The Virtual Stoa Goes To The Cinema (So You Don’t Have To)

And, given these three, you really don’t have to.

Frost / Nixon is quite fun, and bounces along, but there’s no point making films like this if you’re going to distort what actually happened as much as this one does, and for no terribly good reason, artistic or otherwise. I don’t think I was prepared for a film containing a depiction of a naked John Birt. Perhaps the poster should carry a warning. (“Warning: Contains Scenes Depicting a Naked John Birt”.) I wondered whether it was a problem that it’s impossible to watch Michael Sheen without thinking of Tony Blair, but I don’t think that it is. There is something of Blair in David Frost – the eagerness to suck up to the powerful, in particular – and so it becomes a useful association rather than an irritating distraction.

Slumdog Millionaire is a very bad film. I’m not sure what else to say. It wasn’t dreadful, but when I was trying to think of “films I’d seen in the cinema that were obviously worse”, the two that sprang to mind immediately were Ridicule and Life is Beautiful. Those two were much, much worse than Slumdog, admittedly, but what these have in common is that they are all the kind of foreign films or films about foreigners that get Oscar nominations, and perhaps in future I should make sure I avoid those.

Revolutionary Road isn’t very good, either, which was a bit of a surprise, as I enjoyed American Beauty, and had quite high hopes for this one. There’s very little drama, as what happens once the plot gets going is almost entirely predictable, and the general approach is to pile on every kind of cliché one can think of about suburban life in 1950s America. Michael Shannon’s two short scenes  are easily the best thing in the film, but even he’s just recapitulating another stale topos, the madman who talks more sense than anybody else. Part of me thinks that the suffocating layers of cliché and stereotype on all the various levels in this film must be part of its point – but then one just ends up wondering just what that point is supposed to be.

20 thoughts on “The Virtual Stoa Goes To The Cinema (So You Don’t Have To)”

  1. Welcome back to regular blogging, Chris! Thanks for the link to the Huffington Post piece on Frost/Nixon, which was informative, albeit surely wrong in at least one place, as when claiming that David Frost is “more intelligent and more serious-minded than the way he’s portrayed”. Unlikely, I’d have thought!

  2. I greatly enjoyed Frost/Nixon. AFAIK, David Frost pretty much approves, so I don’t know about the distortions. I wouldn’t really trust the Huff Post, myself and I don’t think the case she makes is all that strong. Everyone knows that Nixon ironically is the best documented President because he taped everything.

    But after I saw the play I checked with one of the Watergate prosecutors, who told me that that particular piece of tape was unknown because “we were awash in far more incriminating evidence” against Nixon, and the prosecutors didn’t consider it worth using.

    This is just silly. Prosecutors make mistakes, and of course the tape was ‘known’ in a sense; it was all transcribed. But it wasn’t public knowledge. And I think Nixon’s confession that he believed himself above the law was enough to nail him. He’d clearly departed from the Constitution and the rule of law at that point.

    I’m sure that the Nixon in the film is more jokey than the real one. Those conversations weren’t taped and it would have been even more one-sided if Nixon had been shown as the glum dog he appears to have been. What the jokiness was supposed to convey was Nixon’s cleverness, and it does that. In the film, Nixon was more subtle than Frost, as he was in life. Licence well used, say I.

    I was sure that DF really did say, “Hello, good evening, and welcome.”

    I haven’t seen ‘Slumdog’ in part because Clive Davis kept looking for dissenting reviews. ‘Salaam Bombay’, as I recall, was a very good film. As was ‘Ridicule’, of course.

  3. Ridicule is a terrific film, and I enjoyed it all the more when I managed to get hold of a DVD with French subtitles, as they clarified the original wordplay no end. But I think I first argued about its merits with Chris about ten years ago, and there’s little point rehashing them now.

    As for stuff I’ve seen recently that might spark interest around these parts, Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn (out in April) is more of a celluloid memorial to the victims of the 1940 massacre than an especially successful dramatic feature: there are so many brief subplots that it feels like a truncated miniseries. Though it has several very powerful moments, they tend to emphasise the fact that this is merely a good film from a man who has made several great ones. But definitely worth seeing.

    The Good, The Bad, The Weird (out last Friday) is very very silly indeed, but quite ridiculously entertaining, with some of the most inventively-choreographed chases and fights I’ve seen in ages. If you’re in the mood for a South Korean tribute to Sergio Leone… well, it certainly delivers. And, like the best Italian Westerns, there’s a hefty political subtext, though my knowledge of 1930s Manchurian history wasn’t up to grasping most of the nuances.

    I’m seeing Milk tonight and Il Divo tomorrow – the latter looks rather intriguing: it’s nominally a biopic of Giulio Andreotti, but the trailer makes it look more like a stylish Mafia thriller. Not that the two are remotely incompatible, of course.

  4. Chris: as I enjoyed American Beauty

    ejh: Why? One speech aside, it’s dreadful.

    Oh, goodness — I don’t have an especially clear memory of why I liked it – I saw it when it came out, ten years ago, and thought it was well done, well acted, reasonably well put together. It was a fairly shallow film, I suppose – insofar as it might have been trying to do social criticism, it didn’t really have anything to say, and there were crass moments – when the marine colonel or whatever he was tries to kiss Kevin Spacey, especially – but its various problems didn’t get in the way of it being an enjoyable film (at least, for me). What didn’t you like about it?

  5. Welcome back Chris. Youre an excellent film critic-and a bit more concise than I am. i was planning to review Slumdog and Road on my web-site,Intellectual Chowder. The review of Slumdog was to be entitled, “Hooray For Bollywood?”, that of Road, “‘Imitation of Sirk.”But now that you have eviscerated them both, I won’t bother.

  6. What didn’t you like about it?

    Well, I thought it was ludicrous. It was as if it was trying to explain to its audience something that it itself only understood in caricature, like those sixties movies that tried to explain the hippies by having their characters say things like “hey man” and “look at the pretty colours”. There’s one particular scene near the end where somebody sells somebody drugs in circumstances that nobody ever would and by that stage it only accentuated the movie’s distance from reality. (Yes, I know the movies are distant from reality, but I don’t think this one was trying to me.)

    But “this is just stuff” was OK.

  7. ’m seeing Milk tonight and Il Divo tomorrow – the latter looks rather intriguing: it’s nominally a biopic of Giulio Andreotti, but the trailer makes it look more like a stylish Mafia thriller. Not that the two are remotely incompatible, of course.

    OK, I saw them, and:

    Milk: Surprisingly conventional biopic (though this may be part of the point) of a fascinating and still under-explored part of US history – namely, the rise of the gay rights movement. Sean Penn is almost unrecognisable as Harvey Milk, the first out gay man to be elected to public office, and the film offers a well-staged trot through the era’s key milestones.

    Il Divo: Utterly mental, and I’m not at all sure what to make of it (which is a shame, as my review deadline’s tomorrow). Essentially, it’s an ultra-stylised, multifaceted portrait of Giulio Andreotti in which both the whirling camera and the narrative circle endlessly around all the stories (hitmen, the Mafia, financial and moral corruption on a grand scale) that never quite seem to stick to him. But that doesn’t remotely do it justice – it’s like a drama-documentary on Italian politics directed by [i]Fight Club[/i]-era David Fincher.

  8. “there’s no point making films like this if you’re going to distort what actually happened as much as this one does, and for no terribly good reason, artistic or otherwise.”

    Yes, exactly what I thought.

    Regarding good films, to go against the grain of your post, did you see Changeling when it was out? If not, then try and make time to see it when it’s out on DVD as it is phenomenally good. Far more deserving of all the (albeit meaningless) awards currently being thrown around.

    Although don’t – and i stress again, DON’T – watch The Reader. It is more awful than words can describe.

  9. We wanted to see Milk, but the final evening performance in Oxford was sold out, which is why we went to see Slumdog. Ho hum – I’m still hoping that Milk will return and play at the Phoenix cinema, conveniently situated at the end of our road. Il Divo sounds great fun.

    Haven’t see Changeling. Nor The Reader, but I guessed from some of the reviews I saw that it would probably annoy me.

  10. it’s like a drama-documentary on Italian politics directed by Fight Club-era David Fincher

    The last part sounds most unpromising, unless we’re looking forward to pointless provocations and motiveless actions on a grand scale.

  11. I loved Slumdog Millionaire, particularly the filming of the slum life, showing all that activity of what people might do there.

    Perhaps the gulf is to do with my particular enthusiasm for Bollywood and its style, which certainly influences the film.

  12. The last part sounds most unpromising, unless we’re looking forward to pointless provocations and motiveless actions on a grand scale.

    I meant stylistically, not structurally.

    We wanted to see Milk, but the final evening performance in Oxford was sold out,

    In Worthing the last evening show on Sunday drew a grand total of six people. I suspect there might be a greater appreciation of this subject round your neck of the woods, and I’m sure it went down a storm in Brighton! But this certainly explains why you haven’t seen it yet – I would have thought it was spectacularly your (plural) sort of thing!

  13. I’m glad someone’s going to the cinema so I don’t have to. I’ve become somewhat phobic. Aside from revivals, all of the films I’ve seen in cinemas lately have ranged from frustrating near-misses, through irritatingly mediocre, to utter crapulous dreck. The last (first-run) film I can remember seeing in a cinema that was genuinely good was Das Leben der Anderen.
    (I did like Ricidule when I first saw it, though, and recently enjoyed it again on re-viewing. But then, as a Rousseauvian I wouldn’t expect you to like so Voltairean a film. I agree about Life is Beautiful, though — dreadful. I actually didn’t succeed in watching the whole thing.)
    I was inclined to sympathize with the critique of Frost/Nixon until the very end, when it extolled the historical accuracy of Shakespeare’s history plays, and thus lost all credibility. But I still find all of the reported distortions in F/N troubling.
    I’d like to see Milk, though. And Waltz with Bashir, which I hear is phenomenal.

  14. Yes – I missed The Lives of Others. I’ve got, but not yet watched, the DVD, I think, and I’m looking forward to it. I hadn’t thought that my implacable hostility to Ridicule might be related to my opposition to all things Voltairean. But, you’re right – it is tribal.

    People have said good things about WwB, though I didn’t see it myself.

  15. Crap Film Update:

    Do NOT repeat NOT go and see Doubt. It is truly awful. Perhaps worse than the reader.

    Here are some ways I have thought up of describing it:

    “A sledghammer that thinks it’s a scalpel”

    “Dialogue which is the equivalent Facebook wall-post English, including especially the inappropriate and constant use of exclamation marks”

    “The core moral message of the film can perhaps be summed up as: it is alright to molest children so long as you do it to promote racial equality”

    “Characters whose only advantage in being two-dimensional is the ease with which they can flip-flop across the script in order to facilitate obvious yet simultaneously unbelievable plot-devices whilst gesturing at non-existent moral dilemmas”

    and so on.

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