Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard, 122 mins, 12A
Valkyrie, Bryan Singer, 123 mins, 12A
Rachel Getting Married, Jonathan Demme, 113 mins, 15
Frank Langella's Nixon is a perfect ogre as he tries to avoid being skewered on TV by David Frost
Sunday 25 January 2009
It's not likely that we'll ever see George W Bush mounting an articulate defence of his policies, let alone apologising for letting down the American people, so we'll have to make do with Frost/Nixon, which harks back to a halcyon era when ex-presidents could string a coherent sentence together.
Adapted by Peter Morgan (Last King Of Scotland, The Queen) from his award-winning West End play, it's a snappy dramatisation of the negotiations and preparations which led to David Frost's televised interviews with Richard Nixon in 1977. Before the interviews, both men had slipped into the wilderness. Frost (Michael Sheen) had had his American talk show cancelled, while Nixon (Frank Langella) was in post-Watergate exile in California. As Morgan sees it, they are both banking on the interviews to push them back into the limelight, but Frost's researchers, played by Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell and Matthew Macfadyen (as John Birt!), see the encounters as something more vital: the trial Nixon never had.
Morgan has fashioned a deliciously witty comedy drama. He lampoons Frost as a glib playboy, and he presents Nixon as an arrogant ogre, and yet retains sympathy for both of them. In the role of a lifetime, Langella fully deserves his Oscar nomination. However, I'm not sure that Frost/Nixon's various terrific scenes quite add up to the David-and-Goliath clash the film keeps promising. Nor am I sure why Sheen's oily chancer would have any more luck with Tricky Dicky than previous inquisitors. Early on, someone opines that Frost "understood television" in a way that few did, while someone else asserts that he had "achieved great fame without possessing any discernible quality". From what we see here, it's the latter assessment that's closer to the truth.
Another fact-based blockbuster, Valkyrie, stars Tom Cruise as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, one of the German officers and politicians who conspired to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. A more interesting film might have examined how someone who swore a loyalty oath to the Fuhrer could have had such a drastic change of heart. But Valkyrie isn't a drama, it's a thriller, and it's so urgent that there's no time for any discussion that doesn't propel the plot forward. Even though it's got a heavyweight British supporting cast, including Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp and Tom Wilkinson, none of them has any dialogue too wordy to fit in the trailer. "We have to show the world that not all of us were like him," Branagh declares – and that's subtle by Valkyrie standards.
The action is so muscular and economical that it's sometimes possible to forget Valkyrie's unavoidable problem: we know what happens at the end. One snag that could have been avoided, though, is the weird inconsistency of accents. Cruise is as American as ever, while the British actors all sound English except for David Bamber, who plays Hitler with a Teutonic hiss. It seems that only the evil Germans were properly German, whereas the good ones were American and British – they just didn't realise it.
Rachel Getting Married features Anne Hathaway as Kym, a recovering addict who has a weekend pass from rehab to attend the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). A former model, Kym can't bear not to be the centre of attention, so she bickers, complains, showboats and screws her way through the ceremony. It's a long way from The Princess Diaries.
It's also a long way from Silence Of The Lambs, Philadelphia, and Jonathan Demme's other glossy Hollywood productions. Rachel Getting Married is a partly improvised indie film, and proud of it, with a roaming fly-on-the-wall camera which focuses as much on the toasts and the music being played by the happy couple's bohemian friends as it does on Kym's struggle to find a place in her family. It's an approach that has its drawbacks. The musicians' incessant busking will make some viewers want to stab themselves with a silver cake slice, and the film keeps going well after its dramatic climax. But there's no gainsaying the power and subtlety of the central performance. As the tightly-wound, tactless Kym, Hathaway sets herself apart from the Jessicas, Scarletts, and other actresses of her generation who are acclaimed more for their appearances in men's magazines than in cinemas. If her Oscar nomination for this film means she doesn't have to sign on for any more dross like Bride Wars, we can all be grateful.
Faintheart (90 mins, 12A)
'Faintheart' is a groundbreaking film in that it was produced via online auditions and votes on MySpace. Bearing that in mind, it's not too bad. Eddie Marsan is its dim hero, whose preoccupation with medieval battle re-enactments gets him thrown out by his long-suffering wife, Jessica Hynes. A bigger budget and a much bigger plot would have helped, but there have been worse attempts to imitate 'The Full Monty'.
Better Things (93 mins, 15)
At low-budget British film's other extreme, there's the uncompromisingly bleak 'Better Things', which begins with the funeral of a young woman who has taken a heroin overdose, and gets grimmer from there. It's an artily elliptical portrait of some mumbling rural teenagers who narcotise themselves with glum sex, dangerous driving and heroin. And their grandparents are even more miserable than they are. It's a film with a niche market, to put it mildly.
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