Frost/nixon, Doubt, The Reader, And More

Short Takes 

Frost/nixon, Doubt, The Reader, And More

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American Idols

Frost/Nixon takes a backward glance at the Watergate scandal

Frost/Nixon comes with an illustrious pedigree, including Ron Howard, one of America's underrated and solidly reliable directors; playwright-screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen) adapting his own stage play; Universal Pictures hoping for that Oscar buzz with a backward glance at Watergate; and thespian Frank Langella on a career upswing as the infamous ex-President Richard M. Nixon. Why then, when all is said and done, does this intelligent and grown-up drama seem less history written with lightning than People-magazine nostalgia piece? Maybe because the plot is all epilogue and no buildup, and never makes you feel the stakes are high - unless you're a media junkie on the level of the Gawker staff and your heart beats to the rhythm of audience shares/Amazon sales.

The subject of Frost/Nixon is a series of groundbreaking, earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting - well, they made the cover of Time, I recall -1977 TV interviews done by British chat-show host and satirist David Frost (easily impersonated by Michael Sheen), who wrangled a costly Q&A with the infamously resigned Nixon (Langella, not an obvious Tricky Dick look-alike but a decent channeler of the establishment icon). Frost is portrayed as a dandy and ladies' man, a chatty presenter on par, say, with Merv Griffin, bidding for respectability as a journalist who matters. His broadcast career in decline, he strains his finances and credibility to produce and air the Nixon piece independently, since no U.S. network wants it (fascinating that Howard at the time ruled as Richie Cunningham on ABC's Happy Days).

Howard's interpretation of Nixon is in line with Oliver Stone's 1995 Nixon. Nixon, doing morning exercises to the Victory at Sea LP, is still trying to make the public love him like they adored JFK, still feeling like the victim of a double standard based on class and good looks, and unapologetic about his stained career. He's peddling his memoirs and reduced to doing paid speaking engagements at orthodontist conventions. Nixon's entourage of San Clemente loyalists size up Frost as a lightweight who'll let Nixon dominate the interviews and won't grill the former POTUS with tough questions about Watergate, Vietnam and Cambodia. Coaches in Frost's corner urge their guy to do no less than try Nixon for his crimes. Their taping is styled like a verbal boxing match, implying lofty themes about power, culpability, owning up and the dialogue of confrontation.

Still, I fear the Guitar Hero generation may wonder what the point is. Dudes! It's like Letterman having to make Bush admit invading Iraq was a screw-up! For an older demographic that might actually remember the time period and the plethora of books, films, satirical songs and sketches about Watergate, Frost/Nixon delivers multiple seventiesgasms (The Rockford Files! Evonne Goolagong!), good acting and not one product-placed Apple computer in sight. Still, the operatic flair and fireworks that propelled the maddeningly flawed but watchable Oliver Stone biopic is sorely missed here. An unwise punch line reduces Watergate to American Idol level: Who came away more popular, Frost or Nixon? - Charles Cassady Jr.

Frost/Nixon Opens Thursday areawide

Doubt

It's been said that faith without doubt is dead faith. Which brings us to Doubt, playwright and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley's adaptation of his own stage drama, set in a working-class Catholic parish and parochial school in 1964 New York City. The schoolchildren are kept in line by stern principal Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep in a hedge-clipped Bronx accent), a flinty alpha female with austere old ways. The nuns dine in stony silence, and Sister Aloysius disdains even having sugar in her tea. Yet she can exhibit kindness and protection - on extremely selective occasions.

Named for a 16th-century Jesuit holy man who turned away from all pleasures of the flesh, the principal's sore spot is jovial Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the popular boys' basketball coach and a relatively recent arrival at the parish. One of Flynn's altar boys, 12-year-old Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), is the first black to be admitted to the school. Intuiting that Donald is friendless and vulnerable, Father Flynn starts taking a special interest in him. But does he take too much interest? Based on very, very wispy strands of testimony supplied by sweet, kindly Sister James (Amy Adams), Sister Aloysius launches a personal investigation into Father Flynn, soon accusing him directly of being a calculating child molester. So what really did transpire that fateful afternoon with Donald in the rectory?

Shanley directs this angst in the sturdy, straightforward fashion that has become Clint Eastwood's trademark of late. No, this is not the Canadian pedophile-clergy exposé Boys of Saint Vincent with its grim depiction of crime and consequence. God (and the MPAA) only knows how it even got a PG-13 instead of a PG. Nor does Shanley try to remake Rashomon, fortunately. However, the filmmaker still aspires to leave the viewer deeply discomfited and uncertain about what happened, what might have happened and whether justice was ultimately served. - Cassady Opens Thursday areawide

The Reader

It's nice to know that the Brothers Weinstein can still hit one out of the park. At its best - which, fortunately, is most of the time - The Reader feels like the glory days of Miramax, the mom-and-pop (literally) company that Harvey and Bob Weinstein started three decades ago in their parents' basement. Combining the literary pedigree of Bernhard Schlink's acclaimed 1995 bestseller, an acclaimed director (Stephen Daldry of The Hours and Billy Elliott fame) and a prestigious cast (the ineffable Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, Lena Olin and Bruno Ganz, among others), The Reader is the kind of accessible, sumptuously crafted, "highbrow" movie that used to be the Weinsteins' bread and butter.

Told in a series of flashbacks (Schlink related the story chronologically in his book), the bulk of the action takes place in three separate timeframes. In 1958 Berlin, 15-year-old schoolboy Michael Berg (impressive newcomer David Kross) makes the acquaintance of "older woman" Hanna Schmitz (Winslet). She quickly initiates Michael's "sentimental education," single-handedly turning this callow youth into a man. Eight years later, Michael is a law student attending the trial of a group of women who served as concentration camp guards during the war. He immediately recognizes Hanna as one of the accused, but chooses to remain silent despite possessing vital information that could help her defense. The third section of the film takes place in the 1980s. Hanna is a model prisoner who's learned to read through a series of homemade audio books that the adult Michael (now played by Fiennes) has been sending her. The denouement is unexpectedly moving, even if you're familiar with Schlink's novel.

Hanna has the most screen time, yet The Reader is very much Michael's story, and it's told almost entirely from his perspective. Despite Winslet's typically fearless performance, Hanna remains a cruel, tantalizing enigma until the very end. And the fact that her war crimes were committed out of duty rather than racial hatred makes this fascinating character even more of an emotional conundrum. But it's precisely that sort of richly purposeful ambiguity that makes the film such a rewarding experience. - Milan Paurich Opens Thursday at the Cedar Lee Theatre

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