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Langella, Ledger shine in year's best films

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Posted: Friday, December 19, 2008 10:00 pm

I'm a week behind in my writing, so as an early Christmas gift to you, here are reports on just the four-star films I've seen lately. We'll catch up with the rest later - for now, let's just focus on four films that have helped make my holiday season a little brighter. All of them are "bummers," technically, but whatever; how can a truly great movie ever leave one completely depressed? There's nothing like a good, old-fashioned, nightmarish Lynch/Kubrick Christmas, am I right?

"Frost/Nixon"

**** (out of four)

2008, Ron Howard, U.S., R

First viewing.

Penned by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Peter Morgan ("The Queen," "The Last King of Scotland"), this retelling of the backstage drama surrounding disgraced former president Richard Nixon's first post-Watergate interview is compelling from frame one. In telling of this often overlooked but endlessly fascinating clash between Nixon (Frank Langella, reprising his Tony-winning stage role) and second-rate Australian TV personality David Frost (Michael Sheen, also reprising his role) in 1977, the film touches big issues like the nature and uses of power, and how an otherwise great man can fall prey to his own hubris and arrogance. This is the stuff of grand human tragedy, but Morgan and director Ron Howard keep things intimate while still staying relevant and topical. The film's greatest asset, though, is Langella, who humanizes the traditionally monstrous Nixon to an astounding degree. A final-act, late-night phone call scene between the two leads should be enough to convince anyone that Langella deserves an Oscar for his hypnotic work here. His Nixon is elusive and at times bombastic (as the notoriously paranoid president is often portrayed), but he's also intensely sad and vulnerable - a man who was absolutely convinced of his own great legacy, and spent the better part of his twilight years trying to convince the world that he shouldn't be defined by his trivial misdeeds. It's a portrait of delusion and deception that is at once repulsive and strangely beautiful.


Heath Ledger stars in "The Dark Knight." (Courtesy photo)

"The Dark Knight"

**** (Masterwork Selection)

2008, Christopher Nolan, U.S., PG-13

Repeat viewing.

How can a film gain near unanimous critical and popular praise, go on to gross more than $500 million domestically and net a slew of award nominations, only to end up under-rated? Seems odd, but that's exactly what happened to "The Dark Knight," a wholly unique example of superhero action filmmaking that almost ceases to operate as a "comic book movie" at all. Of course, the film does make broad use of genre markers, and is fully accessible viewers looking for a summer thrill ride. However, to dismiss it as merely (or even primarily) a superhero flick is to completely miss the point. With this follow-up to the franchise reboot "Batman Begins," writer/director Christopher Nolan has made a stunning and disturbing urban crime film that is far more evocative of movies like "Heat" and "L.A. Confidential" than it is of traditional superhero movies like "X-Men" or "Spider-Man." This Batman (Christian Bale) inhabits a real world - or, at least, as real a fantasy world as the movies have given us. Everything seems frighteningly plausible in this Gotham City, from the intricate action scenes to the anarchistic central villain of The Joker (Heath Ledger in a final, visceral performance) to the key character of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a crusading district attorney who finds himself a pawn in a Faustian battle for Gotham's soul.

"Blue Velvet"

**** (Masterwork Selection)

1986, David Lynch, U.S., R

Repeat viewing.

I will freely admit that David Lynch's surreal nightmare landscape of dark sexuality and broken American Dreams isn't for everybody. Lynch is unforgiving, and isn't afraid to let it all hang out if that's what he feels it will take to properly get his point across. Sometimes, this bold approach to filmmaking backfires, and Lynch only reminds you why he's considered one of the most self-indulgent and impenetrable artists working today. Yet other times (and never more than in "Blue Velvet"), he's able to tap into something wonderful and terrible - a strange, heady mixture of provocative lyricism and depraved voyeurism that will make you feel both elated and violated. This upside-down/ inside-out fairy tale stars Kyle McLaughlin as Jeffrey Beaumont, a college kid who returns to the small town of Lumberton, U.S.A. after his father suffers a stroke. While walking around his old neighborhood one afternoon, he discovers a severed ear in a field. This ghastly find inspires Jeffrey to launch an investigation of his own, and on this sinister journey of self-discovery he gets caught up in a kidnapping plot involving mysterious lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and a psychotic criminal named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Perverse, drug-addled and completely animalistic, Hopper's Frank Booth is one of cinema's great, truly frightening boogeymen.

"A Clockwork Orange"

**** (Masterwork Selection)

1971, Stanley Kubrick, U.K., R

Repeat viewing.

Much of his work remains controversial, but above all else Stanley Kubrick was a moralist. The fact that his examinations of human morality were often framed within upsetting stories full of pain and debauchery is beside the point; the director of films like "Dr. Strangelove," "Full Metal Jacket" and "Eyes Wide Shut" worked with various structures and atmospheres, but whether it was with the G-rated "2001: A Space Odyssey" or the originally X-rated "A Clockwork Orange," he always explored the reductive dehumanization of man with a dispassionate, highly judgmental eye. This strange bit of sci-fi dystopian fantasy may be the filmmaker's most explicitly moralistic work. Our hero and humble narrator is Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell), a sociopathic youth who spends his nights trolling the lawless streets of a futuristic England with his gang of droogies, in search of some fun criminal mischief and "ultraviolence." When one of Alex's many nightly victims dies from her injuries, he's sent to prison and offered early release in exchange for participation in an experimental treatment for criminal minds. The implications of Alex's treatment are at the heart of the film: When one loses the ability to choose between right and wrong and instead only avoids criminal behavior as a response to invasive brainwashing done at the hands of an oppressive state, does one cease to be human? Kubrick has his answer, of course, but it's not without its caveats.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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