Film Friday: ‘Frost/Nixon’ & ‘Punisher: War Zone’

by W. Andrew Powell

Ray Stevenson in Punisher: War Zone

Ray Stevenson in Punisher: War Zone

On screen this week, the hit play Frost/Nixon takes a look back at the fateful interview between David Frost and Richard Nixon, while the Punisher gets another shot at success in Punisher: War Zone. Also opening this week, the surreal drama Synecdoche, New York, and JCVD.

Peter Morgan’s famed Broadway production gets the big-screen treatment this week in a film that has left critics cheering.

Directed by Oscar-winner Ron Howard, the story tells of the fateful interview between former U.S. President Richard Nixon, and British television personality David Frost.

In 1977, three years after he was removed from office, Nixon decided to allow an interview that would give him a chance to prove himself to Americans once more. In selecting Frost, the former president has expected an easy victory on-camera, giving him the opportunity to come out looking like a good guy. However, Nixon hadn’t anticipated the battle of wits that would ensue, and Frost managed to outmanoeuvre the disgraced politician.

The process of bringing a stage production to film is never a sure one, and there is enough proof of that over the years, but in the case of Frost/Nixon, the response from reviewers has been impressive. Part of that success is surely the work of Tony award winner Frank Langella as Nixon, and Michael Sheen as Frost, who each reprise their roles from the play.

“One of the virtues of Frost/Nixon,” David Denby wrote for the New Yorker, “is that it brings the intelligence back to the forefront without dispelling the elements of menace and fraudulence that were also part of Nixon’s temperament.”

On the other hand, Kirk Honeycutt of the Hollywood Reporter gave the film a great review, while also calling it, “Less a political movie than a boxing film without the gloves.”

Punisher: War Zone
Marvel superheroes have been doing quite well at the movies, bashing their way to the top of the box office whenever they can. But greed must be getting the better of someone’s senses with the release of one of the year’s worst films: the attempted revival of the Punisher.

After the somewhat disastrous Punisher movie starring Thomas Jane, it is hard to imagine that anyone would want to be involved with this struggling franchise again, but apparently, Ray Stevenson was undaunted. Stevenson plays the vigilante gun man and hero Frank Castle, who is bringing his own special brand of justice to organized crime.

This time out, the Punisher is after mob boss Billy Russoti, who ends up disfigured after their first encounter. Going by the nickname Jigsaw thereafter, the mob brings in an army of bad guys to deal with Castle, which our flawed hero will have to overcome or die trying.

While the trailers alone make this look like the dumbest action film ever, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times points out another interesting aspect of the latest Punisher film.

“You used to be able to depend on a bad film being poorly made,” Ebert wrote. “No longer. The Punisher: War Zone is one of the best-made bad movies I’ve seen.”

While Josh Bell of the Las Vegas Weekly writes, “The third attempt to kick-start a franchise based on the Marvel Comics Punisher character is probably the best of the bunch, but that isn’t saying much.”

Synecdoche, New York
Philip Seymour Hoffman stars in this strange, remarkable tale of Caden Cotard, a theatre director who wants to create a stage masterpiece by building a mock city within the city of New York.

Gathering performers and building within a warehouse, Caden devotes years of his life to the project, but in recreating people and aspects in his own life, the definition of real becomes increasingly hazy.

Aside from the interesting story, the film is notable for the incredible cast of strong actresses, including Hope Davis, Samantha Morton, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Williams, and Emily Watson. And while reviews are slightly mixed, the critics are giving Synecdoche, New York glowing praise for the most part, especially for writer and director Charlie Kaufman.

“A surreal exploration of art, love and death,” Tom Long wrote for the Detroit News, “it has the Fellini-esque feel of some lost European cinematic masterpiece that reaches far past the normal boundaries of drama and into the very essence of existence.”

Last of all this week, one of my favorite films of the year opens in additional theatres this week, and I can’t recommend it enough.

JCVD stars action star Jean-Claude Van Damme as himself. Played with a miserable glee, Van Damme gets caught up in a hostage situation in his home town of Brussels, where a group of people are being held in a post office. Outside, the police try to work out a deal, but somehow think that Van Damme is actually behind it all.

While this may shock a lot of people, JCVD is a funny, enjoyable drama that gives equal time to Van Damme the star and Van Damme imagined as a real, aging actor who can’t quite get the roles he wants any more. The gritty quality of the film stock is also mesmerizing, and adds to the incredible mood.

Opening December 12:
Nothing Like the Holidays
The Day the Earth Stood Still

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