Frost/Nixon, The Spirit, City of Ember, Transporter 3, Bolt

Cinema Reviews for 18.2.09

Directed by Ron Howard. Starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Andy Milder, Kate Jennings Grant, Gabriel Jarret, Jim Meskimen, Patty McCormack, Geoffrey Blake, Clint Howard. Written by Peter MOrgan, based on his play.

A compelling story well-told: Ron Howard´s Frost/Nixon fleshes out the famous 1977 TV interview between British talk-show host David Frost and former US president Richard Nixon, his first public interview following his resignation over the Watergate scandal. Frost/Nixon has scored 5 Academy Award nominations, which include Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay; it may not win any of these, but it´s my favorite of the five films nominated for Best Pic.

The film is told from the perspective of Frost (played by Michael Sheen), who was a highly unlikely candidate to deliver a probing interview of Nixon. He´s the host of a popular talk show in Australia in 1977, but looking for…something more. Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) has said goodbye to America with a wave and a smile, never taking responsibility for the Watergate affair, and disappeared from the public spotlight. Why does Frost care? Well, he doesn´t, really. But he sees an opportunity to make an impression, and he grabs it – risking all the money he has, and some that he doesn´t. Nixon agrees to the interview – his first since his resignation – on the assumption that it´ll be a fluff piece and he´ll be able to control the conversation. Nixon aide Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) stands in his corner, while Frost´s assistants, which include Americans James Reston (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), prepare an incisive interview that demands an apology. But during the recording, everything lies on Frost´s shoulders.

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The majority of Frost/Nixon is a verbal game of chess between the two leads. Given the amount of time we spend just watching Frost and Nixon talk (not just during the interview, but before & after as well), the film simply wouldn´t work without excellent lead performances; both actors, thankfully, are terrific. Langella has the showier role as Nixon, and is so good as we almost end up rooting for him (as long as there is a little ambiguity, the strength of a performance is directly related to the sympathy we feel for a character – see Ben Kingsley in Death of a Maiden). But Sheen is equally good as Frost, a flawed character who takes on a bigger responsibility than he´s prepared for.

Peter Morgan´s script, based on his play, is an incisive look at both of the characters; he also wrote The Queen, Stephen Frears´ not-dissimilar look at the Queen of England. Director Howard keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, and the technical credits are first-rate throughout.

I do have one real gripe with the film. In faux-documentary scenes, some of the supporting players look back on the events and underscore every point the movie has made, stripping Frost/Nixon of any hint of subtlety or ambiguity. These scenes stop the film just short of being exceptional; it´s a tired framing device that´s only a step above having the main characters look back on an important event in their lives.

Biggest compliment I can pay the film: with renewed interest in the subject, I hunted down the original David Frost/Richard Nixon interview and was richly rewarded. However, the interview is clearly not as win/lose as Howard´s film makes it out to be and I missed the ambiguity even more. Still, knowing the backstory from Frost/Nixon makes the original interview that much more compelling.



The Spirit

Directed by Frank Miller. Starring Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Paz Vega, Dan Gerrity, Louis Lombardi, Eric Balfour, Jaime King, Dan Lauria, Stana Katic. Written by Frank Miller, based on the comic book series by Will Eisner.

Gloriously, oh-so-wonderfully awful in every respect, Frank Miller´s The Spirit is a must-see for bad movie lovers everywhere. It is, consistently: ineptly filmed and edited, filled with bizarre jump cuts and continuity errors that ignore basic filmmaking guidelines like the 180-degree rule; boring, and I mean really hellish to sit through – all style and no substance is what they were going for, and they overshot that; offensive – it´s tough to get offended at stuff like this, but just wait till the scene where Samuel L. Jackson, in full Nazi garb, with swastikas and a Hitler lithograph in the background, melts a kitten, leaving two eyeballs rolling in a sink.

I could keep going, I really could. The acting and the music are beyond words. The film is such an insult to Will Eisner´s original comic series it´s unimaginable. I´d like to tell myself that Miller – an extremely talented comic book auteur, no question – has created this abomination in response to all the awful comic book adaptations over the years. Just like Van Sant made Psycho to ward off bad remakes. Let´s see how Watchmen pans out.

So. Anyway. A plot description is useless so let me run down the characters. There´s The Spirit, played by a stoned-face Gabriel Macht (with some Joker-like facial surgery), who protects his city – unnamed in the movie, but New York in the comic – because, you know, she is his mother, and she is his lover, and he is her spirit. Makes sense. Then there´s arch villain The Octopus, played by Sam Jackson, who goes predictably over-the-top; I don´t know why he´s called The Octopus (“I have eight of everything!” he screams at the end, though that doesn´t seem to make sense), but he does have quite an egg fetish (“No egg on my face! Not a glob!”). There are some femme fatales, played by Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, and Paz Vega. And regenerating lunkheads, all played by Louis Lombardi, the only actor here who seems to know what kind of film he´s in, playing it broad and dumb. The rest of the cast is awful, most notably Johansson, who has never been more wooden: we expect to see the cue cards when they cut, ’cause she sure isn’t looking at the other actors.

The plot: oh, it´s an origin story, we find out after an hour or so. I was wondering what the point of this was. The Spirit is invincible – more so than Superman, as there´s no kryptonite – and we´re treated to a number of scenes of him being pummeled, shot, thrown out of windows; of course there´s no suspense when all of this is going on, as he always gets back up. The Octopus is invincible too. The main storyline has him searching for something that will make him even more invincible. Yeah, that´s right.

The style: Sin City in the 1940´s, although you can tell it´s present day by all the Nokia product placement. It´s a mess, whatever they were going for, and an insult to Eisner, whose original comic was a influence on the film noir of the period. Music goes from Ennio Morricone harmonica stuff, to a standard comic book pulsating score, to orchestra crescendos – no consistency from scene to scene.

Now, I´d be lying if I said I didn´t enjoy the film. I enjoyed it immensely. It´s a gleefully bad, well-financed production that revels in its awfulness, and a comparison cannot be easily made. Even Ed Wood´s films didn´t have the fiery bad-movie passion on display here.

How to rate this junk, I really don´t know; it´s either a masterpiece or complete garbage, and I´m gonna play it safe and say complete garbage. I do know this: Pauline Kael´s famous quote goes “movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” Well, sometimes some of us can appreciate the awful trash too. You know who you are. Go see The Spirit.



Transporter 3

Directed by Olivier Megaton. Starring Jason Statham, Natalya Rudakova, François Berléand, Robert Knepper, Jeroen Krabbé, Alex Kobold, David Atrakchi, Yann Sundberg, Eriq Ebouaney, David Kammenos, Silvio Simac. Written by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen.


A disappointing return to the Transporter series (whose initial films didn´t exactly set the bar overly high), Olivier Megaton´s Transporter 3 jettisons the goofy, over-the-top fun of its predecessors in favor of a more serious Bourne-lite ride. Go-to action hero Jason Statham is still in fine form but the film surrounding him would better fit the talents of a Gary Daniels or Olivier Gruner.

A needlessly complicated backstory has your standard crew of baddies, led by Mr. Johnson (a hammy Robert Knepper), wanting to deliver a boatload of toxic waste to a Ukranian harbor; government official Leonid Vasilev (Jeroen Krabbé) isn´t too keen on this, so Johnson´s crew kidnaps his daughter and forces him to sign the required paperwork. They also need someone to drive said daughter (a fetching Natalya Rudakova) from Marseilles to Odessa for some reason I must´ve missed, and that´s where professional driver Frank Martin (Statham) comes in. To ensure he makes his delivery, Johnson rigs an explosive device to Martin´s wrist, which will explode if he gets 75 feet away from his car.

This is Transporter 3´s one good idea, and you better believe the filmmakers are gonna mine it for all it´s worth, whether it involves an attempt to make it to the bathroom, or Statham sticking with the car as it sinks to the bottom of a lake (using air from the tires to breathe), or the inevitable disposal of the bad guy.

Half an hour through the film, we have a brief car chase involving another Transporter while Martin is fishing with a friend, and an even briefer fight scene, told in flashback no less. I wondered when things would pick up, but I should´ve been wondering if; the rest of the film gives us one more chase and one more fight before the big finale which gives us cars and fights. We don´t come to the Transporter movies for plot or romance, but that´s what this one attempts, and fails, to deliver.

Still, it´s not a total waste. The car chases work pretty well, and often employ the mad inventiveness we come to these films for (at one point, Martin is driving at a 45-degree angle between two eighteen-wheelers.) And despite finding myself just waiting around in-between action scenes for the next one to come, I can´t say I was bored; the filmmakers don´t quite have a handle on pacing, but they seem to know the maximum time allowable between action scenes before the audience will give up on the film.

Major flaw: the hand-to-hand combat scenes are over-edited and under-shot, reaching a bizarre middle ground where we can´t really follow what´s going on, but we frequently notice the glaring continuity errors. And the first films, directed by action experts Corey Yuen (1) and Louis Leterrier (2), handled these so well. Here, director Megaton (now, he does have the action director name, I´ll give him that) goes so far as to speed up the fight scenes, to such a laughable effect that it feels like they´re overcranking the camera in a silent comedy. Remember the days of Enter the Dragon, when Bruce Lee delivered a fatal dropkick to the chest of an opponent, it was shot in super slo-motion and you could see each individual muscle contract and the flesh ripple upon impact? Now that´s how you shoot a fight scene.

Note: there’s a small amount of French dialogue throughout the film, which is subtitled only in Czech on Prague screens.



City of Ember

Directed by Gil Kenan. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Martin Landau, Toby Jones, Mary Kay Place,  Lucinda Dryzek, Simon Kunz. Written by Caroline Thompson, from the book by Jeanne Duprau.

An amiable little family-friendly sci-fi adventure, director Gil Kenan´s City of Ember is reasonably fun and fast-paced; kids should be entertained. But it´s also more than a bit dull, which is strange given the setting and Kenan´s previous feature, the irrepressibly weird (all all the better for it) animated film Monster House.

Hundreds of years in the future, a society of underground dwellers resides in the majestic titular city. But things aren´t all going according to plan: the city´s power generator seems to be faltering, and the food supply is running low. Teenager Doon (Harry Treadaway) thinks he can fix the generator, but on Assignment Day, where the youngsters are given the jobs they will carry out for the rest of their lives, he pulls ‘messenger´ out of the bag. Still, he´s able to trade up to pipeworker with friend Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan). Close enough to the generator to maybe work. Now, Lina finds a 200-year-old box that was passed down by the town mayors until it was forgotten, and seems to contain some directions for getting out of the city. Maybe there´s more to the world than Ember.

My biggest complaint here is a lack of exploration of the film´s sci-fi elements: what happened and why these people are living underground is never really explained. I assume there was some nuclear apocalypse, and the 200-year-old box opens when it´s safe to go back outside – that would explain the giant, mutated moles and insects – but then again, Ember doesn´t seem to be a fallout shelter completely separated from the outside world, with tunnels that lead directly to it. But this is first and foremost a kid´s movie, so expectations should be tempered – short attention spans are catered for.

The leads are a bit bland, which is surprising given Ronan´s dynamite, Oscar-nominated turn in Atonement. But a nice supporting cast really livens things up, especially Bill Murray as the town mayor, Frank Langella as Doon´s superior at the pipeworks, and Tim Robbins as Doon´s father. Murray is an absolute riot as the “who, me?” mayor, his screentime disappointingly short.




Directed by Byron Howard, Chris Williams. With the voices of John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman, Mark Walton, Malcolm McDowell, James Lipton, Greg Germann, Diedrich Bader, Nick Swardson, J.P. Manoux, Dan Fogelman, Kari Wahlgren. Written by Dan Fogelman, Chris Williams.


A fun, engaging animated feature with a little heart, Byron Howard and Chris Williams´ Bolt is Disney´s best non-Pixar animated film in quite some time, following a string of mediocre features that date back to, perhaps, Aladdin. The computer-generated animation looks here looks fantastic; I think we´ve finally reached a point where CGI can deliver the same kind of artistic vision as traditional hand-drawn artwork.

Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) is a canine TV star who is oblivious to the fact that there´s a reality outside the world of his weekly TV show. He plays a superhero of sorts, who has super-speed, heat vision, and the deadly ‘superbark;´ once a week, he teams up with Penny (Miley Cyrus) to save her father from the clutches of the evil green-eyed man, Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell); the plot of this TV show is shockingly similar to Inspector Gadget, right down to the girl´s name. In any event, Bolt is accidentally shipped off to New York City and has to contend with the real world while coming to grips with the fact that he doesn´t really have superpowers; joining him on his quest to return to Penny are cat Mittens (Susie Essman) and hamster-in-a-plastic-ball Rhino (Mark Walton), who provides the (usually effective) comic relief.

Bolt doesn´t reach the highs of Pixar´s Wall-E (or most Pixar films, for that matter) but it´s on a par with (maybe a shade below) DreamWorks´ Kung Fu Panda, providing plenty of fun for both adults and kids, wearing its heart on its sleeve but never forcing its message upon us. The three films have been nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, which Wall-E will almost surely take.

Voice cast blends well with the animated characters, though there´s no real standouts save for a great cameo by Inside the Actor´s Studio host James Lipton as the director of Bolt´s TV series. Travolta is ideally cast as the titular character.

One thing that bothered me: the director flips out upon seeing a boom mike in one of the shots, not because there´s a boom mike in his shot, but because Bolt may have seen the mike and had his illusion shattered. But wouldn´t he see it anyway, whether it´s in the shot or not?

Please note: unfortunately, Bolt is screening only in a Czech-dubbed version on Prague screens.


And: don’t miss this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, which takes place Sunday the 22nd at 8:00 PM US time – that’s 2:00 Monday morning in Prague. You can catch the show live at Red Hot and Blues, which will offer a special price for beer and stay open till the Best Picture Oscar is given before 6:00 in the morning.

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