Movie reviews

Reviews by Tony Sheppard

Directed by Ron Howard

The movie "Frost/Nixon" is based on the play of the same name, both written by Peter Morgan, and in turn based on the circumstances that surrounded a series of 1977 television interviews between Richard Nixon and TV host David Frost. While it's possible to watch the interviews themselves, the difference is like watching a sports movie versus watching just the final game, as this is as much about the competitive spirit involved as it is about the revelations it produced.

At the time of the interviews, Nixon was a disgraced ex-President living in virtual exile from Washington in his San Clemente, California home. David Frost was a successful TV host of several talk and variety shows, including "That Was The Week That Was" (which in 1962-3 had pre-dated shows like "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show" by years/decades) and "The Frost Report," the co-founder of a regional network in the UK, and a producer. At that time, Frost was as well known in the US for his jet-setting and playboy lifestyle as for his television industry acumen, and was an unlikely candidate for a series of hard-hitting interviews. For the Nixon camp, sitting down with somebody perceived to be a political lightweight was seen as an opportunity to create a positive impression and achieve public redemption.

Frost secured the interview by offering to pay Nixon (in a $600k deal brokered by super-agent Swifty Lazar) and, in the process, alienated the major US network news divisions. As a result, Frost was left to raise the financing himself and took the risky route of selling the interviews directly into syndication, a move that could have been financially devastating. The interviews were ultimately very successful, after Nixon admitted wrongdoing, but the film focuses on the extended battle of collective wits leading up to that point, not just between the dueling leads but also as it involved teams of researchers and advisors on both sides.

For the movie, Frank Langella and Martin Sheen (Nixon and frost respectively) reprised their roles from the original stage production. Both are excellent and, as with most of the performances in "The Queen" (in which Sheen played Tony Blair) the performances rely more on the channeling of personality than on overt physical resemblances. It is also worth noting that Langella won the Tony Award for playing Nixon on stage and, a year after multiple critics awards/nominations for his screen role in "Starting Out In The Evening," he's likely to be in contention again this year (perhaps alongside Sean Penn who played another tragic 1970's political figure in the similarly excellent "Milk").

"Frost/Nixon" has a strong supporting cast with Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, and Matthew Macfadyen on Frost's research team, Kevin Bacon advising Nixon, and Toby Jones as Lazar. Director Howard also takes a neat approach in having some of these characters appear on camera in scenes that resemble a "the making of" style documentary, adding beneficial depth without lengthy additional. Also, being a Ron Howard film, Frost/Nixon includes the obligatory small role for Howard's brother Clint.

In our world of constant updates, 24-hour programming, and information overload, films like "Frost/Nixon" and "Milk" are fascinating to watch. Not only are they excellent in their own right but, for political and media junkies, they are an interesting reminder of what politics and television journalism were like 30 years ago, long before the immediacy of the internet and cable news. (Opens December 12th)

Slumdog Millionaire
Directed by Danny Boyle

In a neat premise, "Slumdog Millionaire" tells the story of a young quiz show contestant on India's version of "Who Wants To be A Millionaire." In what remains a highly divided and class/caste-defined society, the idea that a young man from the streets could excel in a test of knowledge is greeted with much skepticism and he finds himself being brutally interrogated by police, suspected of cheating to manipulate the outcome. In order to prove his innocence, he tells the story of his upbringing, a story of almost constant hardship that also happens to yield the specific nuggets of information that the quiz demands.

At the narrative level, "Slumdog Millionaire" works as both a gruesome coming of age drama and a childhood romance. It also serves as a reminder and indictment of the harsh conditions faced by kids who grow up poor in a world in which a beggar is worth more blind. It's reminiscent in content of "Oliver Twist," "Born Into Brothels," "Pixote," and the retrospective autobiographical style of "Forrest Gump" (a film that also comes to mind when watching the upcoming "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button"). However it's not an easy film to watch for those who are uncomfortable with scenes and themes of violence and the exploitation of children.

If it fails at all, it may be in the fairy tale nature of the sequence of events and in the fact that by providing past events that explain the lead character's correct answers, it never contradicts the underlying assertion that a street kid could never be successful. But these are subjective criticisms that consider a story other than that which is being told and neither can reduce the sheer visual beauty of the film or the engaging performances. Stay for the credits! (Opens December 12th in Sacramento, December 19th in Davis).

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