Benjamin Baxter

Frost/Nixon: I Let the American People Down …

In Reviews on January 16, 2009 at 1:42 am

The title of Frost/Nixon (2008) evokes red gloves and steroids, and the film aspires to present a titanic battle of wits. Notebooks, files and research staffs take their place; winner by befuddlement rather than knockout. Too bad that doesn’t quite come across.

It isn’t like time dulls the effectiveness of a film about the foremost American boogeyman. Though it’s been a generation-and-a-half since a British game show host took on the man with phelbitis-infused mouthguards to an anticlimactic end, and almost 15 years since former president Richard Milhous Nixon died, Nixon hasn’t eroded from infamy all that much. Never here, we imagine we told ourselves before he took office. Never again, we imagine we told ourselves after. The single most fascinating character of the American presidency is still its surest pariah.

Nixon is sort of a touchy subject.

British commentator David Frost knew it, and decided to take advantage. In 1977, he sat down for the first post-presidency interview with Nixon. It in many ways cemented Nixon’s image as a calculating, stonewalling dissembler just when he was angling for a comeback, and launched Frost into the realm of respectable television journalists.

British screenwriter and playwright Peter Morgan knew it, and decided to take advantage. In 2006, his play about the Frost/Nixon interviews premiered in London to critical acclaim.

Mayberry-runt-cum-Hollywood-director Ron Howard knows it, and so he decided to take to chances. 

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: My Admiration Does Not Lessen My Hatred One Whit

In Reviews on January 5, 2009 at 10:07 pm

Fantasy kinda sucks. As a longtime fan of the genre, I’ve somewhat earned some right to say that.

  • While “Harry Potter” is fun to read — excepting the fifth book — its colorful characters and whimsical settings are bogged down by weak writing.
  • “His Dark Materials” has similar strengths and flaws, and was worsened even further by the author’s tendency to proselytize.
  • “The Wheel of Time” cribs liberally from Tolkien — an author who wrote his books solely because he liked making up languages.
  • The worst of all of them is that “Eragon” series; it reads like it was written by a 19-year-old homeschooler from Montana. In part because it was.
  • Among good modern fantasists, Neil Gaiman tends to exhibit the same self-indulgent fascination with multi-pantheon crossovers in whatever he writes, leaving Terry Brooks alone above reproach; it helps that Brooks doesn’t take his fantasy settings seriously.

It’s become a rule, therefore, that fantasy as a whole is a thin, shallow genre of fiction with especially egregious pretensions that it has meaningful depth and that it’s romanticism profound rather than transparent. Science fiction, unfortunately, is much of the same. Fortunately, because the overall crappiness of fantastic literature is a rule, there are going to be exceptions. I just spent the better part of two days — almost spilling over into three — reading one of the most important and, dare I say, literary exceptions in recent memory.

In Bruges: You’ve Got to Stick to Your Principles

In Reviews on January 1, 2009 at 12:45 am

The one-time family man and lifetime professional hitman has been ordered to kill his partner. He doesn’t want to; he will. It’s his job.

Attaching the silencer to a gun his boss got for him, he approaches his partner from behind. There aren’t any children around the playground, and his partner is oblivious to the rustle of grass behind him. The hitman pulls out his silenced pistol, his index finger on the trigger — just as his partner brings out his own revolver to his head. Instead of shooting, the hitman shouts:

What the fuck are you doing, Ray?

Suicide averted, but Ray sees the silenced pistol slip behind the hitman’s back.

Oh, my God. You were gonna kill me.

You were gonna kill yourself.

Well, I’m allowed.

No, you’re not.

What? I’m not allowed, and you are? How’s that fair?

It’s at the moments of high tension in In Bruges (2008) that the comedy really shines, and because we’re dealing with professional hitmen, the comedy is never darker. Writer and director Martin McDonagh almost cheerfully fills the film full of these moments, perfectly balancing tense comic relief and the overarching drama, all the while spiraling toward the inevitable climax. That there is a climax is the only inevitable thing about this film, as all of the main characters live to undo the machinations of the others, whether or not they mean to.