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Movie: Frost/Nixon

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During this last election, pundits likened the candidates to Lincoln, Kennedy, Nixon, Truman and so on. Whatsername even got a fifteen-minute shot till she became a post-election celeb known more for her daughter’s sex life than anything else. McCain lost Obama lost, history was made, and the world became hopeful. Barak Obama’s election was the best thing to happen to George W. Bush. I came to this conclusion in the midst of Ron Howard’s terrific film Frost/Nixon, which depicts the 1977 interview British presenter David Frost (Michael Sheen) did with Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) after the president quit the White House following his involvement in Watergate.

Frost was not a journalist, but he was backed by intrepid researchers—-journalist James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), producer John Birt (Matthew MacFadyen), and journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt)-—who desperately wanted Nixon to confess on air and had limited time and resources to make it happen. Seemingly born for the tube, the TV talk-show host was up against a man who decidedly was not. Nixon, however, was an old-school manipulator who simply needed the right management for television. And for the first three interview segments, he presided beautifully.
The film ably tells the story of the Frost-Nixon interview, depicting it as a verbal fencing match, which is a little clichéd but accurate. It also shows how a president of the United States got away with a criminal act and had to live with the shame for the rest of his life (Nixon died of a stroke in 1994). A moral ending.

Ah, but for the helicopter.

There was nice little scene of Nixon flying from the White House in a military chopper. Much like the one Bush flew away in January 20, 2009, after Obama’s inauguration; when we all sat glued to the TV to watch (on stations worldwide) the first black man sworn in; when we all breathed a collective sigh of relief.
As did Bush and Cheney and Rove.

See, Nixon was impeached and the office of the president was subsequently filled by Vice-President Ford, who served a less memorable term. George W. Bush and his string pullers served two official terms, picked up (“urgently” in Cheney’s case), and were whisked away.

The nation and its media turned its weary eyes and lenses to a new president who offered change and hope. We focused on the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the greedheads on Wall Street.

And turned our attention away from the scoundrels who were responsible for it all.
Are there dogged researchers and journalists who will set their sights on the crimes of the Bush administration how that it cannot be impeached? A president and vice-president who inflicted an illegal war on at least two countries and thereby devastated both of its economies? Will there be a Frost/Nixon anytime time soon? The optimist in me thinks yes. The realistic in me knows no. And the sceptic in me thinks no one will care.


Movie Version of The Kite Runner Delayed

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Maybe it’s my cold, maybe it’s my experience from working in the film business, but something about this story stinks.

From the New York Times:

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 3 — The studio distributing “The Kite Runner,” a tale of childhood betrayal, sexual predation and ethnic tension in Afghanistan, is delaying the film’s release to get its three schoolboy stars out of Kabul — perhaps permanently — in response to fears that they could be attacked for their enactment of a culturally inflammatory rape scene.

… The boys and their relatives are now accusing the filmmakers of mistreatment, and warnings have been relayed to the studio from Afghan and American officials and aid workers that the movie could aggravate simmering enmities between the politically dominant Pashtun and the long-oppressed Hazara.

In an effort to prevent not only a public-relations disaster but also possible violence, studio lawyers and marketing bosses have employed a stranger-than-fiction team of consultants. In August they sent a retired Central Intelligence Agency counterterrorism operative in the region to Kabul to assess the dangers facing the child actors. And on Sunday a Washington-based political adviser flew to the United Arab Emirates to arrange a safe haven for the boys and their relatives.

…In interviews, more than a dozen people involved in the studio’s response described grappling with vexing questions: testing the limits of corporate responsibility, wondering who was exploiting whom and pondering the price of on-screen authenticity.

…The producers dispelled one fear, that the filmmakers would use computer tricks to depict the boy’s genitals in the rape scene. But Ahmad Khan’s parents also pressed for more cash, the producers said.

On the advice of a Kabul television company, the boys had been paid $1,000 to $1,500 a week, far less than the Screen Actors Guild weekly scale of $2,557, but far more than what Afghan actors typically receive.

So what exactly did Hollywood film execs think was going to happen? That filming “authentic” rape scenes of two boys in an Muslim country (in any country)didn’t bear consequences? How far in the sand did they bury their heads? This isn’t just an American attitude, but also an artistic one; that to produce “good art” one must make it “real”. Well, the translation of director Marc Forster’s vision was lost, if it was ever properly conveyed at all.

Great spin, though, boys. The book will continue to sell and its readers are frothing to see the flick.


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I’m adding Irish indie film Once to my to-see list. Why? Well, it looks good, and stars Glen Hansard, he of the film The Commitments and the band The Frames.

Wacky Copyrights

The beloved RIAA just loves to dig itself deeper.

In his article for Stereophile, Wes Phillips writes:

In the heated debate over new digital technologies and their impact upon the traditional recording distribution system, we’ve grown used to intemperate dialog, but an organization now charges that “mechanical royalties currently are out of whack with historical and international rates.”

Here’s the twist: The group is the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America). And here’s the part that won’t surprise you: Their solution is to lower the rate they pay music publishers and songwriters for using lyrics and melodies to create sound recordings.

Just keep giving them enough rope…

Movie Review: Down in the Valley

Title: Down in the Valley
Director: David Jacobson
Writer: David Jacobson
Year: 2005 (film), 2006 (DVD)

Every generation of American filmmakers has its idea based on lore about how the West was won. Indeed, the mavericks of western legends range from sheriffs to outlaws, from homesteaders to cowboys. And when the boundaries pushed closer to the Pacific, we can include Oakies and prospectors. With pushers come those who are pushed over: Indians and Mexicans. Down in the Valley takes these characters and flips the genre on its head. The American West was lost. And no one cares.

Ok, one person cares: Harlan Fairfax Carruthers. He misses the old ways. He misses the frontier. And like the cowboy he reinvents for himself, he is alone. Even when he meets the station wagon (covered wagon) full of teens, in particular Tobe. No one understands. And, in keeping with the Western, when the cowboy literally crosses the fence of Tobe’s homestead, there’s hell to pay. Her father, Wade, is the country sheriff. Down in the Valley is rife with these lovely unwitting archetypes.

Writer/director David Jacobson, while not wanting to make a sociological study of his film (see the special features), paints both broad and subtle strokes concerning modernity. The wide vistas sliced by power lines are obvious. But there is a wonderful exchange between Wade and his son Lonnie about gumption:

Lonnie: The meek shall inherit the earth.
Wade: (Laughs) Where did you here
that crap?
Lonnie: Television

All the performances are stellar. Evan Rachel Wood, Rory Caulkin, and David Morse play off each other naturally as a family headed by a single father trying to keep his teenagers out of trouble. Harlan encompasses Edward Norton and moves in his skin with the grace of wind-driven tumbleweed.

The DVD’s special features include a Q&A with Norton and Jacobson with Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers that give some insight into the writing of the script. The deleted scenes answer niggling questions about some minor plot points, but also raise the question of why were some cut in the first place.

Overall, Down in the Valley adds a fine nuance to a beleaguered genre and reminds us that “money is the root of all confusion.”

Take note of the gorgeous soundtrack featuring Peter Salett, which provides the wonderful backdrop.

Movie Review: Erasurehead

Title: Erasurehead
Director: David Lynch
Writer: David Lynch
Year: 1977 (film), 2002 (DVD)

So Sunday I was able to scratch Erasurehead off my list of movies to see. Despite my appreciation of David Lynch’s films, I’ve been reluctant to view this one; its reputation for weirdness intimidated me. However, one thing I want to do in 2007 is whittle said list down to more of a list and less of a chapter.

The fellow at Film Buff confirmed Erasurehead’s weirdness, but assured me it was worth seeing. My money says most viewers imbibed prior to its screening. Not my style, but I did have a can of Strongbow close at hand. It took me close to two hours to finish, so my reaction is sober.

Many have described Lynch’s debut feature film as a masterpiece. I have a hard time with that; how can one’s first full-length film be one’s best? Certainly, it bespeaks of later cinematic ingenuity, but a masterpiece? I think that’s the acid talking.

Erasurehead feels like a young filmmaker with something to say. It’s definitely over-the-top and chock full of symbolism, be it conscious or no. The director readily admits that his life in Pittsburg informed his film: the industrial environment, the constant mechanical noise, the small communities that spring up amidst the machines. Other things crop up. Filmed in black and white, Erasurehead had a classic 1950s feel to it despite its being shot in the 1970s. The atomic-age Woman in the Radiator seemed somewhat Fellini-esque; indeed, the whole picture appeared to be informed by postwar Italian cinema.

Certainly postwar Italy bore little or no resemblance to postwar America, but what I got from Erasurehead is a comment on the American dream. So in this way, it’s a comment on promises unfulfilled. That the promise of a family, a job, a house, a car, and a stable life is a pipe dream: the pipes in the X’s house, the radiator in the apartment, the pipe-style headboard and footboard. Recall Bill X’s comment, “I remember when this was pastoral, before the pipes.” Admittedly, my analysis is very rudimentary and cliché. Nevertheless, I think it’s borne out.

I don’t think the basis of the film is particularly weird; indeed, I think its actually quite normal. Henry works at a boring job, lives an uneventful life, has a girlfriend, Mary X, who he doesn’t see much, and finds out she’s had his child. He meets the family and makes average conversation. It’s the space between that’s discomforting. Conversation isn’t fluffed up with non sequitors to fill the air. Who hasn’t felt strange “meeting the parents”? Mind you, we don’t all have the same eerie experience with chicken, but the meal never feels right, never tastes the same. People always look a little strange. Lynch merely stretched that sensation out—way out.

So the new parents set up house in Henry’s dire little apartment, and we get glimpse at their child, the one Mrs. X calls “premature” and Mary says, “Doesn’t even look like a baby.” Yup. Looks pretty strange and we recoil. But think about it. How strange does it really look? Don’t most parents (usually fathers) describe their newborns as appearing “alien”? They’re wrinkly and wet and red and cry and demand and get sick… Mary’s frustration and sleep deprivation are hardly weird. Lynch just skews them thus. Makes me wonder if he was, in fact, a new dad at the time. He seemed to nail it just right.

There’s lots of other things going on in Erasurehead: the man on the planet, the pencil machine, losing one’s head, etc. But if you really think about it, David Lynch has merely given form to the various neuroses from which we all suffer, and it makes us uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable is good because it makes us squirm, which makes us move. Otherwise, we are like he morbidly fat man on the couch and become one in the same.

I highly recommend sitting through the “Stories” special feature on the DVD. Lynch has a wonderful speaking style, which is echoed in his films. His new venture, Inland Empire, did the festival circuit in 2006 and appears to have had a limited release. Hopefully, wider screenings are planned for 2007.

Movie Review: Finding Neverland

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Director: Mark Forster

Writers: Allan Knee (play), David Magee

Fear, information, and control. Parents use all three tactics to raise their kids. Fear has created “play dates”, schedules, filters. The dissemination of information available all day everyday sends parents crazy with fear that they feel they ought to tell their offspring everything in “preparation” for the “real world.” This may well stem from peoples’ fear of what the neighbours might think as opposed to what their children might think; if they manage that feat at all. So we have a generation of children and teenagers raised by paranoid boomers ready to be adults, but who haven’t yet been kids.

You remember kids, right? They’re those short people under the age of twelve (when they get weird and all bets are off) who run outside, yell, scream, torture their siblings, skid their knees, dirty their clothes, ring doorbells then run away. Memories of a simpler time when child molesters and axe murders hadn’t been invented yet.


Ok, you caught me. Clever monkey. But what has that got to do with Finding Neverland? Everything. Intentionally or not, Mark Forster (Monsters Ball) has directed a film about the misery of growing up without the magic of being a kid.

The story revolves around play write Sir James Mathew Barrie (Johnny Depp), his friendship with widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four young sons. The boisterous family serves as his muse for Peter Pan and creative release from his latest theatrical flop. They also serve as contrast to Barrie’s now lifeless marriage to social climbing Mary (Radha Mitchell) and the moneyed patrons that flock to his plays. In turn, Barrie foils attempts made by the children’s grandmother (Julie Christie) at “discipline and order.”

It would be easy to demonize the wife and the grandmother who seem ready to snuff out imagination and whimsy. As the picture progresses, we find that their rigidity is simply a protective wall around what they’re afraid to lose. Unfortunately, walls block out the very nutrients that help things grow: children, imagination, love. In short, sheltering stilts.

Finding Neverland is billed as a “feel-good movie” and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, its much needed as an antidote to the saccharine pap that usually bears that moniker. Forster ably alternates between reality and fantasy without losing track of either. His images evoke the paintings of John William Waterhouse who captured a romantic vision of an Arthurian past. Some would argue that this vision never existed and perpetuates a myth. I say Bah! Magic and myth never hurt anyone.

It may be “proper,” “correct,” “adult,” and “realistic” to write off whimsy. It’s not part of the everyday. And that’s the problem. Cutting that out of your imagination makes you old, boring, and dried up. Worse yet, adult.

Now go play outside.

More movie reviews from my deep dark freelance past:

No Man’s Land

A Knights Tale

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin



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