Counting down the final movies till Christmas....
Doubt, from the prize-winning stage play by John Patrick Shanley, is an ambiguous drama of possible priestly pedophilia at a Catholic school in the Bronx. The playwright, perhaps best known to moviegoers (with long enough memories) as the writer of Moonstruck and writer-director of Joe versus the Volcano, handles the direction of his own work on screen, and the freedoms of the medium enable him to detail operations of the parish to almost anthropological ends: the nuns’ rising and dressing in the A.M., the altar boys’ preparations for Mass, the crosscutting contrast between the bloody-roast-beef and red-wine dinner table of the jovial priests as against the silent and austere table of the milk-fed nuns, the students’ coed dance lesson to “Blame It on the Bossa Nova,” and so on. The time, as the aforesaid musical selection would suggest, is early Sixties, the time of the playwright’s own Catholic boyhood in the Bronx, although the sermon on communal despair after the JFK assassination — one of three pithy sermons in the script — could easily have been recycled post-9/11.
The three principal characters are types: the progressive priest who believes in a “friendlier” church that moves with the times, a friendliness that may or may not have gone too far in embracing the school’s first black student, a vulnerable target; the hidebound and humorless old nun (“Penmanship is dying, all across this country”) who lays down the law — “Frosty the Snowman,” a pagan song, should be banned from the airwaves, let alone the school Christmas pageant — and who rules through fear; and the innocent and idealistic novice, young and pretty, who wants to believe the best of everyone, and who has to ask herself whether the older nun’s crusade against the priest might be fueled by disapproval of his laxities: his three lumps of sugar in his tea, his modernistic preference for ballpoint pens, his indulgence of “Frosty the Snowman.” The clash of personalities, strictly limited by the play’s title and tactical guideline, illuminates nothing so much as the players. Meryl Streep, overacting awesomely, is not only a holy terror as a nun but as a thespian, booby-trapping every scene with unforeseeable little diversions, inventions, stratagems, embellishments. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, no slouches themselves, appear to enjoy their one scene alone together in the courtyard, no one to steal it from them, no one to show them up or slap them down.
Frost/Nixon is also based on a stage play, this one by Peter Morgan, author of the speculative re-enactment of the behind-the-scenes negotiations between Elizabeth II and PM Tony Blair in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, The Queen. The current piece is likewise a speculative re-enactment, albeit with much more on-the-record material to work from: the “no holds barred” television interview in 1977 of Richard Nixon by British talk-show host David Frost. The putting-together of the deal (“It’ll be a big wet kiss,” predicts the ex-President’s literary agent, Swifty Lazar) will be the less familiar if also less interesting material, a lengthy buildup to the series of four separate on-camera sessions, while Frost is still scrambling to scrape up the financing for the project and to secure a venue for it. A prizefight metaphor runs throughout, permitting director Ron Howard to slip comfortably into the underdog mode of his Cinderella Man, with Frost, as it were, failing to lay a glove on Nixon going into the final round, then at last pinning him in a corner and pummeling some semblance of a confession out of him.
This spectacle may satisfy the undying urge to spit on the corpse of the 37th President, as well as supply a general-purpose stand-in for the still elusive and impenitent 43rd President. (The undying urge to spit, it must be pointed out, tends to contradict the film’s premise that the interview in some way provided “closure.”) As a job of stagecraft, however, or screencraft, it’s a bit stunted, endlessly and explicitly talking out its points, and employing the unpardonable shortcut of pseudodocumentary interviews of various secondary characters, ostensibly at a later date, to further analyze, comment on, and embroider the points made elsewhere. Frank Langella proves to be a serviceable Nixon. He has the stoop, and he has the glower, though the rounded and resonant tones of his voice are far too affectedly theatrical, and the material requires him to give short shrift to the clumsily charming Nixon and to miss altogether the embarrassingly maudlin Nixon. Of so complicated and well documented a figure, any impersonator can only be a reductionist. Michael Sheen, The Queen’s Tony Blair, certainly sounds like Frost in my memory’s ear, but my memory also tells me that Frost’s British accent automatically gave him, to the average American ear, an air of culture and erudition he couldn’t fully back up. To heighten the drama — to hype the verbal prizefight — the script diminishes Frost to a simple soul with simple tastes (fame, fortune, willing women), closer to a Johnny Carson or Mike Douglas than to a Tom Snyder or Dick Cavett, hopelessly overmatched against Tricky Dick. In his obligation to play David to Nixon’s Goliath, Rocky Balboa to Nixon’s Apollo Creed, Sheen rather scamps the pretentiousness of the man.
The Day the Earth Stood Still refashions the 1951 s-f classic into a 2008 tolerable time-passer on a fast track to oblivion. The urgent mobilization of an ad hoc team of scientists and the descent of a UFO on Central Park get the movie off to a gripping start, once past the prolonged opening credits and 1928 prologue. And the dissipation of the robot GORT (a military acronym for Genetically Organized Robotic Technology) into a deadly locust cloud is quite spectacular. He, or it, still can’t hold a candle to his, or its, clunky archetypal namesake in the original. Most of the action, under director Scott Derrickson, is mere going-through-the-motions; and for all the bigger and splashier special effects, and all the dashing around the countryside, the remake somehow feels smaller in scope, narrower in vision. Meddlesome busybody aliens affronted by humans’ mistreatment of the planet (“It’s not your planet”) seem a little petty alongside self-defensive aliens worried, post-WWII, about humans spreading their bellicosity throughout the universe. Jennifer Connelly, as a really hot astrobiologist and really warm interracial single stepmom, is convincingly hot and convincingly warm if not convincingly astrobiological. And Keanu Reeves, sad to say, as the expressionless human husk of an emotionless extraterrestrial, has never been better.
Yes Man, directed by Peyton Reed, measures the loss of elasticity in rubber man Jim Carrey, now showing the effects of age and experience on his creased, rumpled, baggy face. (The Number 23 can’t be easy to bounce back from. Ever.) He nevertheless strives to recover his antic former self in the role of a gray-souled, nay-saying loan officer who attends a self-empowerment seminar that compels him to answer every question in the affirmative. Hollywood tastemakers take it from there. A business loan for a baker of unrecognizable celebrity-lookalike cakes? Yes! A blow job from the white-haired toothless old lady next door? Yes! Zooey Deschanel, forging a career from looking like she can’t figure out how to play her part, has ample reason to look like that in the part of a rock singer, painter, photographer, and all-around free spirit who, nearly young enough to be his daughter and apparently friendless, is supposed to fall in love with him. For the moviegoer, the response should be obvious. Just say no.
Seven Pounds gives us the de rigueur December Will Smith, who tends to be more sensitive, tormented, teary, and Oscar-hungry than the July Will Smith. Here he takes his crinkled brow in tight closeups on a cryptic personal mission (“We have a plan. Do what you promised me”), flashing an IRS identity card to gain access to total strangers so as to judge whether or not they are “good,” “worthy,” “deserving.” (The nursing-home administrator may require a bone-marrow transplant for survival, but in spite of his deep debt to Uncle Sam he has splurged on a Beemer: not good.) The aim and outcome of his mission are, for review purposes, Top Secret, but suffice to say that the film combines the bleeding heart of The Pursuit of Happyness — not to mention the director of it, Gabriele Muccino — with the galloping ego of I Am Legend.
Trend to watch: English-speaking actors lapsing into English-subtitled foreign tongues. Will Smith, Spanish, in Seven Pounds. Jim Carrey, Korean, in Yes Man. Keanu Reeves, Chinese, in The Day the Earth Stood Still. And upcoming, Tom Cruise, German, in Valkyrie and Daniel Craig, Russian, in Defiance.