Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer – Mike Lerner, Maxim Pozdorovkin (2013)

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Because of its Special Jury Award for “Punk Spirit” at Sundance earlier this year, I held out high hopes for Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a documentary focusing on the radical Russian feminist punk band before, during and after their arrest and trial in Moscow in 2012. The film turns out to be something of a let down though, less informative than most articles and blogs despite the insider access it enjoyed. It’s key moments boil down to the few minutes of footage of the band members in their courtroom cell talking about their predicament while an endless line of photographers are paraded by for a snapshot of the dangerous trio.

But the film lacks a rounded, well-researched throughline to unite the various thoughts the directors and its subjects put forward, ending up more a collection of images than a documentary of biting substance. The directors, Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, seemed to get sucked into the media and celebrity circus that surrounded the case and, like Occupy Wall Street, the ideals that were the driving forced behind the band (aka: the point of the band and the documentary) become lost in the din of shutter clicks and girls in balaclavas shouting into their webcams.

The film is anchored by the personalities of Nadia, Masha and Katya — the only three known members — but performs only a minor biography on them before settling in for an almost formal court procedural. Lerner and Pozdorovkin compare it to the Russian show trials of the 1930s, but they do it without any particular conviction, perhaps because the actual show trials ended in summary execution immediate after.

Are Nadia, Masha and Katya more important as individuals in a documentary than the ideas they’re fighting for? Should one take precedence over the other, or is one so firmly rooted in the other that they are inseparable from each other? That’s always the hardest thing to balance in a political documentary. Even though the argument could be made that the individuals don’t matter, we don’t tend to identify with an isolated idea as strongly as we do with people who have an idea. Like other issues in the film, the directors seem to run their toes along the middle ground, not making a firm choice one way or the other. My feeling is that in 5-10 years, someone is going to make a legitimately good documentary about this dreadful farce of a trial — one that should have ended in a fine and a stern lecture (to which the girls should have rolled their eyes at as proper punks) — but the wound is still too raw to make for a good picture right now.

Frost/Nixon – Ron Howard (2008)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14032

For those born after the incident, director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan’s dramatization of the 1977 interview series between British TV presenter David Frost and then-former President Nixon offers a comfortably Sorkin-esque glimpse behind the scenes of Frost’s landmark grilling of Nixon over Watergate, the coverup and the aftermath that dominated an era of national politics.

Frost (Michael Sheen) is an ambitious TV man whose once-bright star is fading after his American talk show is canceled. He is stuck in entertainment’s second tier, longing for another taste of fame, American-style, and sees the resignation and subsequent pardon of Nixon (Frank Langella) as a way back into his table at Sardi’s. Laying out the hefty sum of $600K to secure the interview with the tough-as-nails Nixon – at the time living in pitiful seclusion and writing his memoirs – Frost and his team of researchers quibble over their goals and are wholly unprepared for the cagey Nixon on the big day; Nixon talks circles around the process, deflecting from the real issues with glancing blows of sentimental minutiae.

If Ali-Frazier was the fight of the century, Frost-Nixon was to be the sit-down of a lifetime: a no-holds-barred tête-à-tête meant to be, whether for redemption or conviction, the real final words of the chapter. Ali lost – he was unprepared for the Champ’s left hook – but Frost comes out the prettier one in this battle. Sheen plays Frost with a dopey smirk that’s off-putting enough to Nixon to lead him right into the eventual sucker punch.

The knockout blow isn’t the star of this picture, however. Nixon is, and what Langella lacks in physical likeness he more than makes up for with the depth of the Nixon spirit, which, 30 years later, comes off like a mean, ugly dog, as repugnant as it is empathetic.

Nixon moved on (and became richer), but the fact that the interview changed nothing – not the Cold War and certainly not corrupt politicians or a tougher press corps – is not the point. The timing ofFrost/Nixon’s release, in these lame-duck last moments of the George W. Bush presidency, won’t be lost on most viewers, and Howard utilizes the Nixon-Bush connection of corruption to create the kind of after-the-fact liberal catharsis that Oliver Stone’s Bush biopic sorely missed. As Nixon tacitly confesses, his admission of guilt in the film is more heavily defined than in the original interviews, but it’s a cherry that sits nicely on top of an “Obama won” sundae. What it does is give us some hope, slim as it might be, that there is a new Frost out there waiting patiently for his chance at flustering Bush into a “whoops, sorry” moment, even a tacit one.

Ms. Couric, line one.

In the Loop – Armando Iannucci (2009)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14614

It’s safe to say that there will not be a funnier film delivered to theaters this year than In the Loop. My bladder hasn’t been at such a high risk of succumbing to gasping hysterics since the relentless assault of the Uncle Fucker scene in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, during which I literally fell out of my seat laughing. I was able to comport myself a bit better during this film – instead of a single scene, the entire film is relentless – but just barely.

In the Loop is something of a continuation of the BBC TV seriesThe Thick of It. The utterly fantastic Peter Capaldi and Paul Higgins revive their roles as Malcolm Tucker and Jamie MacDonald respectively in this farce about the lead-up to war in the Middle East.

After a disastrous radio interview in which the unlucky British minister of international development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), slips up and calls the war “unforeseeable” – quite against the government’s established media line, Tucker assures him – Foster and his staff are unexpectedly tossed into the middle of an international imbroglio with both the doves and the hawks. Foster doesn’t help matters with a second disastrous interview attempting to fix the first, in which he says the British government must “climb the mountain of conflict.”

The haplessness of politicians (and their equally hapless aides) is a universal truth, it seems, and there is no better time than now to run them through for their mealy-mouthed tendencies and their ineffectiveness as thoroughly as Iannucci and company do here. The wit and skill on offer don’t quite make up for the lack of brains and balls in power seats in government, but it does make it all right for two hours at least.

The film is about the political intrigue, of course, but really, its centerpiece is the enduring satanic charm of Malcolm Tucker, the prime minister’s communications director. The willful exuberance – almost glee – with which Tucker goes on his vituperative rampages, savaging anyone in his line of sight, is one of the most skillful bits of writing and acting seen in ages. It’s a masterstroke of nuance and strategy, not just a string of blind “fuck you”s stuck in for comedy or snarling charm. (When confronted by a female staffer, Tucker unleashes the following: “Where do you think you are, in some fucking Regency costume drama? This is a government department, not a fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your ‘purview’ and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!”) Tucker slowly bends everyone to his viewpoint and manipulates his way through the U.S. State Department and the United Nations.

In a way, Tucker is the anti-Ari Gold, his closest American onscreen analogue – the jerk agent played by Jeremy Piven on Entourage, while all vicious bluster on the surface, is a sappy family man on the side. (Oddly enough, the character of Ari Gold is based on the real-life brother of Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s scream-happy chief of staff and the closest thing we have to a real-life Malcolm Tucker counterpart.) Tucker? You can’t imagine him having a family or even having had a childhood. It’s as if he accumulated out of thin air fully formed and smarter than you on the day the prime minister was sworn in. He is a straight pit bull with the bark, bite and heart that entails.