A roundup/recap of the current best and rest in film. In this installment: Frost/Nixon, Dean Spanley, Valkyrie, Empties, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

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Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard, 2008)
This marginally above-average Ron Howard movie, adapted from the Peter Morgan stage play, delivers a swift and engaging account of fallen US President Richard Nixon’s first interview post-resignation, post-Watergate – a belated public ‘trial’, as it were, following his contentious pardon and balmy retirement into obscurity. Morgan, with a freakish track record of scripting Oscar-winning performances (Helen Mirren as The Queen, Forest Whittaker as The Last King of Scotland), writes for a vintage Frank Langella; the actor rendering Dick as a grizzly, cantankerous beached whale, surpassing Anthony Hopkins’ Nixon as a full embodiment of the former President’s senility and odiousness (he also nails the baritone grunt). While Michael Sheen is an able foil, convincing as the besieged broadcaster of flimsy repute, the absurd casting of supporting roles draws far too much attention: Matthew McFadyen and Sam Rockwell (as David Frost’s production team) are bland and irritating respectively; Kevin Bacon plays Kevin Bacon, to similar effect. Most alarming of all though is the film’s lack of political guts – Goodnight and Good Luck it is not – in which its potential to frame the pre-Obama climate of failure and mistrust is meekly surrendered in favour of a simplistic (albeit riveting) dramatisation, pummelled into the shape of a silly boxing allegory. Howard, who has already made Cinderella Man, stages the Frost/Nixon bout as a series of jabs, low blows, and an eventual knockout punch of underdog sporting cliché. Langella superbly conveys the moment of capitulation, only for the film to slip back into the protocol of sportsmanship and fair play. Rockwell’s character, the vitriolic researcher behind Frost’s programs, sums it up best when, in a moment of irate loathing for the 37th President, insists he’ll never shake Nixon’s hand, only to yield when introduced in person. Frost/Nixon, a film ostensibly of current and historical importance, lacks the conviction to drive this significance home. In Theatres Now.—Tim Wong

Dean Spanley (Toa Fraser, 2008)
Toa Fraser (and the NZ Film Commission) follows up debut No. 2 with old-school English Dean Spanley. Set in the Edwardian period, Dean Spanley is an agreeable wee film about the softening of Old Fisk, a cantankerously resolute Olde Tory. The great Peter O’Toole plays the old boy, relishing lines like “Giving women the vote, it’s like giving fowl a gun” and peppering his conversation with “Poppycock” and other concise putdowns. Over an exclusive Hungarian drop, Young Fisk (Jeremy Northam) comes to believe that Dean Spanley (Sam Neill) is a reincarnated dog. Young Fisk brings his procurer (Bryan Brown) in on the “séances” and finally Old Fisk joins in, too. The conversation with Spanley brings the grumpy bugger a touching epiphany I can’t disclose here. After Australia, which hoovered up musty clichés into a dysfunctional farrago that allowed characters the charisma of a boiled yam, it’s pleasing to see Brown enjoy himself as a Colonial wheeler-dealer. O’Toole’s late autumnal work is memorable, though not quite reason enough to see Dean Spanley on the big screen. In Theatres Now.—Alexander Bisley

Valkyrie (Brian Singer, 2008)
Valkyrie begins in the Tunisian desert with General Von Stauffenberg making notes in his diary about how unhappy he is with his Fürher. Then he gets wounded in an attack by the Allies. Cut to Berlin where a bunch of civilians and military resistors conspire against Hitler. Claus Von Sauffenberg was a member of an old, aristocratic German family with a history of military service and high education. He was part of a coup that plotted to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. It entailed changing Operation Valkyrie, the national emergency plan Hitler himself had established in case he gets killed. The name Valkyrie inspired by Wilhelm Richard Wagner’s composition Die Walküre.
The world knows how Hitler died so the end of this coup attempt is obvious. Perhaps von Stauffenberg’s tale is not so well-known (or was not well-known) before this film. The screenplay is well-written, the plot unfolds like a thriller and the treatment is like that too; dark and old-world looking. The visuals are beautiful and the film draws you in. Especially the second half, right up to the end. Valkyrie was filmed on various locations in Germany, with money from the Germans. It is bound to look authentic. Yet.
What could have been a great setting to look at the complexities of politics, nationalism, personality clashes, concepts of dictatorship, insidious palpable fear and why seemingly sensible people gave in to Hitler, is totally wasted. It is just an exercise in telling a story that hints at, but does not explore human dynamics. Why did the supposedly sane resistors agree to support Hitler in the first place? Did they really not like his treatment of the Jews or did they want to desert a sinking ship because the war was not going the way they thought it would? Surely it was not as simple as it seems in the film? Tom Cruise is merely a big name. he is completely drowned in the midst of actors like Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy to Thomas Kretschmann and Christian Berkel. He probably drags the film down because you either hate him or wonder what he is doing there. Maybe the presence of Hollywood has disallowed the depth that could have been. In Theatres Now.—Sapna Samant

Empties (Brian Singer, 2008)
It may surprise you to know that the Czech Republic has had a long, enduring love affair with cinema. Interestingly, it was not until recently that the Central European nation has gained recognition through its most successful film to date – Jan Sv_rák’s Empties. This so called ‘dramedy’ is an entertaining and quirky look at love, reconciliation and happiness. The film follows Josef Tkaloun (Zden_k Sv_rák), a retired teacher, in his search for proof that old age is not devoid of value, meaning and happiness. After a brief stint as the oldest bicycle courier in Prague, Josef finds a job in a local supermarket collecting empty bottles (the empties) for recycling. When not working from his little window in the store and fantasising about women half his age, Josef tries his hand at matchmaking his newly separated daughter with a teacher colleague of his. Through his meddling he also starts on a road to rekindle the romance with his wife. The screenplay, also by lead Zden_k (son of director Sv_rák), is well written, witty and switches between moments of drama and comedy seamlessly, while the characters are burdened in with realistic problems – a large part of Empties’ charm. The characters and the acting are believable and honest which make each and every one of them likable from the get-go – especially Josef and there’s also a surprisingly delightful performance from the film’s youngest character and Josef’s grandson, Tomík (Robin Soudek). Wonderfully refreshing, Empties explores life, love and the value of old age from a interesting and fresh perspective while delivering a few good laughs along the way. In Theatres Now.—Simon Wong

Gonzo: The Life and Work
of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
(Alex Gibney, 2008)
An unpredictably conventional documentary, and thus entirely appropriate, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson examines the bull-in-China-shop literary output of a mythical and rabble-rousing American journalist. Director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) uses archived footage, talking heads, narration and reenactments to form a fractured overview of Thompson’s enigmatic life – and like his writing looks between the lines to sort fact from fiction. The film explains Thompson, as a young journalist, would type out The Great Gatsby word for word, determined to capture Fitzgerald’s furious vision of the American dream. And Gonzo is at its most gripping when examining Hunter’s belligerent assault on the absurdity of the political system. The film travels a more familiar path when tracking the story of Hunter’s decline: the tragically clichéd tale of a self-medicating author imprisoned by his own fame.
Thompson first gained national recognition for his expose of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. However, it was not until his drug-addled writing for Rolling Stone – including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail – that his so-called process of gonzo journalism was born. Gibney’s film is, in many ways, a portrait of the socio-political milieu of the 1960s and 1970s that enabled the birth of Hunter’s journalist style – and he forcefully suggests Hunter’s spirited critiques are missing from the current era of cable news. This theme resonates when the film quotes a piece written by Hunter on September 12, 2001: “The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for peace in our time, in the United States or any other country.” Watching Gonzo, it’s hard to like Thompson much: an eternally drunk, abusive and self-indulgent caricature. It’s even harder not to be dazzled by the insight and beauty of his genre-defining journalism. In Theatres Now.—Caleb Starrenburg [Read More]