Saturday, February 7, 2009

Way Overrated: FROST/NIXON and MILK

It's usually my policy not to talk about movies I don't like on filmicability. But I just spend 25 bucks and 5 hours on an incredibly disappointing 70s-politics-double-feature. Milk and Frost/Nixon are predictably but wrongfully vying for Best Picture at this year's woeful Oscar ceremonies. I say woeful because, if these are two of the movies Hollywood thinks are their best efforts, then the industry is even more doomed than I once thought it to be.

I like to keep bad reviews short.

My main complaint: both movies share a similarly marked leaning towards the unnecessary. Frost/Nixon achieves this because its dramatics have already been preserved. You can watch the original Frost/Nixon interviews on YouTube, and thus can catch much more of the horn-locking you get in Ron Howard's fictionalized stageshow for free--plus this already-archived stuff is a thousand times more informative in every way. Yes, Langella is brisk in the lead here--better than I expected, really (I was afraid his British accent would pop up incongruously in his impersonation of the fallen president, but Langella thankfully kept his vocals in check). I suspect that his performance of this role on Broadway--which nabbed him his third Tony in 2006--was more effective; I feel his filmed Nixon is reigned in by the confines of the screen. (I also suspect that Frost/Nixon made more sense as a stage play, because rather than seeing a recreation of a filmed product, you were seeing the thing come right alive in front of you). Langella aside--and he is good--Frost/Nixon is a wrenchingly boring movie from beginning to end.

David Frost's ultimately quasi-successful attempt to appear smarter than his talk-show-host origins might lead one to believe is just not a compelling enough reason for me to have any love for this movie; the Frost character, as portrayed by the here-annoying Michael Sheen (an actor whom I still want to see in many more things), crash lands as a complete zero. I hate the role even more because it begs to stand in as the "hero" for viewers who know less about Nixon than the Frost character seems to (of course, he "heroically" rectifies this in the end). And though the movie tries to Cinderella Man itself into a boxing metaphor (Round 2: Vietnam; Round 3: Watergate...), are we expected to cheer, even internally, Frost's supposed knock-out punch when he gets Nixon lamenting that he let his country down? Big freakin' deal. He knew that going in, and WE knew that too! Seeing Langella's Nixon seethe sadly on camera for a few seconds, his face greasy with that famous perspiration, is hardly the requisite punishment. (This piece comes from a Brit, writer Peter Morgan, who wrongfully thinks it took a fellow Sir Brit to make things clearer for us dazed, hapless Americans.) In the end, the best scenes in the movie are the ones where Frost and Nixon make mild attempts at a respectful friendship; these are unique moments. But that's hardly a hook to hang your hat on. Howard's framing of Frost/Nixon as a "documentary" (with actors acting as talking heads to a phonily grained-out camera) adds insult to injury; it assumes the audience is a collective of idiots (which, I admit, may or may not be true). Any way you cut it, Frost/Nixon is a mammothly inconsequential movie. The most laudable thing about it: Matthew Macfadyen's unshowy, reliable performance as David Frost's on-top-of-it producer.

But Milk, in some ways, is even more despicable, because it picks the tasty flesh off an already great movie and regurgitates it as self-important Oscar bait. In 1984, director Robert Epstein won a well-deserved Best Documentary Feature Oscar for The Times of Harvey Milk. Lemme tell you right now: if you've seen that FANTASTIC movie, then you've seen Milk, and more so. Gus Van Sant did deliver one of the finer directorial achievements of 2008 with Paranoid Park, an obviously more heartfelt film about a teenage skateboarder lifting a heavy psychic burden. But with Milk, he's lazily painting by the numbers. That screenwriter Dustin Lance Black is nominated for and will likely, though hopefully not, win this year's Oscar for Best Original Screenplay award is a travesty. This is an ADAPTED screenplay, because it dramatizes absolutely EVERY important point hit in The Times of Harvey Milk, but does so with less artfulness and wit.

Penn is only garnering accolades for this movie because he's smiling too hard throughout to assay his famed world-hating scowl--you know, that same wrinkly puss he won the Oscar for with his hammy show in a movie I like, Mystic River? But, hey, just because he isn't posing as the asshole he no doubt truly is is no reason to hand the guy the Oscar that rightfully belongs to the clearly more-deserved Mickey Rourke (whose committed performance in The Wrestler is beyond reproach). James Franco, as always, is a likable presence, and Alison Pill is lively in the few scenes she has as Milk's second campaign manager. But otherwise the film is without any redeeming attributes. The only thing that Milk adds to the mix--and this is what I suspect attracted Van Sant to the project (Van Sant is gay, by the way, and is partnered with Dustin Lance Black)--are the personal scenes with Milk and his lovers. But they are nothing special; they add no palpable emotion to the story. If one wants to feel the hefty weight of Milk's eventful life--and tears will come, unlike with Milk--one only needs to see Robert Epstein's movie The Times of Harvey Milk, which has the benefit of starring the real, and real entertaining, participants of this momentous human rights drama. Harvey Milk himself is SO MUCH MORE INSPIRING than Penn's Milk.

I stand in saddened awe that the Academy handed Best Picture nominations to these two inconsequential movies. I just had to say something, because no one else seems to be.


Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

Nicely done, Dean. I posted a very similar take on F/N earlier today @ Ye Olde Powerstrip:

I do like your take on Frost's depiction, and it's a good point about the forced heroism. I concentrated more on how the project misrepresents Nixon, because his legacy is more or less the rusty hinge with which the drama creaks back and forth...this has to be one of the least interesting interpretations of Tricky Dick in the canon (even the film Dick was more creative).

Totally agreed on Matthew Macfadyen, too, who turns in a competent performance...but can someone tell me what in god's name the hybrid squeeze character played by Rebecca Hall is meant to add?

must love movies said...

i had a similar review and opinion of milk. i agree with you so much. after that one i passed on frost/nixon. i watched the harvey milk doc a week after watching milk and it made me dislike milk even more.

Kotto said...

i have to concede i felt a hollowness to both of these movies, almost as if it were the artifice itself that felt (as you say) paint-by-numbers. but with that said, i do think the subject matter and quality of the 2 stories made these two films i admit to enjoying. i usually detest ron howard's over-simplistic 50-years behind the times yarns and even though i'll never consider him a great director, i do think he held his own with f/n. milk, however, felt like one van sant took for the team; a commercial, no-risk venture. nevertheless, if it takes a commercial telling of a controversial issue to get a few more people on board with what TRUE equality means, then i think it served its purpose.

regardless...nice rant dean! glad to see you lets the fangs hang out.

MovieMan0283 said...

I really enjoyed these disses. I have not yet seen Frost/Nixon, but I did enjoy Milk. That said, I haven't seen The Times of Harvey Milk (though I've heard good things), I generally find fictionalized recreations notably lacking in the effortless spark of documentary (another good example of a somewhat different ilk being I'm Not There vs. Don't Look Back), and I certainly don't think Milk was Best Picture material - or rather if it was, we're in trouble.

Everyone seems to be in agreement that Oscar really punted this year - and the bar wasn't even set that high, given Hollywood's lackluster 2008.

By the way, I still have 1/4 of my response to your actor meme stocked away somewhere and plan to finish it soon - hopefully in the next day or two.