Chris Goes to the Movies

frost-nixon1Overview: The story behind the story of British TV host David Frost’s post-Watergate interviews with Richard Nixon, three years after the disgraced president’s resignation.

What I liked: The lead actors are quite good: Michael Sheen captures Frost’s breezy style and Frank Langella infuses Nixon with humanity while wisely resisting the temptation to make him overly sympathetic. As Andrew noted, director Ron Howard gives “Frost/Nixon” a grainy look, making it look like something out of the era of bellbottoms and platform shoes.

What I didn’t: Having seen the play that inspired this film, I think “Frost/Nixon” works better on stage than on screen. This is essentially the story of two men talking to each other – a premise better suited to the intimate confines of a theater than the big screen. Interestingly, “Frost/Nixon” and the last film I reviewed, “Slumdog Millionaire,” deal with dramatic television confrontations. To his credit, “Slumdog” director Danny Boyle makes the showdown between the contestant and host on a a quiz show set a more riveting human drama than Frost’s interrogation of Nixon, when so much more was at stake. Also, as Elizabeth Drew noted in her recent HuffPo review, the historical accuracy of both “Frost/Nixon” the play and “Frost/Nixon” the film are questionable.

Final word: Not a bad movie, but I’m not sure this would make my list of Best Picture Oscar contenders.

My rating: Four out of five pairs of Italian loafers.



slumdog-millionaireOverview: A modern parable about the value of hope. “Slumdog Millionaire” tells the story of Jamal, a young man from the slums of Mumbai who tries to win back the girl he loved and lost by becoming a contestant on her favorite show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” The multi-layered story traces Jamal and his older brother Salim from their days as hardscrabble orphans to their late teens, examining the different paths they choose along the way to adulthood.

What I liked: The story’s improbability is its charm. The cast is solid, particularly the young actors who play Jamal and Salim as children. And as Andrew pointed out, director Danny Boyle cleverly uses something familiar – a game show – to frame the story and introduce the audience to the unfamiliar – India’s caste system.

What I didn’t: Not much. I found the game show host character’s pronunciation of the word “millionaire” (he says, “millon air”) a little annoying. Other than that, no complaints.

Final word: A must see, and worthy of the Oscar buzz it’s generating. Like other recent “little films that could” – think “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Juno” – “Slumdog” has a lot of heart, but without becoming overly sentimental.

My rating: Five out of five Amitabh Bachchan autographs.

milk-01Time magazine once described Harvey Milk as “the first openly gay man elected to any substantial political office in the history of the planet,” so it’s a bit surprising it took Hollywood three decades to commit his story to celluloid. Then again, maybe the delay is fortuitous. “Milk,” director Gus Van Sant’s portrait of the pioneering San Francisco city supervisor, premiered a mere 21 days after California voters approved a ballot measure stripping gay couples of their right to marry. Like gay Americans everywhere, this defeat left me heartbroken, but as “Milk” reminds us, progress in our movement has always been halting.

Yet to view “Milk” solely through the prism of this generation’s struggle for marriage rights is to do the film a disservice. Yes, “Milk” is a historical snapshot, a period piece that demonstrates how far gay Americans have come since the very notion of “gay rights” was a novelty. But “Milk” is also much, much more. At its heart, it is a story about summoning the courage to be yourself, and being willing to lay down your life to defend that freedom. This resonant message, brilliantly interpreted by Van Sant and star Sean Penn, makes “Milk” a masterpiece, easily one of my all-time favorite films.

The movie follows Milk’s evolution from an aimless New York professional to San Francisco community organizer to full-fledged politician. Although Milk’s life ended prematurely, this is an uplifting film. Don’t come to “Milk” expecting a “Brokeback Mountain”-style tragedy. In fact, with its underlying message that “all men are created equal” – “Milk” is the very flip side of “Brokeback.”

“Milk” is as much an artistic achievement as it is a statement about personal courage. Van Sant tells Milk’s story through flashbacks, a traditional biopic technique that may surprise fans who’ve grown accustomed to his eschewing all things conventional. But make no mistake: This is definitely a Gus Van Sant movie. In directing “Milk,” he preserves his art house sensibility while ensuring his cinematic flourishes don’t overwhelm the storytelling. Other “Milk” reviews have noted the shot in which Milk stands over the body of a slain friend, the image reflected in a shiny safety whistle as it lay in the street. It’s an imaginative shot, but my favorite is another mirror effect: the reflection of Dan White – Milk’s troubled colleague and rival – on a television screen as he watches news coverage of his nemesis. Filmgoers who know how Milk’s story ends will likely find the contrast between their faces unsettling.

milk-02Of course, as with any great film, “Milk” is a collaboration between director and cast. Much has been written about Penn’s performance in the title role, and I have nothing to add, except to say it is worthy of every column inch of praise. The supporting cast is superb, particularly James Franco as Milk’s partner, Scott Smith. If Penn is the film’s soul, then Franco is its heart. It’s good to see him come into his own as an actor.

Given the tender care director and star bring to the subject matter, the question must be asked: Is “Milk” a biography or a tribute? I’m not enough of an authority on Milk’s life to comment on the honesty of the film’s portrayal, but for what it’s worth, Van Sant shows Milk was no saint. We see how Milk puts his career first, ultimately ending his relationship with Scott, and later, with another boyfriend. And Van Sant isn’t sparing in showcasing Milk’s thirst for publicity. In one scene, Milk choreographs an “impromptu” arrival at a march on city hall, a move apparently designed to bolster his reputation as a man of the people. Some may sniff at Milk’s showmanship, but I’d argue his keen appreciation for political theatrics was one of his greatest strengths and part of his charm.

But even if “Milk” is an unabashed salute, so what? Hasn’t the time come for us to shed our cynicism and begin believing again in good men and women, even if we have to reach into the past to find them? The fact is Milk’s achievements were extraordinary. He deserves to be lionized.

Harvey Milk came along just when we needed him, and every person who has ever felt marginalized by society should be thankful for that. We should also be thankful to Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn for this triumphant portrait of the man.

My rating: Five out of five stars

kristin-scott-thomasIn the French film “I’ve Loved You So Long,” Kristin Scott Thomas plays a woman who completes a lengthy prison sentence, only to realize she’ll always be held captive by the consequences of her past choices. It’s a mystery told through the prism of domestic drama. We meet Thomas’s character, Juliette, on the day of her release, not knowing why she was incarcerated. We watch her emotionally awkward reunion with her protective younger sister, Lea, who welcomes Juliette into her home despite the misgivings of Lea’s husband. We see her learning to connect with others: her sister, her parole officer, her coworkers, her widowed mother, a gentleman friend who fancies her and, most touchingly, Lea’s young daughter. Along the way, director Philippe Claudel clues us in as to how this seemingly kind woman wound up behind bars, but it isn’t until the final moments of the film – in an wrenching confrontation between Juliette and Lea – that we learn the devastating truth. The film is slowly paced, and I’ll confess to dozing off for a few moments early in the movie. (Regular viewers of “The Chris Baker Show” will learn this is a frequent occurrence.) But don’t give up on “So Long;” the climactic scene between Lea and Juliette gives the movie a satisfying conclusion and shows why Thomas could be an Oscar contender. Also, be sure to keep an eye out for Thomas’s physical transformation during the course of the film. At the beginning of the movie, she is shockingly drab, so much so that I barely recognized her. Claudel keeps her hidden behind a frumpy overcoat in several scenes, but by the end of the movie, once Juliette has taken her halting steps toward a normal life, she lightens up – figuratively and literally – and sheds that awful coat. Sadly, it seems she’ll never fully shed her haunting past.

My rating: Four out of five French cigarettes

twilight1OK, now I get it. When Andrew read the “Twilight” series this summer, I turned up my nose, wondering what could be so engrossing about a love story between a teenage girl and her vampire boyfriend. Now, having seen “Twilight,” the movie based on the first novel in the series, the appeal is clear. The film offers a fresh interpretation of familiar vampire mythology, and the gray-yet-lush Pacific Northwest scenery provides the perfect setting for a moody, seemingly doomed romance. But the real attraction here are the leads: Kristen Stewart, who is effortlessly good as the wise-beyond-her-years Bella; and Robert Pattinson, whose wild-haired brooding recalls a young Johnny Depp. Both actors are naturals, and naturally beautiful. They keep “Twilight” grounded, no small feat for a movie that includes a vampire baseball game. The “Twilight” series is often compared to the “Harry Potter” books, given the fanatical following both sagas inspire. I haven’t read either, so I can’t say if the comparison is fair. But this I do know: “Twilight” the movie made me want to read the novel on which it was based, a feat the “Harry Potter” films never managed.

My rating: Four out of five vampire baseballs