Comments on watching and making films.

Monday, January 26, 2009


I had reservations about going to see Frost/Nixon. I wondered whether or not the film would hold my interest, seeing as how it has to do with a subject that always felt, to me, like it would be more important to those that lived through it, than to those of us that were not even born when these events were happening. It has been getting raves, though, and I thought I'd give it a shot. I went to a VERY early show, expecting few if any people to be there, but was, instead, greeted by a throng of movie goers, all of whom were probably twenty to thirty years older than I was, and would have at least been kids when these events happened, if not young adults.

Frost/Nixon is the very simple story of David Frost, a British TV personality, and his quest to get an interview with the newly out of office President Nixon, who was forced to resign to avoid impeachment because of the Watergate scandal. It follows Michael Sheen (who played Tony Blair in The Queen), as David Frost, and Frank Langella as Nixon (reprising his role from the stage play that this film was based on). The two square off, with Nixon seeing Frost as an adversary, an opponent to be fought and to conquer, and Frost seeing Nixon as his ticket to a journalistic gold mine (even if it costs him everything).

Ron Howard directs the film that, as I said earlier, was based on a stage play of the same name. The film is masterfully put together, feeling like the 1970's every bit of the way. Langella is perfect as Nixon and Michael Sheen shines as the excited, but crumbling Frost, whose world is coming together and falling apart at the same time. Fantastic supporting roles by Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon, and Sam Rockwell, make Frost/Nixon into a film that seems like it is the final word on the events that happened during that bleak time in American history when this country's people were no longer sure if they could trust the presidency, and that is really where Frost/Nixon's genius lies - It's a film about an event that took place some thirty odd years ago, yet the parallels between Nixon's administration and George W. Bush's administration are worn, tastefully, on the sleeve of this film. The boiling point is, of course, when Nixon is challenged by Frost in the last part of his interview about the President doing things that are illegal, and Nixon retorts to Frost "What I'm saying is, if the President does it, that means it is not illegal". Wow... Howard hit the nail of our last president right on the head.

The Spirit

How bad can a movie that is based on a classic comic book series, AND has Scarlett Johansson (the most beautiful woman in the world, as declared by the writer of this blog) in it be? Pretty bad. Frank Miller's big screen adaptation of Will Eisner's The Spirit is a wreck. With a boring plot, a villian so over the top and ridiculous that he's just annoying, and jokes that fall flat EVERY time, The Spirit is a film that should have never seen the light of day. Miller seems to use every filmmaking tidbit he may have learned from Robert Rodriguez during the making of Sin City, but he seems to have forgotten one thing - a great movie is all about a great story.

I don't know enough about The Spirit to be able to say whether or not the story was lifted frame by frame from one of the comics (like Sin City was), but I will say that, if it was, it shouldn't have been. You have to figure one thing - A comic, created in the 1940's, that hasn't been popular in fifty some odd years, might need some sort of update to it to make it meaningful to todays audience. The whole thing was idiotic and I just didn't care about it the whole time I was watching it. In fact, the only two interesting things in the film was Scarlett and Eva Mendes (Sorry ladies, but you don't get much eye candy, unless your a fan of both Gabriel Macht AND Samuel L. Jackson).

Honestly, I would say don't waste your time with this one. Of course, by the time of this writing, I don't think its even in theaters anymore, but don't buy it or even rent it on DVD. If its on TV, then watch it, but don't waste your hard earned cash in any other way on The Spirit.


Doubt is one of those power house films. You know the kind - it usually a period piece (meaning it takes place in a different time than now), it involves subject matter that is equally relevant to today as it was to the time it takes place in, and stars a lot of award winning actors. Boasting four Oscar nominated actors in lead roles (Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams). In fact, Doubt is the kind of movie that screams - Come and watch me! Even if the plot isn't that great, you know you'll at least get great performances!

The film centers around Sister James (Adams) and Sister Aloysius (Streep). Sister James is a teacher at a local NYC Catholic school, where Sister Aloysius presides as the stern, take no prisoners principal. She's the kind of woman all of the students are afraid of, while Adams' Sister James is much more light hearted and loving person. They both work with Father Flynn (Hoffman), who oversees the local parish, and teaches gym class at the school. When a young boy named Donald Miller (played by Joseph Foster) is called into a private meeting with Father Flynn, Sister James expects that some wrong may have been visited on Donald by Father Flynn (they never say it, but the insinuation is molestation). Sister Aloysius, having heard Sister James's concerns, makes it her mission, with absolutely no evidence, to nail Father Flynn to the wall for what he may, or may not, have done.

Doubt is a good film. Adapted from his stage play, writer/director John Patrick Shanley brings several amazing actors together to express the realities of living life in doubt of those around you and doubt in their capacity to do only good. Adams' performance as the eternally optimistic Sister James, whose very faith is shaken to the core by this whole incident, is noteworthy, as well as Viola Davis's performance as a mother trying to protect her son long enough for him to be able find his bearings before he is thrust out into the harsh reality of a world that will hate him on multiple levels for what he is (this is the 1960's, you must remember, when many prejudices were still the norm). Philip Seymour Hoffman creates a masterful performance as Father Flynn, never revealing the truth and leaving everyone, in the end, to wonder what, if anything, happened. Streep, as Sister Aloysius, is terrifying. Shanley has done an amazing job at translating his play to the big screen, though their are moments when you really do see how pieces of the story meant for the stage did not exactly translate as well onto the big screen. I enjoyed watching this film, and that's why I said it good, but not great. Honestly, I'm note sure I would be overly excited about watching it again, but it was good to see for the first time.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood has been the resident Hollywood bad ass for most of his working career. Is it any surprise that his (supposedly) last acting role would be as an aging bad ass who must reconcile the mistakes he has made in his life trying to live up to that image?

Gran Torino follows Eastwood as Walt Kowolski, a recently widowed curmudgeon who lives in an old neighborhood in or around Detroit, that is decaying, and has been over run by immigrants (whom Walt does not look highly upon). After a young Asian boy who lives next door, Thao, tries to steal Walt's cherry '72 Ford Gran Torino to gain entrance into a gang, Walt takes Thao and his sister, Sue, under his wing and tries to teach them about the American work ethic and way of life, while they teach him the beauty and importance of their Asian culture. When Thao is hassled by the gang that he failed to win initiation into, Walt takes it upon himself to protect the family. But, can one elderly man really protect anyone from a gang of machine gun toting thugs?

Gran Torino is laced, from start to finish, with racial epithet's and anyone who is sensitive to this will probably want to sit this film out. That being said, Gran Torino is truly amazing. As Eastwood's last acting stand (and, possibly, his last film period), it stands as a testament to a man who has, from the beginning, made an effort to always be creating, always be learning, always be strengthening. It is a truly American story, about those who were born American, and those sworn into being American, learning from each other and trying to make a better society. It is also a story of a man letting go of his past, of all the Asian faces whose lives he put in end to in Korea, of putting an end to the hatred he was programmed with in order to allow him to do so. It is probably the closest thing to a masterpiece of filmmaking dealing with the here and now that Eastwood has ever made.

Four Christmases

Vince Vaughn pretty much plays the same kind of guy in every comedy he's in, but, I don't care. He's hilarious, and he definitely doesn't disappoint in Four Christmases. Seth Gordon's comedy about a couple seeking to avoid the pitfalls of marriage, and dealing with their "crazy" family's, is one romcom that I could not stop laughing and enjoying from start to finish.

Reese Witherspoon plays Kate, and Vince Vaughn plays Brad. The two are inseperably in love, but believe that getting married will bring on all kinds of bad mojo into their relationship. They have a tradition of skipping out on their families each year (both come from divorced homes), and telling their relatives they are going on some kind of humanitarian mission, while secretly going to some sort of island paradise. When the fog in their home town of San Francisco keeps them grounded, and their family's see them on the news, they're cover is blown, and they get sucked into attending a Christmas with each mom and dad. As the day goes on, they face some of the most hilarious family situations they can, and end up questioning their relationship.

Four Christmases is a hilarious look at family, tradition, and the sacrifices that we make for each other. It's a movie that say's, in a subtle and funny way, that we all end up look like idiots sometimes, do embarrassing things sometimes, do mean things sometimes, but it is our love for each other that brings us through. Vaughn delivers non-stop hilarity, as always, and, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I really liked Reese Witherspoon. She's usually in throw away movies that I could care less about, but she held her own here, and I am looking forward to see her in higher caliber stuff.


Baz Luhrmann is not a director who is known for subtlety. Previous films like Romeo and Juliet, and Moulin Rouge, have established Luhrmann is a true believer in the spectacle style film, and his newest, Australia, is the next logical step. The Aussie director's love affair with his native land seems like a great reason to make a beautiful, sprawling epic centered around a piece of its rich and colorful history.

The film focuses on Lady Sarah Ashley, a member of the English upper class, soon to be destitute if she can't convince her husband to sell his "project" property in Australia. She flies to the great down under to demand that he sell his cattle ranch to the local cattle monopoly run by King Carney. She arrives to an "uncivilized" group of ranch hands, brawling over the right for an aboriginal to enter a local bar. One of the fighters is a man named Drover, played by Hugh Jackman. He is her escort to the northern outback where her husbands property lies. When they get out there, they find her husband dead. She soon discovers that, through his henchman Neil Fletcher, King Carney has been stealing cattle and working to force Lord Ashley into selling him the ranch. Lady Ashley enlists Drover and a rag tag group of aboriginal's and ranch hands to help her drive the remaining cattle to the waterfront to sell to the English Navy, so that she can earn a contract that will save the ranch. But when all of this is done, there's also another whole story about World War 2, and the Japanese attack on the waterfront, and on and on and on...

And that was really my problem with this film. At two and a half hours, you feel its length, especially when it could have been a simple story about a woman trying to save a ranch. Luhrmann, though, in love with John Ford western's and the epic drama's of post war Hollywood, no doubt thought it necessary to deliver us SEVERAL stories in one. I enjoyed some of the first hour and a half or so of this film, but then it just kept going and going and going. 

On the note of post war Hollywood epic's, one is left wondering something - Is Australia's style a necessity in this age? To me, there is a reason why movie's are not made in this style anymore. You rarely see a film where everyone is lit perfectly, deliver's their lines very clearly, where the sweeping vista's don't seem like a natural part of the film, but, instead, scream out - LOOK AT ME! We see how people have adopted various styles, especially the 70's grit and grime, but I think there is a real reason why you don't see more of these epic's - People aren't that interested. They seem kind of trite and cliched, and like furniture that has its plastic wrap still on it. Do I respect Luhrmann for making a film like this? Yes. He had a vision and brought it to life in grand form. Did I like it, though? No. It was long, and boring in some parts, and some parts were an incredible waste of time. that being said, I'm always interested in seeing what Luhrmann has up his sleeve next. I think that he is a truly unique visionary, even if his visions sometimes fail.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Clayton Cubitt's "By Your Side"

Another Vimeo discovery. Cubitt only has a few video's up, but I am really looking forward to him posting more -

By Your Side from Clayton Cubitt on Vimeo.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

575 - "You gotta give 'em hope..."

I came across this video on Blake Whitman's blog (he works for Vimeo, the BEST video site on the net). It is a quiet and meditative look at the recreation of Harvey Milk's camera shop at 575 Castro St. in San Francisco, for Gus Van Sant's biopic Milk (which was reviewed here). This film is amazing, and amazingly simple. Primarily made up of static shots, with light being the only motion, and with the audio of Milk's final, taped message before his assassination by Dan White, 575 Castro St. is, at once, intimate and heartbreakingly beautiful. 

575 Castro St. from FilmInFocus on Vimeo.