretty well – if you didn't know before, now you knew what was going to happen and the focus was more on how it happened and Milk himself. Milk narrating his story into a tape recorder, interspersed with flashbacks, is a fairly stock device, but was effective (several other screenwriters and directors had failed at making a Milk biopic before writer Dustin Lance Black and van Sant here). All the performances are good, with Emile Hersh as Cleve Jones and Alison Pill as Anne Kronenberg two of the more memorable supporting players. But the key here is Sean Penn, who completely submerges into playing Harvey Milk. He's very convincing, and always interesting to watch. Josh Brolin is also a standout as eventual killer Dan White, another city supervisor all about "family-values." He's wound up extremely tight, the world is changing around him, and he just can't deal with it. While he and Milk initially share an improbable camaraderie, White isn't a natural to political wheeling and dealing, and when he feels betrayed by Milk on a proposal, he takes it very personally. It's nice to see Milk not portrayed as a saint – he does some double-dealing and maneuvering to try to move things forward and gain more power, and also isn't opposed to outing closeted homosexuals. The film is mostly presented in a realistic and understated way, so during Harvey's death scene, an opera connection thrown in feels forced, jarring, and an unfortunate choice. If (like me) you were pretty young while all this was taking place, the film does a good job as a historical document of the gay rights movement and the progression of civil rights. Prop. 6, or the "Briggs Initiative," sought to force mandatory firing of any gay schoolteachers or school employees. Footage of Anita Bryant's anti-gay campaign and Walter Cronkite's newscasts from the era are very interesting. It's impossible to watch Milk without thinking of the recent Prop. 8 campaign out here in California, and it gives the film an added resonance this year.

(Here's the Dustin Lance Black and James Franco segments on Fresh Air. Here's Josh Brolin with Rob Vaux. Here's composer Danny Elfman on Morning Becomes Eclectic.)

The Reader: A German attorney, Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), who's successful in his career but emotionally unmoored looks back over his life. David Kross plays the teenage Michael, who definitely does not "meet cute" with the older Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet) in 1950s Germany. Nevertheless, they start an affair, which centers in part on Michael reading to Hannah. Michael's madly in love with her, but she suddenly disappears without explanation. As a young law student, he's shocked to discover her as one of the defendants in a trial he attends with his class (it's always nice to see Bruno Ganz, who plays the professor). Michael comes to understand that Hannah kept two important secrets, and this forces him to re-evaluate his entire relationship with her.

I'm wondering how The Reader will play on a second viewing, and how the story comes across in the original novel. The main problem in the film is that while Michael is clearly struggling, even tormented (and we can understand why), he does little about it. His choice to see Hannah or not during the trial is momentous, but we're never given a clear reason for his eventual decision (and the reason given by David Kross on Charlie Rose does not play at all – more in the spoiler section). This gives us a rather passive hero, despite all the thematic depth and occasionally arresting and poetic scenes in the movie. The adult Michael finally does take some action, and the sequences with the tapes are a highlight of the movie, but even then, past a certain point he's just paralyzed. Some fear is completely understandable, but considering the dire effects of this whole affair on him, his reticence is harder to comprehend. The key to the film may be in one of the last scenes, between Michael and Ilana Mather (Lena Olin, who's superb). She essentially says there are no pat answers or simple happy endings, and this seems to be a comment on the film itself. The Reader does explore the power of love, the shock of discovering flaws in the ones we love, the importance of exploring the past, and the dangers of refusing to confront it. I'm just not convinced it's entirely successful at all that. I appreciate its ambition and its occasionally thought-provoking, challenging scenes, but whether it's a matter of the source material or the trials of adaptation, there's a problem in the film in that the hero isn't just reactive versus active, he's not even reactive at times. Still, the performances are very good, and when you know the secrets (unfortunately, I knew them going in, and would recommend you don't if you can help it), you'll pick up on nuances in the performances, especially Kate Winslet's.

I don't think the film asks us to excuse Nazis or even Hannah specifically. Obviously, the Holocaust is a weighty subject, and coming to terms with it has much more significance for Germans. Hannah on trial initially seems bravely frank, but what's disturbing to young Michael, and us, is that Hannah really doesn't seem to understand why the judges and the public are horrified by her. And as the film goes on, it doesn't seem it's a lack of intelligence on her part as much as a moral blind spot and unwillingness to reflect. When adult Michael meets up with older Hannah, she's right about the past being done, but there's just no regret, no moment of asking for forgiveness. It's striking which of her two secrets brought her more shame, and that she went to extraordinary lengths to hide and correct it, but not the more disturbing one. Michael might not have come to terms with his relationship with Hannah, but she sure as hell has not come to terms with her actions in the past. It's a bold story choice in its way, because it doesn't let us forgive Hannah, and doesn't give us a happier ending. But I just wish that scene – and several others - played out a bit longer. It's fine to have a film full of unspoken tensions, but at some point, I do want to hear them spoken. A film that's using Michael as a surrogate for Germany is fine, but only if Michael is a real and compelling character as well. As always, the best way to achieve universality is to go specific. I found myself wondering why Michael had never told anyone about the affair, and why it was so difficult – yes, he clearly felt shame, but he was also a kid at the time. It's also not as if others don't reach out to him and give him the opportunity. There is an implication that Michael's family, and other Germans in his home town, were complicit with the Nazis, which would explain much more, but this isn't made very clear. David Kross said on Charlie Rose that Michael turns back from seeing Hannah at the prison during the trial because he realizes that revealing her illiteracy would bring her shame. I don't think it plays that way at all – it comes off as cowardice, or some other inexplicable reason. If she begged him not to tell, I could buy his action. But the film doesn't let us in on what's going on with Michael – even a few more close-ups and brief flashbacks would have done the trick, if Kross' description of the intent is accurate. I thought the scene with Lena Olin and Ralph Fiennes was great, all the more so because as Ilana she's not sweet nor forgiving and instead quite challenging. I appreciated her lines about there being no "lesson" to be learned in the concentration camps, which dovetails somewhat with Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved, even though I've met and read accounts by Holocaust survivors whose attitudes are very different. I did think the scenes between Michael and his daughter were quite lovely. It might be interesting to revisit this one down the road.

(Kate Winslet's Oscar win requires another look at this scene from Ricky Gervais' Extras. These two saucy scenes are also pretty damn funny.)

Revolutionary Road: Revolutionary Road is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? without the fun, or the happy ending. Well, I'm overstating that – John Givings (Michael Shannon) provides sardonic wit and acid observations as the Fool Who Speaks Truth. But while the craftsmanship here is impeccable, it's produced an awfully bleak picture. Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) and wife April (Kate Winslet) bristle under the constraints of 50s suburban life. She comes up with the idea of moving to Paris, but the romanticism of this plan collides with fear, and Frank suddenly has opportunities opening up at a job he's previously hated. Much of the time they're both miserable, and they often take it out on each other. April gets the worst of it on both counts. They do have tender, passionate and hopeful moments. There are a few transitions that seem to be missing, though, mainly involving April's feelings for Frank, which shift drastically – not that he doesn't give her reason, since he's pretty clueless to callous at times. Their relationship can be tempestuous, but still, looking at them together alone in a bedroom scene, to a countertop scene, to a dining room scene, to a woods scene, to a kitchen breakfast scene – the scenes are good, even remarkable on their own, but feel somewhat disjointed taken as a whole. It's as if some of the bigger events happened off-screen, we've been left out and are now trying catching up. (I suspect the novel, which is fairly long, has more.) While DiCaprio, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon and the rest of the cast are all very good, the main reason to see this is Kate Winslet. She's always solid, but this is an especially strong performance. Many of her key moments are just with a look, a shift in expression, and for some of those we can't even see all of her face or her face at all. Beyond that, we've experienced unhappy suburbanites before, from both Winslet and director Sam Mendes. The same goes for Thomas Newman, a fine composer, but his score here reminded me an awful lot of his work on The Road to Perdition. Roger Deakins' lighting is exceptional, though. (Talk about misleading ads - the late TV spots for this one tried to sell it as an unrestrained, passionate love story, and featured April breathlessly saying, "I felt that way the first time you made love to me." Meanwhile, no wonder the women in the film are unsatisfied – the men of the era have absolutely no sexual stamina!)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Woody Allen's latest is an exploration of love, sex and relationships set in lovely Spain. As the narrator tells us, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are best friends from America very alike except for their approaches to love. Vicky is practical, and engaged to Doug (Chris Messina), a businessman. Cristina fancies herself passionate and impulsive, and has a strong taste for tempestuous affairs, doomed or not. They receive an offer to spend the summer in Spain from Vicky's relative Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and her husband Mark (Kevin Dunn). At a restaurant, they run into a semi-famous painter, Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem), who's the subject of gossip since not long ago he survived being stabbed by his ex-wife, María Elena (Penélope Cruz). He proposes they fly down to Barcelona with him for the weekend, to see the sights, drink some fine wine, and perhaps make love. (He's actually quite upfront about his intentions.) Cristina is utterly charmed while Vicky is having none of it, but she goes along in part to chaperone. Juan Antonio is quite the gentleman, but when Cristina falls ill, he and Vicky spend some time together, and to her surprise sparks fly. She's all the more confused when Doug decides to come over to see her in Spain, and discovers more about Judy and her marriage. Meanwhile, Cristina goes off with Juan Antonio. María Elena re-enters the picture with Juan Antonio, and she's one passionate, crazy spitfire. She's about 10% friend, 10% muse, and 80% abusive psychopathic woman you'd best lock the door against and keep away from sharp objects. All the acting's good and the characters are fun, although I still think Cruz' role is the least dimensional and Hall and Johansson give better performances (María Elena just gets some punchier lines). Scarlett Johansson does flirtatious extremely well, but is also allowed to explore more sides of her character later on. I was quite impressed by Brit Rebecca Hall, since Vicky starts off mostly as a scold, but Hall really sells Vicky's doubts and struggles. What's most enjoyable about Vicky Cristina Barcelona is that all three main characters discover they're not exactly who they thought they were. Vicky questions her future planned life, Cristina questions how free-spirited she really is, and Juan Antonio questions his inspiration (it's interesting to see him uncertain after being Mr. Smooth earlier on). All become unsure of what they really want, how to get it, and question who they want to and should wind up with. Even some of the secondary characters go through something similar. Patricia Clarkson only has a few meaty scenes, but she's good as always and as Judy has her own doubts. And Doug alternately seems like an okay, even nice guy and then an unbearable stiff. The predictable parts of Vicky Cristina Barcelona are nonetheless pleasant, while the many small unexpected turns and touches make it all the more fun (and a bit thought-provoking), up to and including the last few scenes and the ending. This film seemed to receive very divisive reactions critically, but everyone I know who's seen it has liked it. It's probably the best film on love for adults that I saw in 2008.

In Bruges: Playwright Martin McDonagh moves from his short Six Shooter to his first feature, an odd couple, gangster film set in... Belgium. Ray (Colin Farrell) accidentally killed an innocent on a recent hit, so his profane, temperamental boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) has dependable Ken (Brendan Gleeson) take Ray overseas until things cool down, and has them hide out in Bruges. Most of the humor in the film emerges from Ray being a hyperactive city boy, who can't stand being in the quiet, vintage tourist town of Bruges: "Ken, I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn't, so it doesn't." Ken, older, more mature and interested in history, wants to take in the sights and tries to drag Ray along, but Ray's only really interested in getting pissed drunk in the bars. A little excitement comes to town because of a film shoot, which leads to Ray meeting Chloë (Clémence Poésy), a cute local drug dealer, and Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), a little person acting in the film, who Ray insists on calling a midget and who reveals himself as a raging bigot when drunk. But can Ray stay out of trouble? Is someone out to get him? Is there some other reason they've been sent to Bruges? Farrell and Gleeson are fantastic together, and this may be the best Farrell's ever been. Harry's no fun, but Fiennes seems to be having a blast playing him. In Bruges does have some tone issues. For the most part, it's an off-beat flick, funny, even goofy, with a dark edge, and highlighting McDonagh's talent for good dialogue and random rants about boring towns and Americans. But other elements are more uneven. Ray is racked by guilt over the accidental murder he committed, and this works pretty well, but parts of the film are surprisingly violent, even gratuitously so. As with some of his plays, McDonagh at times veers toward the gimmicky. It feels at times that he wants to shock or trick the audience members rather than surprise them, delight them and draw them in. That said, In Bruges is pretty damn entertaining and often inventive, and fans of quirky films with sarcastic characters (and some violence) will really enjoy this one. Here's hoping Martin McDonagh continues to develop his craft and produce more scripts.

Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir): Ari Folman's film is part autobiography, part investigation into the fluidity of memory, part real life, part dreams and nightmares, and on top of it all, presented in animation. Folman served in Israel's 1982 war with Lebanon as a young man. A friend tells him of a recurring nightmare involving dogs, caused by his own service there. This makes Folman realize he doesn't remember much from that time, including the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, even though he was in the general area when they happened. "Bashir" refers to Bashir Gemayel, the president-elect of Lebanon at the time. In most cases, Folman uses the real people portrayed for the audio, and in a few cases got actors to recreate the conversations he had with those people. Waltz with Bashir is told mostly from the Israeli point of view, and more specifically from the view of Folman, a few friends and others he meets. Still, it achieves a certain universality through its themes of learning the truth about the past, and uncovering and facing disturbing memories. The quality of the animation varies. I found that the drawings were quite good, but the quality of the motion was uneven. At times it's disappointingly minimal, jerky or crude, while at other points it's extremely fluid. The faces during the many talking heads scenes aren't very expressive. With a few notable exceptions, the film is better viewed as stills with motion. And some of the images are striking and memorable – the opening sequence with snarling dogs, a soldier swimming in the sea at night, a dream of a giant sea-woman, a gunfight in an orchard, and a recurring, disturbing dream Folman has of dead, half-naked young men emerging from the sea at night to face a flaming Beirut. Animation is regrettably often still seen as a kid's medium in America and some other countries, and Folman deserves credit for pushing that (or even exploiting it). The animation serves as a sort of buffering, distancing device to put the viewer at ease and thus delve further on an emotional level. (It made me think of Art Spiegelman's Maus in that respect, among many other works). I suspect Waltz with Bashir holds much greater power for those who lived through or remember the events it depicts, or who know more of the history going in. From what I've read, I wasn't as affected overall as other viewers, some of whom who were bowled over. But Folman deserves credit for wrestling with significant stuff and turning the camera on himself. The final sequence is truly brilliant, inspired, powerful and a bit unexpected.

(TomDispatch has excerpts of the graphic novel made of the film – here's Part 1 and Part 2.)

Gran Torino: Clint Eastwood is Walt Kowalski, a Korean war vet and unrepetant bigot who's just lost his wife, doesn't get along well with his adult children or his grandkids, and isn't too thrilled about the neighborhood's changing demographic. Prickly, he's not shy at all about speaking his mind when prodded, especially to the young, local priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley): " I think you're an overeducated 27-year-old virgin who likes to hold the hands of superstitious old ladies and promise them everlasting life." Because it's Eastwood, because of the comedy shock value of him saying clearly inappropriate things, because he's often harshly honest in between the bigotry, and because he does change a bit, it works (although for some viewers, I've heard it's too much). A Hmong family moves in next door, and young, shy Thao (Bee Vang) is being pressured by his cousin to join their gang. As Thao's sister Sue (Ahney Her) tells Walt, all the Hmong girls go to college and the boys go to jail. Thao's initiation is to steal Walt's prized, mint-condition Gran Torino. Needless to say, it doesn't go well. When Walt stands up to the Hmong gang, he becomes an unlikely hero in the neighborhood, and is soon showered with gifts of flowers and food. His racism eases a bit when tempted by the Hmong women's great cooking, and they enjoy a man who appreciates it. Walt also saves Sue from a potentially ugly situation, and she gradually draws him out of his shell. His cultural insensitivities mainly amuse her, and she insists that he is a good man. Walt also becomes an unlikely mentor for Thao. Walt's mentoring is often verbally abusive, but also brutally honest (his advice to the shy Thao about a girl is scathing, hilarious, on-target but also just wrong). However inadvertently, mainly due to his annoyance at Thao, Walt falls into a tough love relationship with him but then shifts to be more genuinely supportive (if still tough). Walt undergoes a gradual, plausible transformation, mainly through dealing with human beings again, and seeing his neighbors as such. But the Hmong gang is still around, Walt's shown them up, they want revenge and are more than willing to hurt others to get to him. Walt, who's facing health problems and is still awkward with his own family, is determined to fix the situation – and Father Janovich is scared of what that may mean. As Eastwood has in several of his films now (Unforgiven, Mystic River), Gran Torino works on its own merits but also serves as a commentary on the many action and revenge films he's made in the past. That dynamic gives the film's ending an added power and poignancy. Gran Torino exults in the tough guy shtick to a certain degree, but also punctures it, showing the consequences of violence. Some of Walt's more memorable, haunting lines are about the horrors of war and killing. There are some significant flaws to the film, though. Eastwood's squints and growls veer toward caricature at times, and some of young slang dialogue sounds pretty fake and outdated. But the biggest problem is the non-actors (or weak actors) in key roles. Christopher Carley as Father Janovich sometimes seems okay, since the character is clearly outmatched by Walt, but at times the performance just feels weak. Ahney Her as Sue is good when she's bantering with Walt, but she's awful when she's trying to trash talk a couple of gangs. And while Bee Vang's reticence works well for Thao sometimes, he's just not strong. There's a climatic scene between Thao and Walt through a door where Thao's supposed to be upset that's painfully unconvincing, and it really pulls the viewer out and hurts the build to the finale. For all that, if you're an Eastwood fan and won't be completely turned off by the language, this is worth a look.

(The white homeboy-wannabe is Eastwood's son, Scott. Here's Clint Eastwood on Fresh Air, discussing both Changeling and Gran Torino.)

Tropic Thunder:
"A white guy gets an Oscar nomination for playing a black guy? What are we, Hollywood's new retarded?"

- Larry Wilmore about Downey, on The Daily Show.

Tropic Thunder is often crass and dark, but very funny, and you'll know within the first few minutes from its onslaught of fake movie trailers and ads whether its humor is for you. What makes it work is that it makes fun of just about everybody – Ben Stiller is the action star with pretensions of being a great actor, Robert Downey, Jr. is a "serious" actor who takes his "method" to ridiculous extremes, Jack Black makes really stupid comedies and has a raging drug habit, Brandon T. Jackson is a wannabe gansta, Jay Baruchel is an unassuming sidekick who's smarter than everyone else, Steve Coogan is a director with delusions of grandeur, Matthew McConaughey is a (mostly) amoral Hollywood agent, Tom Cruise is the funniest he's ever been as a profane, dictatorial and completely amoral studio exec with a taste for club dancing, and Nick Nolte is seriously crazy and calls into question the whole faux-authenticity, "based on a true story" thing. The two most dicey gags work because they're mocked in the film itself. Downey's character Kirk Lazarus is playing a black man in black face, but Jackson as Alpa Chino is constantly ragging on him for actually thinking he's black. Ben Stiller's Tugg Speedman previously tried to make his mark as a serious actor in Simple Ben as a mentally challenged young man, but it failed to earn praise. There's actually a bit too much of Simple Ben for my tastes, but Downey/Kirk has a celebrated monologue where he explains to Tugg that his mistake was in going "full retard." It's hilarious because it's completely true. It's mocking Hollywood, not mentally challenged people (but I know some viewers felt hurt or offended, I'm sympathetic to that, and they're entitled to their reaction). Downey apparently stays true to his word (as Kirk Lazarus) and in the Spinal Tap tradition stays in character for the Tropic Thunder DVD commentary. Some of the web promo ads for the film were very funny, and writer-director-star Ben Stiller deserves credit for casting himself as the ass and actually delivering a comedy that makes people laugh. Like I said, this is not for all tastes – know yours and seek it out or avoid it, accordingly.

(Here's Ben Stiller on The Treatment.)

Hamlet 2:
"It was stupid!"

"It was stupid, but it was also theater."

2008 was a banner year for Steve Coogan. Here, he plays Dana Marschz, an inept high school drama teacher in Tucson, Arizona, who seeks to save his imperiled program by staging a triumphant production. Rather than staging scenes from recent movies as he usually does, he's convinced by the school newspaper's diminutive, acid-penned but insightful critic to put on an original production. Dana decides to write and direct – Hamlet 2. "Doesn't everybody die at the end of the first one?" asks wife Brie (Catherine Keener). "I have a device," he replies. And boy, does he ever. Dana is not a good actor, and he's a pretty bad teacher, too, but for all that, he's tremendously dedicated, and the kids in his class who mock him respond gradually to that over time. Elisabeth Shue plays herself in a funny part (she's a good sport, and it's a great career move). The irrepressible Amy Poehler enters late as a profane firecracker of a civil rights attorney, Cricket Feldstein, who has some pronounced personal issues but is determined that the show must go on. And the big show itself winds up being surprisingly effective – stupid, but also theater. Hamlet 2 would make a great double-bill with Waiting for Guffman, and "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus" and another song that shall remain nameless (it'd spoil the gag) also leave their, um, mark.

(Here's director Andrew Fleming and producer Pam Brady (they co-wrote the movie together) on Fresh Air.)

Trouble the Water: This Oscar-nominated documentary centers on Hurricane Katrina. From my earlier post on it:

Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott, residents of New Orleans' lower 9th Ward, were there when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Kimberly got a video camera shortly before, and she documented what happened to them... it's powerful stuff.

The film intercuts Kim Roberts' footage with news footage from the time, and the filmmakers film the Roberts throughout their long trek, checking in with them periodically up to roughly the present. The government indifference and incompetence on display is infuriating. The 9/11 calls, and other moments, are heart-breaking. But there are also some pretty inspiring moments, too — from the Roberts, from the people they huddle in an attic with as the water rises in their homes, from a heroic neighbor. The survivors have been treated very poorly, but they're very appreciative toward the National Guard when they finally show up, and they buoy each other through camaraderie, faith, humor, and in at least one case, music. There are too many striking moments to name them all, and I wouldn't want to spoil them, but two involve the camera just staying on Kimberly – recovering a photo from their devastated home, and performing a rap she's recorded.

Do seek this one out. Normally, all the documentary nominees are great, but it's hard to see them in the theaters. Thank goodness for rental services...

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) curiously ages in reverse, learning something about the mysteries of life and love in the process. Although I think Benjamin Button received far more acclaim than it deserved, I did think it was good. There's a sincerity to the love story and a lyricism to the filmmaking that gave its ending poignancy. Its technical wizardry is impressive, and director David Fincher remains a meticulous director. That said, it's a long film that feels that way, and while I'm glad I saw it, it's not one I'd rush out to see again. There are also some inherent challenges to the story, and some snags in the storytelling. Its premise is fantastical – someone aging in reverse. I think that's sold pretty well, but much of our interest in the film derives from simply seeing how exactly that's going to play out. How is such a person born? How will he die? The film shows an interesting passage through history, but the structure is very episodic, and Benjamin pretty much just goes with the flow, making him a rather bland character. Cate Blanchett's very good as Daisy, the great love of Benjamin's life, and Taraji P. Henson's the strongest of a solid supporting cast as Queenie, Benjamin's accepting and loving adoptive mother.

(Definitely watch "The Curious Case of Forrest Gump" if you haven't seen it yet. Here's David Fincher on The Treatment. Here's composer Alexandre Desplat on Morning Becomes Eclectic. D.C.'s own Taraji P. Henson gave a short interview to The Washington Post.)

Frost/Nixon: Adapted by Peter Morgan from his own stage play and one of director Ron Howard's better efforts, Frost/Nixon is a dramatization of David Frost's series of interviews in 1977 with the infamous president, post-resignation. I was a bit wary of this film going in, because it can be hard to buy an actor playing such a well-known figure, and why not just watch the actual interviews? Wouldn't a documentary be a better route for this material? And how will all of this of this play with a younger audience less familiar with Watergate? But it works quite well. Nixon, played with towering physicality, insinuating menace and deceptive charm by Frank Langella, consults with his handlers, chief among them Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) and Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones). They view entertainment interviewer and tabloid playboy David Frost as a lightweight, and the perfect vehicle for Nixon to rehabilitate his image and revise his historical legacy. The big paycheck also helps. Frost (Michael Sheen) knows television spectacle, but he is something of a lightweight – and is pushed to delve, push and research by his team, most of all Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston (Sam Rockwell). But Nixon is nothing if not wily – and it's only with a drunken late-night call before the final, crucial interview segment on Watergate that Frost gets a more unvarnished glimpse at what really makes Nixon tick, and his own similarities (and differences) from the disgraced ex-president. What the film does better than the successful play (so I've read) is its extensive use of the close-up. We see Nixon sweating, and we see his "you can't handle the truth" moments where he reveals his true feelings in all their ugly glory. Both Langella and Sheen are very good, as is the entire cast. Platt and Rockwell are always a joy to watch, and they riff off each other here wonderfully. Rebecca Hall, playing Frost's latest girlfriend, doesn't have that much to do but does it well nonetheless (Hall said she enjoyed playing a sexy part for a change). And Bacon and Langella actually generate some sympathy for Nixon.

I'm interested to learn more about how accurate the film is (the DVD will likely supply some good material, and the links I've included below help). I do agree that it would be a mistake to think that Nixon really did receive "the trial he never had" and that he was effectively brought to justice, or that the evil that he did was interred with his bones. (There's a whole cohort of movement conservatives who viewed Nixon's great crime as getting caught, and they went on to perpetrate Iran-Contra and to serve in the Bush administration. Also, the film presents one lie unchallenged - Gerald Ford deceiving Congress, telling them "There was no deal" but not mentioning that Nixon's Chief of Staff Al Haig offered Ford a deal. More on that below.) Still, Frost/Nixon deserves credit for tackling some weighty and timely issues, such as accountability for those in power, the responsibilities of journalists and the general public, and the potential power of the unblinking camera.

(Here's Ron Howard on The Treatment. James Reston, Jr. gives good background on the real events on Fresh Air. Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland, explains how Nixon's relationship with TV changed over time, and is one of several Nixon experts weighing in on the film at The Guardian. More on Ford and the Nixon deal here.)