‘Frost/Nixon’ is Ron Howard’s Best Film Since ‘Apollo 13’

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WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written in 2008.

Frost/Nixon” started off as a play which was incredibly well received and went on to have a very successful run on Broadway. It has now been brought to the screen by director Ron Howard, and he ends up giving us one of his best movies to date. Like “Apollo 13,” he takes the outcome of an event which we all know about and he turns it into riveting cinema. Also, unlike John Patrick Shanley who cast different actors in his movie version of “Doubt,” Howard retains the two actors from the original stage production, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella. This is one of the very best movies to come out in 2008, and it makes sense it is coming out at the end of the year instead of the middle of it.

“Frost/Nixon” starts at the point where Nixon has resigned as the President of the United States. David Frost, just coming off of one of his talk shows, sees the image of Nixon waving goodbye before entering the helicopter which took him away from political life forever. When it is gauged as to how many witnessed Nixon’s resignation on television, Frost sees a golden opportunity in attempting to get an interview with Nixon, something which must have seemed incredibly unlikely at the time. Along with his producer John Brit (Matthew Macfadyen), he travels to America to set up the interview with a major network, but they all turn him down. As a result, he decides to fund the whole thing himself at great personal risk, and he and John hire Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell) to prep him for interview and research all the available facts on Nixon.

I liked how “Frost/Nixon” really got into the specifics of how the interviewed was prepped and researched. You might think prepping any interview wouldn’t necessarily be that hard, let alone the interview of a former President of the United States, but it is never as easy as it looks. They prep for months in advance, but Frost’s producer, as well as Bob and James, do most of the grunt work while Frost goes to parties promoting a movie he has worked on. When they finally get around to filming the interview, Frost suddenly realizes the gravity of the situation he has put himself in as the interview may very well destroy his credibility forever.

The movie becomes completely riveting when it focuses on the exchanges between Frost and Nixon in the interview and outside of it as well. Nixon proves to be a smooth operator who takes advantage of Frost as the interviewer appears to be laid back and almost completely oblivious to the seriousness of this interview. We see people from both camps focusing on the interview from other rooms, trying to control what comes out of their guy’s mouth. The intensity immediately increases when Frost starts off the interview with the question, “Why didn’t you burn the tapes?” By that, Frost meant the tapes which all but implicated Nixon’s role in the Watergate scandal.

The last part of the interview these two men do together represents some of the most riveting and intense scenes in any movie of 2008. The fact there are no guns or explosions here says a lot about Howard and the actors managed to accomplish here. The audience, even if they knew the outcome of these interviews, was so intensely drawn into this part of the movie when I saw it at Arclight Cinemas to where you could hear a pin drop during the last exchange, and the gasps from the audience were very audible. I watched it and hoped at the same time that I had remembered to silence my cell phone so it wouldn’t go off during the movie’s final round. It would have destroyed the moment if Daryl Hall & John Oates had started singing “I Can’t Go for That” (my current ring tone) out of my cell phone.

As Sir David Frost, Sheen is brilliant in making him look like a lot of fun to be around without ever seeming overly smug or easily dismissive. His transition from the casual interviewer to Nixon’s grand inquisitor is very convincing, and he makes you feel the increasing stress Frost is going through. Like his close confidents, we desperately want him to get hard on Nixon and not be so soft. When Frost finally does come around, he caps off his interview by getting in Nixon’s face and never backs down from the overbearing stature Nixon imposes on him. Sheen manages to capture all of Frost’s mannerisms and the way he talks without simply impersonating him. Having previously played Tony Blair in “The Queen,” he is great at giving a different face to people we have come to know so well, and in getting at the heart of who they are outside of the media’s perception of them.

With the role of Richard Nixon, I think it’s safe to say Langella gives the performance of his career here. Like Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon,” he never ever tries to impersonate Nixon in this performance. Had he, it would have destroyed his performance and the movie. Langella doesn’t even try to look like Nixon either. What he does instead is dig deep into the heart and soul of Nixon to where he gives the former President a strong sense of empathy. Ever since he came to my attention in Ivan Reitman’s “Dave,” Langella has been the king of quiet menace in just about every movie he has appeared in. The menace of Nixon is always below the surface under the guise of a man always reminiscing about a past he can never get back. When Nixon finally caves in during the last interview he has Frost, Langella gives the man a sorrowful dignity as he realizes what he has done will forever haunt him unless he confronts for what it is.

Langella also makes you believe and understand what Nixon meant when he says no one can ever fully understand what it is like to be President. Nixon is never excused for what he did, nor should he be, but there is some leeway we should give him as he has experienced something the majority of us will never get to experience – being President of the United States. The Oscars better not ignore Frank Langella the same way they ignored Howard for “Apollo 13.”

\Howard almost seems like an odd choice to direct “Frost/Nixon,” and he beat out a lot of directors like Martin Scorsese and Mike Nichols to get the job. It almost seems unbelievable his career has spanned as many decades as it has, but it’s probably because many of us still have the image of him as Richie Cunningham on “Happy Days” burned forever into our heads. His last film as a director was “The Da Vinci Code” which proved to be quite sleep inducing, and yet still made tons of money. It almost made you forget what a great director he can be, and “Frost/Nixon” wakes us up from the Da Vinci coma we fell into unexpectedly.

“Frost/Nixon” is better than you would ever expect it to be, and it is one of Howard’s very best movies to date and one of the very best of 2008.

* * * * out of * * * *

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A Merry Friggin’ Christmas

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The worst Christmas memories we have tend to become the funniest and most memorable moments of our lives, and I went into “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” thinking it would reflect this fact. With a cast which includes such tremendously talented actors like Joel McHale, Lauren Graham, Candice Bergen, Clark Duke and Robin Williams, in what sadly turned out to be one of his last roles before his tragic death, this seemed to be a surefire winner and quite possibly one of the most subversive Christmas comedies ever, right?

Nope, no such luck. “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” turns out to be a tremendous disappointment as it strands its wonderful cast in a far too typical Christmas movie with very little in the way of laughs. In fact, I never got much in the way of gut-busting laughs like I hoped I would. When actors like these can’t make this holiday comedy rise above its formulaic conventions, you know something is seriously wrong in the state of Denmark.

McHale stars as Boyd Mitchler, and the movie starts with him as a boy hiding under the Christmas tree waiting for Santa Claus to appear. But instead of Santa Claus, Boyd is greeted by his drunken father Mitch (Robin Williams) who quickly tells him that, like the Easter Bunny, Santa doesn’t exist. Move to a number of years later, and Boyd is now happily married to Luann (Lauren Graham) and the father of two adorable children. Unlike his father, Boyd is determined to keep the magic of Christmas going for his kids as long as he can before the reality of the cruel world they live in forever robs them of it.

It’s interesting how Boyd’s daughter already knows Santa doesn’t exist as kids these days are getting increasingly harder to trick or fool. Still, Boyd is determined to keep his son Douglas (Pierce Gagnon from “Looper”) believing the jolly fat man from the North Pole is real even if he has to fly at 20,000 mph in order to deliver all those presents in a timely fashion. Of course, with climate change melting away much of the ice on this planet, Santa will most likely be living in a submarine at this point.

But then Boyd gets word from his brother Nelson (Clark Duke) that his baby is going to be baptized on Christmas Eve, and this means the whole Mitchler family is going to be reunited under one roof for the first time in years. We all know what happens when such a dysfunctional family gets together; tempers flare and old resentments quickly rise to the surface. Clearly, things are going to get worse before they can finally get better, and it doesn’t take a genius to see how predictable this “comedy” is going to end up being.

What’s even more unsurprising is how we see early on that Boyd is going to completely forget to bring Douglas’ presents along with him, and this results in him going on an 8-hour round trip to get them and preserve his son’s belief in Christmas. Coming along with Boyd on this ride is father who uses his truck which has a couple of portable toilets stowed in the back. Will one of them fall off the truck and create a disgusting mess? Does a bear shit in the woods?

Holiday movies are a dime a dozen, and I’m always waiting for one which messes around with the formula to give us something different. “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” had the potential to be such a movie, but it ends up falling apart as soon as it starts. The performances and the comedy are played much too broadly, and everything comes off as uninspired. It’s such a shame because you have an actor like Graham, who starred in one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made, “Bad Santa,” and even she can’t save this movie with her priceless expressions (and they really are priceless).

“A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” has taken on a special meaning in light of Williams’ tragic death, and it’s sad his career had to end with a movie like this one. Having said that, he does have some moments where he doesn’t say a word but his face speaks volumes about what Mitch is feeling and going through in his head. He makes you feel Mitch’s pain when he discovers he has been photo-shopped out of a family photo, and while his character is mostly a one-dimensional jerk, Williams gives him a depth many other actors would not have been able to achieve. It’s a shame his talents ended up being wasted on such a half-baked screenplay.

For me, there are few things worse than a comedy that doesn’t make you laugh, and “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” sadly turns out to be one of them. Those looking for the perfect Christmas movie for the whole family will be better off renting “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Love Actually” or “Bad Santa.” This one is not going to keep you entertained.

* out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Matt Shakman on ‘Cut Bank’

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Matt Shakman has had quite the journey through show business so far. He started off as a child actor doing commercials, and he played the role of Graham “J.R.” Lubbock, Jr. in “Just the Ten of Us,” a spin-off of “Growing Pains.” From there he went to Yale University where he studied theater, and while there he directed several plays. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, he founded the Black Dahlia Theatre which American Theatre Magazine later called one of “a dozen young American companies you need to know.” Eventually, this led to him directing television for such shows as “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Mad Men” and “Fargo.” Now, he makes his feature film directorial debut with the thriller “Cut Bank,” a film noir along the lines of “Blood Simple.”

Cut Bank” stars Liam Hemsworth as Dwayne McLaren, a former high school football star who is desperate to escape his hometown of Cut Bank, Montana. Then one day, while filming a video for his girlfriend, he witnesses the town’s mailman Georgie Wits (Bruce Dern) being shot to death. From there a scheme is uncovered where some people look to get rich very quickly, but it all comes to spiral out of control in horrendous ways. The movie also stars John Malkovich, Billy Bob Thornton and Michael Stuhlbarg.

I got to speak with Shakman over the phone about “Cut Bank,” and he discussed what it was like working with actors like Malkovich, Thornton and Stuhlbarg, how he managed to shoot the movie on 35mm film, and he spoke of how he went from being a child actor to a theater and television director and now a film director.

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Ben Kenber: I read you approached this movie as a play more than anything else.

Matt Shakman: Yeah, I tried to cast actors who I’ve always admired and put together kind of like a rep company. In a way, I could imagine doing the movie again and everybody switching parts. They’re all so great and talented and versatile. So yeah, I definitely considered it like I was casting a play.

BK: Of all the actors you cast in this movie, John Malkovich was the first one you went to. What made you start with him?

MS: I’ve been a fan of John Malkovich onstage and onscreen, and he’s a personal hero of mine because he founded Steppenwolf. I’m a theater guy and I founded a small theater in Los Angeles, and I look up to Steppenwolf and the guys who started that. I just thought, here’s a guy who is from Southern Illinois who sort of felt like he knew this world, and yet we haven’t seen him play this small-town guy in a really long time maybe since “Places in the Heart,” and he’s brilliant in that movie. He’s come around to do great but larger than life characters in so many films. So we reached out to him and he really responded to it and he had personal experience with the town of Cut Bank. He actually worked there one summer putting himself through college. He worked on the trail crew at Glacier National Park and knew the town of Cut Bank very well, so he had a strong personal connection to it. He did a beautiful job playing a guy who really feels sort of overwhelmed by his own decency which feels really believable in that small-town world.

BK: Watching “Cut Bank” brings to mind other movies like “Blood Simple” or “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead.” When it came to making this movie, were there any clichés or cinematic tropes you were looking to avoid?

MS: You mentioned some films that I love, “Blood Simple” being one in particular. I think that blend of dark comedy and thriller stakes is something to aspire to, and we tried to do our best in that same kind of world. Also “The Last Picture Show;” the idea of the small town and the guy who wants to get out of it, that’s always been a big inspiration for me. A lot of 70’s crime thrillers were inspirations as well. We went and shot 2 perf, 35mm to give it an extra grainy look so we could evoke some of the Sergio Leone films of the 70’s as well. So, those were just some of the inspirations.

BK: I love that you got to film this movie in 35mm. Was it hard to get the opportunity to shoot in that format?

MS: Definitely. We had to make a lot of sacrifices to be able to pay for it. The cost of doing film had gone up so much because the labs were shutting down everywhere, and you couldn’t get the same deals that you would get before. Kodak was really cutting the price on film to try and keep people shooting film, but we were just on the other side of that curve where they realized uh-oh, nobody’s shooting film anymore so we need to get whatever we can get out of the people who will be using our stock. I love it. I wish I could always shoot on film. It’s really just a much better way to do it.

BK: That’s what I have been hearing from a lot of filmmakers. There are still a lot of things you can capture on film you can’t on digital film.

MS: Yeah, there’s a mystery to film that I think is important, and we were shooting a lot of days here where film has a real advantage. The argument can be made that when you should at night, having something like an Alexa can bring certain advantages in terms of less light needed and more range. But I still think that nothing really touches film.

BK: Among the performances in “Cut Bank,” one which stands out in particular is Michael Stuhlbarg’s as Derby Milton. He had the lead role in the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” but he’s almost completely unrecognizable here. How did you go about directing him?

MS: Michael’s a genius and a total chameleon, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since I saw him in “The Pillowman” (a play by Martin McDonough) on Broadway. He stole the show there and I think he’s been stealing every show everywhere he does ever since, so I was so thrilled when he agreed to come on board and be a part of “Cut Bank.” I sent him a bunch of references and pictures I had, one of which was a Chuck Close painting, which we both really liked a lot. He sent me a few references as well which inspired him, and we built this guy together through lots of phone conversations and exchanging images. Eventually we came up with what Derby looks like now which involved all sorts of trickery from wigs and fake teeth and contact lenses and coke bottle glasses and fingernails and all that. But he’s a great actor and he’s very thoughtful. He’s very smart and he goes deep into the character, and I thought he did a beautiful job.

BK: Yes, this is a character that could have easily been turned into a stereotype, but Stuhlbarg gives Derby a uniqueness I don’t seen many other actors giving the character.

MS: Definitely. Derby is a really fascinating guy even though he is the antagonist of the film. He’s probably the most reasonable person in the movie and what he ends up doing and the body count that follows him really is unnecessary if people were as reasonable to him as he is to them.

BK: It’s great how you made the town look vast, but at the same time anybody who has lived in a small town like Cut Bank can definitely relate to it feeling like a prison and wanting to break free of it.

MS: Exactly. That kind of modern western feeling of being trapped in this little frontier town with the gates of the port closed, and the idea that anything beyond those gates is terrifying is best to be ignored is what the town has to confront. By the end they are able to turn around and head into an uncertain future, but the whole experience of the film is opening up that town.

BK: What were the biggest challenges of making “Cut Bank?” It takes place in what is said to be one of the coldest places in America, but you actually filmed it in a time of year when it was exceedingly warm.

MS: We shot in Canada and Alberta and in the town of Edmonton, and that’s very close to Calgary where I shot “Fargo.” I’ve been there when it was the coldest part of the year at minus 40, and I’ve been there when it was the hottest day on record, so I’ve seen the full cycle from super cold to super-hot and it has its challenges. Certainly, there are some scenes in the movie, especially in the junkyard trailer where Bruce Dern is, where we were shooting in the middle of really, really hot summer days in a metal tin can covered in black fabric to make it look like it was nighttime. Everybody was sweating. It was pouring off of them. It was miserable and I felt terrible, and you can still see in a couple of shots in the movie how red everybody’s face is when they are in that junkyard trailer. So it did have its challenges like no air-conditioning, and you just kind of roll up your sleeves and do the best you can despite the elements. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.

BK: I got a kick out of Bruce Dern’s character here. He’s been around for a long time, but his career has gone up another notch thanks to his work in “Nebraska.” What did Bruce bring to this movie that wasn’t in the script?

MS: He’s a live wire (laughs). I loved Bruce Dern. He’s incredibly alive as a performer. He describes what he’s doing as dancing in a way, and I think he absolutely is truly that, a dancer. He’s playing with it almost like jazz as he goes and that’s wonderful. He’s never going to do the same thing twice. He does throw in some bits of improv as he goes, and a lot of wonderful things ended up in the film that were all of his own devising. He’s a bit of a mercurial, charismatic guy and he has the best stories in the world. He remembers everything that has ever happened in an illustrious way, and it’s incredible to hear. He tells stories about everyone from Hitchcock to Spielberg, etc. He’s in one of my favorites also from the 70’s with “The King of Marvin Gardens.” It’s a pleasure to get to work with somebody who’s a legend like that.

BK: Billy Bob Thornton also stars in the movie, and he’s played a lot of unforgettable small-town characters. What would you say he brought to this movie that wasn’t in the script?

MS: He really does understand this world. He’s from a small southern town which is such a different thing from the prairie town in the film, but it has the same kind of heartbeat. Billy Bob, like Malkovich, is just one of my heroes. He’s a great writer and a great director and a great actor, and I had the pleasure of working with him on “Fargo” as well. He’s just an incredibly good person and very smart, and whenever he had notes we would talk about the script and you knew you were getting notes from an Oscar-winning screenwriter. He always had tremendous things to say and just made everything better.

BK: There is a scene between Liam Hemsworth and Oliver Platt where Liam looks at Oliver and realizes that this is the person he will become like if he throws all his moral values to the wind. Would you say that’s the case?

MS: Yeah, he’s very interested to know what’s the big city is like, and here in the person of Oliver Platt is the big city. I love Oliver Platt. He’s great and he brings this incredible urbanity and charm and intelligence to it. But yeah, he represents the big outside world in all the positives and all the negatives.

BK: James Newton Howard scored this film. How did you manage to get him on board?

MS: Through his generosity. He does these just giant movies like “The Hunger Games” and “Maleficent,” and then “Nightcrawler” which is a smaller movie but certainly a big profile film. Getting him to come and do our tiny little film was entirely because he is just a lovely, generous person. I reached out to him, we had a mutual friend in common, and sent him the script and made my pitch about what the film would be about, and he really liked it and wanted to come on board. He devoted tons of time and energy to it, as much energy as he puts into his other big films, and he really cared and did a lovely job.

BK: “Cut Bank” is being distributed by A24 Films which has become a great company for independent films to get behind. What did A24 bring to this project that other distribution companies might not have brought to it?

MS: God bless A24. Their taste is great and eclectic. They are picking up movies that are very different from each other, but are all really worthy. I was so thrilled when they wanted to release “Cut Bank.” They’re a great group of people who really care. They are very supportive of the movie. They have devoted a lot of energy and great taste to their marketing and ad campaign with the artwork they are doing. They have left no small detail unnoticed. They are really on the ball and I’m really thrilled to be a part of a company that has released everything from “Under the Skin,” “The Spectacular Now,” “Spring Breakers” and “A Most Violent Year.” It’s a really great roster of movies and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

BK: How much time did you have to shoot “Cut Bank” in?

MS: 27 days for “Cut Bank,” which is fast for a movie that is 93 minutes long, so we were jamming and going quickly. I thought this would be a little more luxurious compared to my TV days as TV is famous for being quick, and I was wrong. Doing an independent film is actually faster than doing TV. We were out there shooting outside of Edmonton and small towns. We were building our entire world from the ground up and going into practical locations which added extra challenges, so time was not a commodity we had a lot of. We had to hustle and go as fast as we could to try and get it all done in time. There was a lot of different locations, there was a lot of night work, and we were shooting at the time of year when the night is the shortest. We only had about four hours of darkness every night so we had to be really careful about how we structured everything, and we ended up shooting all night long in order to have the time to shoot all the night stuff.

BK: Does working that fast help you creatively?

MS: It can. Necessity is the mother of invention. It’s true that when you’re forced to compromise, you sometimes end up with a solution which is better than what you were trying to accomplish to begin with. Everybody bonds together and tries to get everything done. You’ve got a short amount of time so everybody knows it’s game time, and that brings out the best in everybody.

BK: You started out as a child actor. How would you say you evolved from being a child actor to a director?

MS: It was definitely part of my life when I was young, and I had some experience being on the other side of the camera and understood about hitting marks and what the actor’s process was like. But then I left that behind and went off to school and had a normal experience in college and did a lot of theater and found my way to theater directing. My path was more direct from theater to directing plays to directing television and to directing film than really from the acting experience, but I’m really grateful to have had that background and the experience of being an actor because it helps. When speaking to actors, I understand what they are going through and what their process is like.

I want to thank Matt Shakman for taking the time to talk with me about “Cut Bank” and his career. “Cut Bank” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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